Gut health is trending in a major way right now. The microbiome of the gut has recently been found to influence everything from digestions and absorption of nutrients to development of chronic diseases. Probiotics are being hyped as the “cure” for many ailments, in the form of “shots,” supplements, and fortified foods. But what actually are probiotics, and are they actually that important?
As a registered dietitian, I get asked about probiotics and gut health pretty frequently. Simply put, probiotics are beneficial bacteria or “good bacteria.” Anywhere from 300 to 500 different bacterial species, comprising 2 million genes, inhabit the gastrointestinal tract. That’s 10 times the number of cells in the human body! Collectively referred to as the “gut microbiome,” these bacteria are different in each individual and can influence the health and disease of the human host. Research has shown that the microbiome plays a role in digestion and GI function, absorption and synthesis of nutrients, immune function, the function of the central nervous system, weight, and development of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and liver disease. An individual’s gut microbiome is established early in life, as soon as the individual is born, and is influenced by several factors, including gestational age, mode of delivery, breast feeding, and exposure to antibiotics. Later in life, the microbiome is influenced by age, diet and antibiotics.
It’s important to maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria in the body with your diet, as it is one of the only factors we can purposely alter. Including both probiotics, or good bacteria, and prebiotics in the diet can help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome.
Probiotics can be found in several supplements and foods. There are many strains of probiotics available, and getting as many as possible is helpful. Foods containing probiotics are often fermented or “cultured,” such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, Kombucha, and sourdough. There are also several specialty “gut shots” and fermented probiotic drinks available at grocery stores and health food stores. Adding these foods to your diet can help keep your gut healthy, but you also need to “feed” these healthy bacteria with prebiotics.
Prebiotics are forms of fiber that are not digestible by humans. The prebiotic fiber remains in the GI tract to be fermented by the good bacteria that live there. While all fiber is good for digestion, prebiotic fiber is especially helpful for your gut microbiome. It can be found in bananas (the less ripe the better), garlic, onions, asparagus, leeks, sweet potatoes, wheat bran, brown rice, and beans.
Of course, probiotics and prebiotics aren’t going to reverse a poor diet, but they can help you feel your best in the context of an overall healthy, balanced diet. If you are on antibiotics, under a lot of stress, or feel like you may be getting sick, it might be a good idea to add more probiotics to your diet to give your system a little boost!
Kaleigh McMordie is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Master of Nutrition based in Lubbock, Texas. She is passionate about nutrition and healthy living, so much so that she loves to create delicious, nourishing recipes for people trying to live a healthy, vibrant life. Kaleigh’s mission is to help people achieve a healthy, happy lifestyle filled with joy and memories without sacrificing all that is good in life. Follow her on Instagram: @livelytable