Earlier this month I posted about prebiotics and I thought it would be a nice idea to dedicate a specific post to probiotics.
I have written plenty about the human microbiome and its importance to our health, in its own post and in other posts that aren’t specifically about that topic, but I realized I haven’t really given you information about these microbes and how to make sure your microbiome is healthy, happy, strong, diverse, and abundant.
Let’s explore the world of probiotics: the healthy, friendly, happy microbes that live in and on us. Where do they come from? How do we use probiotics? And why is this important again?
When you read the word probiotic most people these days think of pills that you buy at a health food store, but probiotics are much more than that.
In fact, until recent years we didn’t have access to specific bacterial strains squished into a pill that we would take to improve our health, but probiotics still existed. They existed as food.
Our ancestors had a diet that included regular consumption of fermented foods. This practice came primarily out of necessity: the fermentation process helped to preserve foods during a time when refrigerators (at least as we know them) didn’t exist.
While cold cellars and the like existed, our ancestors didn’t just run to the fridge that was conveniently located in the middle of the house to grab the food that tickled their fancy whenever they liked. No, life was a lot different and it isn’t even that many years ago since things changed.
Once electricity became available to every household and refrigeration technology evolved and we all gained access to this technology our diet changed quite significantly. Food regulations changed as well and we became ‘germophobic’ since at the same time we started gaining access to antibiotics and treating all microbes as harmful.
It wasn’t until very recent years (perhaps really only in the past two decades) that we have started to understand that all microbes are not harmful. In fact, we now understand that if we didn’t have the trillions of microbes (bacteria, fungi, yeasts, viruses) living in and on us that we wouldn’t survive at all!
We need these microbes to digest our food, build and be a part of our immune system, regulate our mood, make neurotransmitters, synthesize vitamins for us, and so much more.
Fermented foods are those that are ‘cultured’. No, they don’t go to museums and operas. Ha ha! They have been purposely allowed to start to grow microbes like bacteria and yeasts that are not only okay for us to eat but important to our health! The practical advantage is that these fermented foods last longer than they would otherwise.
Fermented foods are also known as probiotic foods. They are a form of probiotic, just not in a pill. They contain all kinds of bacteria and yeasts that are important to the proper functioning of our bodies’ systems.
So when I tell you to regularly take probiotics, I don’t necessarily mean you need to go out and buy a probiotic supplement.
As with a lot of the trends in foods today where we see a new appreciation of how things were done and how those before us used to eat, there is a movement toward fermentation again. We are going back to explore this food and have a new appreciation for it!
Probiotic foods include things like:
- Any kind of fermented vegetable (you can ferment almost any veggie)
- Sauerkraut, kimchi
- Tempeh, natto
- Kefir, yoghurt
- Apple cider vinegar
Now, this is likely what you think of when you hear the term probiotic.
Supplements are typically pills, but sometimes liquids or powders, which contain a specific number and types of bacteria that scientists have, so far, been able to isolate and culture in a lab, then dry out (desiccate) and sell in bottles.
There are some big advantages to this.
If you want to read more about probiotics and how to choose a good supplement, check out this comprehensive site that outlines all kinds of info you need to know to find the right one.
From my perspective, as a nutritionist, the main advantage is that you can get a really big dose of probiotic bacteria into your gut at once. This is needed when we are challenged with a health issue or are very out of balance (like after taking a course of antibiotics).
Again, from my perspective, probiotic supplements are best used at big doses for specific periods of time. The longest period of time I’d consider taking a probiotic supplement is about one year. This usually happens after a course of antibiotics, because it can take an entire year to recolonize the bacteria that are lost from our bodies (the ones we need!) after these drugs.
You can use probiotic supplements as a health maintenance strategy, particularly if you have had a lot of digestive issues previously or serious health issues that were helped by improving your gut microbes.
You can also use probiotic foods for maintenance (or a combination of supplements and foods – typically what I use myself and recommend for clients).
Something to consider: good, reliable probiotic supplements can be costly if you consider taking them for years on end. And they are also not as diverse in the types of microbes that we get from our food because we don’t have the ability to isolate and culture all of the bacteria that lives in and on us yet and we may never attain that scientific technology.
But that’s okay. That’s why it’s been in our nature to eat fermented foods long before we ever understood what a bacterium was or that we have a microbiome!
So you can use both (foods and supplements) to get the best of both worlds!
Other Sources of Probiotics
As we continue to learn about the human microbiome, we will inevitably see new products come on the market.
We are already seeing household products that include ‘friendly’ bacteria, like room mist that helps keep harmful moulds at bay, and bath and body products that contain probiotics so that our skin doesn’t lose its important flora.
Some people are starting to eat dirt. Yes, you read that right. The hygiene hypothesis is part of the puzzle being pieced together that relates how our immune system and our microbiome interplay. It’s more than the notion that we are too clean, however, it’s a complex interaction between our immune system and the microbes we live with.
Certainly, better hygiene has done a lot for civilization and extending our lifespans, but there is a balance and these days it’s believed we’ve taken it too far. The balance we need to achieve here is between being exposed to microbes that help us build immunity and protect our microbiome, but still, have a level of hygiene that prevents illness.
While you may not want or need to go as far as eating dirt, getting dirty and playing in the dirt is actually good for our immune systems and helps build that microbiome.
Probiotics, the Microbiome and Allergy
Yes, this all ties back to immune health, allergy and sensitivity.
As I’ve mentioned before, the health and diversity of our microbiome plays a direct role in the health and balance of our immune response. And when our immune system gets confused and out of balance we can develop allergies and sensitivities and even auto-immune conditions.
Lifelong maintenance of a strong and diverse microbiome by eating both probiotic and prebiotic foods is important to all aspects of our health and wellbeing. (and if you read only one link I’ve provided in this article then this is the one)
Very specifically in my work, this way of eating and supporting our microbiome is a key factor in both the prevention and healing of allergies.
To optimize what you are feeding your microbes,
check out my You’re Sweet Enough Program!
Start eating the foods that optimize the growth beneficial microbes and starve the harmful ones!