Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the past year, you’ve heard of probiotics and know that they are good for digestion. What you might not be aware of is that the term “probiotics” actually means “for life” and there are numerous reasons to include them in your diet.
In simple terms, the gut is populated by a wide variety of bacteria that have either a beneficial or harmful effect on our health. High antibiotic use is the most obvious factor to negatively affect our gut health, but even the typical diet that is high in refined carbohydrates, junk foods, and processed meats will lead to the proliferation of unhealthy gut bacteria. Excessive stress and lack of exercise also appear to have a negative effect on the bacteria in the gut.
These harmful bacteria are pro-inflammatory, leading to the release of compounds that harm the body, negatively impacting brain function, mood, metabolic health, immunity, physical performance, and energy balance. Beneficial bacteria, on the other hand, have powerful anti-inflammatory effects that are associated with better overall health.
One way to improve your gut bacteria is by increasing your consumption of probiotics—healthy strains of live bacteria. Probiotics are naturally occurring in fermented foods and can be consumed in supplement form.
What are the benefits of getting probiotics in your diet?
Greater immunity for fewer colds, flu, and allergies. Probiotics improve release of immune cells, boosting your body’s first line of defense against pathogens.
Decreased inflammation in both the GI tract and throughout the body. This translates into fewer digestive disorders including IBS, colitis, and constipation.
Improved blood sugar & metabolic health, meaning less risk of diabetes and better insulin sensitivity.
Increased nutrient absorption in the gut as well as improved detoxification of harmful pathogens and toxins.
Greater muscular power and faster recovery from intense training due to reduced inflammation and improved nutritional status.
Better mood. Because the neurotransmitters that regulate mood are produced in the GI tract, a healthy gut is your first line of defense against depression.
Lower blood pressure and better heart health due to healthier cholesterol and lower cardiovascular inflammation.
Less body fat, especially the dangerous visceral fat that surrounds the organs, releasing inflammation, affecting food intake, insulin, and cardiovascular function.
Is improving your gut health as simple as popping a probiotic?
It can help: a Japanese study found that by increasing probiotic intake for 4 weeks, volunteers decreased belly fat by 8.2 percent due to anti-inflammatory effects that improved metabolic function and energy expenditure.
When choosing a probiotic, quality is key. Many products are only guaranteed at the time of manufacture, which means that the good bacteria may be dead by the time you take them. Instead, buy probiotics that are guaranteed through the date of expiration. Also, it’s important that the product contains the type of bacteria that have been tested in research and shown to be beneficial. Here are five examples to look for:
· Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM
· Saccharomyces boulardii
· Bifidobacterium Lactis BI-07 or HN019
· Bacillus Indicus HU36
· Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001
Support a healthy gut with the following actions:
Eat prebiotic foods. These are high-fiber foods that feed the healthy bacteria in your GI tract, allowing them to proliferate. Prebiotics include bananas, oats, and potatoes.
Take resistant starch. A type of fiber (similar to prebiotics) that avoids digestion, resistant starch feeds the healthy bacteria in the gut. Resistant starch is found when starchy foods like potatoes are rice are cooked and then cooled. You can also get it by supplementing with 20 to 30 grams of unmodified potato starch.
Eat vegetables & fruit. Besides providing resistant starch and prebiotics, plant foods contain phytonutrients that interact with the gut bacteria and have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Avoid NSAID painkillers. NSAIDs like ibuprofen restrict blood flow to the kidneys and damage the protective intestinal barrier, which has a negative effect on healthy bacteria. Two natural supplements that promote gut health and have an anti-inflammatory, pain killing effect are curcumin and boswellia.
Chew your food. In our culture it’s normal to scarf our food, but this habit has a harmful effect on your “good” gut bacteria. When large food particles hit your intestines, harmful gut bacteria feed on them, which leads to inflammation and deprives you of the nutrition. Try chewing each bite at least 15 times: You’ll benefit from a greater release of hunger reducing hormones and a healthier microbiome.
Akkasheh, G., et al. Clinical and metabolic response to probiotic administration in patients with major depressive disorder: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. Nutrition. 2016. 32(3):315-20.
Kadooka, Y., Sato, M., et al. Regulation of Abdominal Adiposity by Probiotics (Lactobacillus Gasseri SBT2055) in Adults with Obese Tendencies in a Randomized Controlled Trial. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2010. 64, 636- 643.
Khalesi, S., et al. Effect of probiotics on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials. Hypertension. 2014. 64(4):897-903.
Mohammadi, A., et al. The effects of probiotics on mental health and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial in petrochemical workers. Nutritional Neuroscience. 2016. 19(9):387- 395.