January 23, 2014
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Health in Balance: The Power of Probiotics

You’ve probably heard of probiotics before, as they are frequently advertised in food or as supplements.  Probiotics are bacteria that naturally help to maintain our inner balance of organisms (microflora) and are believed to improve health.  They are sometimes known as the “good bacteria.” Since bacteria tend to have a bad reputation for causing disease, it seems almost unnatural to consider voluntarily swallowing large amounts of bacteria to promote wellness.  Yet, an ever-growing body of scientific evidence suggests that we can treat and even prevent some health problems by consuming the food and supplements that contain certain kinds of live bacteria.

The root of the word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning “promoting” and biota, meaning “life.”  Read on to discover how probiotics may help to promote your well-being and boost your healthy lifestyle.

Health Benefits of Probiotics
Research has shown that some digestive disorders occur when the balance of friendly bacteria in the intestines becomes disrupted.  Poor food choices, emotional stress, lack of sleep, antibiotic overuse, other drugs, and environmental influences can all shift our intestinal balance in favor of the bad bacteria.  Probiotics found in food or taken as supplements may help to restore that balance – and as a result, restore our digestive health.  There is also some evidence that probiotics may help to maintain a stronger immune system – though more research needs to be done to form any firm conclusions here.

Many people use probiotics to prevent diarrhea, gas, fatigue, muscle pain, and cramping caused by antibiotics or other digestive problems.  Along with killing the bacteria that is causing an illness, antibiotics also kill our beneficial bacteria.  This decrease in beneficial bacteria can lead to digestive issues and other infections, such as yeast infections and urinary tract infections.  Consuming probiotics to increase the beneficial bacteria that was destroyed by antibiotics can help to restore our intestinal balance.

Dr. Amy Whittington, Trilogy’s Naturopathic Physician, advises that probiotics should be considered for anyone showing signs of disruption in their own normal flora, such as issues with digestion, sinuses, or skin.  As noted above, “those who have been exposed to high amounts of antibiotics are especially in need of re-inoculation with beneficial strains,” says Dr. Amy.  “Choose a refrigerated version with a mix of species.”

Probiotics are also being studied to determine their health benefits for those with colon cancer, Crohn’s disease, skin infections, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and more.

Where to Find Probiotics
If probiotics sound like they may be the answer to some of what ails you, you may be wondering where you can find them – both in food and supplement form.  Below is a list of foods that are naturally high in probiotics.  You can print this out as a handy reference the next time you head to the grocery store.

Yogurt is the most familiar source of probiotics.  Look for “good” bacteria like lactobacillus, acidophilus or bifidobacteria on the label, as these can help you to maintain a healthy balance in your gut. You can pay extra for special digestive yogurt brands, but any with “live and active cultures” listed may help.  Dr. Amy recommends that we stick with the plain or natural yogurts, as those touted to be higher in probiotics usually also have high fructose corn syrup or sugar substitutes that are best to avoid.

Kefir is a thick, creamy, tart, and tangy combination of milk and fermented kefir grains.  Though similar to yogurt, since it is fermented with yeast and more bacteria, kefir contains more probiotics than yogurt.

Sauerkraut is made from fermented cabbage and other veggies.  It contains the probiotics leuconostoc, pediococcus, and lactobacillus.  If possible, you’ll want to choose unpasteurized sauerkraut because pasteurization (used to treat most supermarket sauerkraut) kills the helpful bacteria.  Sauerkraut – and the similar but spicy Korean dish kimchi – is also loaded with vitamins that may help to prevent infections.

Miso, a fermented soybean paste, reportedly contains more than 160 bacteria strains. It can be used to make a popular Japanese soup that is low in calories and high in B vitamins and protective antioxidants. In addition to its beneficial live cultures, miso is extremely nutrient-dense.

Goats milk and soft cheeses, such as Gouda, are high in probiotics, including thermophillus, bifudus, bulgaricus and acidophilus, and have been shown in some studies to strengthen the immune system.

Sourdough bread is a naturally fermented bread that contains multiple strains of beneficial microflora, including lactobacilli, a probiotic that may benefit digestion.

One of the easiest ways to get probiotics in your diet is by adding acidophilus milk. This is simply milk that has been fermented with bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. Sometimes it is labeled as “sweet acidophilus milk.” Buttermilk is also rich in probiotics.

Pickles are an excellent source of probiotics.  You’ll want to choose naturally fermented varieties where vinegar wasn’t used in the pickling process. A sea salt and water solution encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria and may give sour pickles some digestive benefits.

Tempeh is made from a base of fermented soybeans.  This Indonesian patty produces a type of natural antibiotic that fights certain bacteria. In addition, tempeh is very high in protein, is a great source of vitamin B12, and is low in salt. Its flavor is described as smoky, nutty, and similar to a mushroom. Tempeh can be marinated and used in meals in place of meat.

Kombucha Tea is a probiotic beverage that may improve digestion, though it is an acquired taste due to its sour flavor and fermented odor.

Probiotics are also available as supplements in capsule, tablet, powder, and liquid form.  Dr. Amy recommends that you pick a refrigerated version with at least a billion of acidophilus and bifidobacterium.

Creating Cultured Food at Home
Did you know that you can make your own probiotic or cultured food at home?  Trilogy at Monarch Dunes member Sue Allen had been suffering from digestive issues and food allergies for years.  She was constantly aware of what she was eating – avoiding the foods that seemed to trigger bad reactions and trying different foods that might help her to feel better.  Yet, no matter how she tried, she never felt completely well.  Then, a friend told her about the website www.CulturedFoodLife.com.  Sue explored the site, which is full of information about the healing power of cultured foods, and decided to make cultured foods a major part of her healthy lifestyle.  “By culturing my own veggies, I get billions of probiotics through a natural process, and as a result I am healing my gut.  It has truly changed my life, and I am now on the road to recovery.”  (When suggesting this topic for Trilogy Life Magazine, Sue assured me that she has nothing to sell and in no way benefits by spreading the word about this website.  It has just led to such a powerful transformation in her health that she wanted to share what she’s learned with her fellow Trilogy members.)  The Cultured Food Life website is a wonderful resource for cultured food recipes, online cooking demonstrations, and detailed information about the amazing health benefits of consuming cultured food.

Are All Probiotic Foods Created Equal?
Since probiotics are, in a sense, a “trendy superfood,” you may notice that an increasing number of products in the grocery store claim to contain probiotics.  While some food products like cereal, juice, frozen yogurt, granola, candy bars, and cookies may indeed contain probiotics, they often do not contain them in the amount or in the form that is necessary to reap the health benefits.  The best sources for probiotics are less processed foods that naturally contain “good bacteria,” such as those listed on the previous page.

Always Talk with Your Physician
Probiotics are generally considered safe, as they are already present in our normal digestive system.  More study, however, is needed to clarify the safety of probiotic supplements in young children, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems.  For people with suppressed immune systems due to disease or treatment for a disease (such as cancer chemotherapy), taking probiotics may actually increase your chances of getting sick.

As with any dietary supplement, be aware that probiotic supplements are regulated as food, not drugs. This means that they do not undergo the testing and approval process that drugs do. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure that supplements are safe before they’re marketed and that any claims made on the label are true. Still, there’s no guarantee that the types of bacteria listed on a label are effective for the condition for which you’re taking them.  Tell your doctor about everything you are taking, including the specific bacteria in your probiotic supplement.
Thank you to Trilogy at Monarch Dunes member Sue Allen for suggesting this topic, and for sharing her own positive experience with probiotics.