Having bugs in our gut doesn’t sound very healthy, but HFG dietitian Brooke Longfield shows you the friendly face of good bacteria.
Probiotics are microorganisms (bacteria) that, in large enough amounts, can provide big health benefits for our bodies. They are the ‘good’ bacteria that live in our intestines, fighting ‘bad’ bacteria that cause illness.
The right balance
Think of your digestive system as a thriving forest with over a 100 trillion species of trees and plants. This vast diversity of plant life represents the bacteria — both good and bad — living in your gut. And the more diverse and lush the forest of bacteria is, the healthier you are. So, it’s important to have as many different strains of bacteria living in your gut as possible.
Stress, illness, certain medications and fatty fast food can all reduce the diversity of the forest in your digestive system. Antibiotics practically clear the forest out. And when the balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria is out of whack, you become vulnerable to irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive difficulties.
A healthy gut forest is also linked to lower rates of obesity, a reduced risk of diabetes, a strong immune system and improved mood. This is where probiotics can help. Probiotic-rich foods promote the growth of good bacteria and also bring in new strains of bacteria into your gut.
Yoghurt is the most common source of probiotics. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, miso paste and kimchi are also good sources. Unfortunately, our Western diet comprises very little fermented food, which greatly impacts our gut health.
Do probiotic supplements really work?
Recently, a Danish study found there was “no convincing evidence” that probiotic biscuits, drinks, sachets or capsules improved the gut health of healthy adults. (The study did not look at yoghurt.)
The study’s authors admit that the findings aren’t definitive and that further research is needed. For now, the best way to benefit your gut health is by eating real foods (see below).
Three easy ways to get more probiotics
Fermented (or cultured) foods are a good source of probiotics.
1. Do dairy differently
Yoghurt contains friendly bacteria that is gentle on your tummy, so add it to your daily menu. Just be sure to look for one without added sugar. Or try other probiotic dairy foods like cottage cheese and kefir.
2. Try pickled veg
Sauerkraut is a German dish of pickled cabbage, and Kimchi is a Korean dish of spicy pickled cabbage. Veg in cans or jars have been heat treated, killing off the probiotics. So buy from the cold section of specialty stores, or make your own.
3. Sip on miso
Miso is a savoury paste made from fermented soybeans. Use it as a condiment for cooked meat and fish, or spread it over grilled eggplant. If making miso soup, take it off the heat before stirring in the paste, as the probiotics are destroyed by high heat. Buy it from the refrigerated section in Asian grocers.