With food intolerances at an all-time high, we are more aware than ever before of our stomachs. We’ve got more knowledge about our own digestion, and are hyperaware of our sensitivities. But some experts believe probiotics might be a simple fix for improved gut health, which for many of us who are food-sensitive, is an irresistible draw.
NYC-based dietitian Lauren Kelly, MS, RD, CDN filled us in on the many benefits of probiotics in aiding our stomachs, sensitive or not.
Probiotics Add "Good" Bacteria to Your Gut
The "gut microbiota" — also known as the "gut flora" — is made up of trillions of microorganisms. “The gut microbiota is very important not only for digestion but also in keeping your body healthy as a whole, maintaining, and building immune health,” Kelly says. These healthy bacteria are responsible for about 70 percent of your entire immune system, which means it is crucial to keep these bacteria around and working to the best of their ability.
Probiotics Solve Many Common Issues
Recent research shows probiotics have a wide range of potential health benefits. One of the most well-known benefits is they may help treat diarrhea, particularly following antibiotic treatment (which kills off some of the helpful gut bacteria).
Probiotics may also aid in reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) as well as urogenital problems such as a urinary tract infection (UTI), or yeast infection. Some research even shows that probiotics may be useful in treating eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis.
“Eczema is sometimes as autoimmune in nature,” Kelly says. “In other words, your body is attacking its own cells. Because probiotics help to build up the strength of your immune system (as mentioned above, your gut microbiota is responsible for approximately 70 percent of immune health), they may improve the overall status of this autoimmune disease.”
Probiotics Can Be Enhanced With Prebiotics
While probiotics are themselves good bacteria, prebiotics are ingredients in food that feed the helpful gut bacteria. Some foods that have prebiotics include beans, whole grains, bananas, onions, and garlic.
“Prebiotics are non-digestible ingredients in food products, such as dietary fiber. These are substances that our human cells cannot digest, but the good bacteria in our gut can,” Kelly says. Another way of thinking about it: The helpful bacteria get energy or "food" from these ingredients to keep them alive and thriving.
Lots of Foods Can Bring Probiotics Into Your Diet
When you eat food containing probiotics, the bacteria populates in your gut to create a more healthy balance. So, external sources of probiotics essentially just up your body’s store of good bacteria — and the more, the merrier.
You can find probiotics in fermented foods like sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kefir, and yogurt. “Probiotics are found in fermented foods because probiotics are the actual bacteria that "digest" (otherwise known as ferment in bacteria-world) these types of foods. Without the bacteria, they would not be fermented food, because the bacteria does the fermenting (or digesting of ingredients in these foods),” Kelly says.
Probiotics are added to certain non-fermented foods as a selling point, but Kelly says those would not be her first choice. “It’s always preferable to get probiotics from foods that naturally contain them.”
You Can Take Probiotics as Supplements
It is always recommended to get as much nutrition as possible from food alone. “I recommend probiotic supplements to people who do not have a varied diet, or anyone whose diet is made up primarily of processed foods,” Kelly says. If you already stick to a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and some of the fermented foods mentioned above, you likely don’t need a probiotic supplement in addition.
“If you have irritable bowel syndrome, a persistent urinary tract infection, or eczema, I would likely recommend it as long as the supplement does not interfere with any medications you are taking. This is one reason why it is always important to check with your doctor before starting any supplements,” Kelly says.
Probiotics Don't Have Side Effects
Kelly advises you talk to your doctor before taking a supplement. Look for lactobacilli and bifidobacterium in products — these are the bacteria types that most probiotic research is based on. Some recommended brands include Florastor, Renew-Life, Garden of Life Raw Probiotics, and Metagenics UltraFlora.
“All of these supplements are recommended because they have the types of bacteria that are most frequently studied. Furthermore, according to research, these supplement brands actually have the bacteria types that they state they have on the label,” Kelly says.
Probiotics Aren't Off-Limits to Vegans
If you are following a vegan diet, it is important to be aware that sometimes these supplements are not vegan-friendly. “As a result of production methods and the form in which probiotics are naturally found in food, many probiotics are dairy-based and may have animal-based additives, such as gelatin, as do many other vitamin supplements,” Kelly says. But, Proviotic is a vegan-friendly alternative; it is also gluten-free, nut-free, and lactose-free for those with allergies or dietary restrictions.