When you sit down to a meal or grab a quick snack, you are not just eating for your health, but you are also eating for the health of your microbiome. Your microbiome, the ecosystem of microbes living primarily in your digestive tract, is a delicate and wise system that is responsible for governing almost every system in your body.
What Are Probiotics?
Originally derived from the Greek and Latin languages meaning “for life,” probiotics are live strains of healthy bacteria and yeast that are good for your digestive tract, microbiome, and so much more.
These strains of good and natural (i.e., not added by food manufacturers) bacteria are plentiful in some foods and lacking in others. Ancient and traditional diets were once primarily made up of homegrown foods that grew in healthy probiotic-rich soil and were then often fermented for safekeeping––increasing the beneficial bacteria your ancestors naturally ate. Today’s typical foods are more processed and refined, and the soil is not as healthy, leaving the majority of the Western diet bankrupt of natural probiotics.
While it may take a bit more thoughtfulness to eat a diet rich in nature-made probiotics, it is well worth the effort for your digestive health and overall wellness.
What Probiotics Do for You
Probiotics do a number of helpful things for your mind and body.
- Improve Your Digestion: When your microbiome is well balanced, you experience healthier digestion. Research shows that symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea, and various forms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) will improve with a diet rich in nature-made probiotics. Natural probiotics have also been shown to repair candida overgrowth (an imbalance of yeast in the microbiome), help heal leaky gut syndrome, and decrease digestive inflammation.
- Restore Your Microbiome After Taking Antibiotics: When you treat an infection or pathogen with antibiotics, many of your good bacteria are killed off along with the bad. Research shows it is important to replenish your system with natural probiotics for a healthy and balanced microbiome. Researchers have found that using natural probiotics after a treatment of antibiotics can help reduce antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
- Keep Your Immune System Strong: You know when cold and flu season comes around that it is important to keep your immune system strong, including getting plenty of rest, washing your hands frequently, taking your vitamin C, and eating a diet rich in nature-made probiotics. Researchers have found that probiotics enhance immune function through supporting the regeneration of the intestinal lining, keeping the bad bacteria from entering the blood stream and therefore supporting the overall health of the immune system.
- Uplift Your Mood: Did you know that 90 percent of your body’s 5-HTP aka serotonin (a neurotransmitter that plays an important role in regulating mood, appetite, and sleep) is produced in your digestive tract? Often called the “second brain,” your microbiome has a direct impact on your brain chemistry. Probiotics––often referred to as psychobiotics when referencing brain chemistry––can have a brain-altering effect through their innate mechanism to produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, GABA, and acetyl-choline. Studies show that regulation of mood and symptoms of depression can be improved through improving gut health via regulation of the microbiome with a diet high in natural probiotics.
- Reduce Autoimmune Symptoms: Autoimmunity is a condition in which the immune system attack the body’s own healthy cells and tissues. This leads to various forms of chronic pain and inflammation affecting an estimated 23.5 million Americans with disorders including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s disease, celiac disease, and lupus. Research shows that if the gut microbiome is well-nourished and balanced, it can improve some of the common symptoms associated with autoimmune disease. Eating a diet that is rich in probiotics has proven to be a therapeutic approach to treating autoimmune disease.
Fermented Foods High in Probiotics
Fermented and cultured foods are a wonderful source of natural probiotics. While fermenting food for storage is an age-old tradition, here are some common fermented foods high in natural probiotics that you can find at your local grocery store.
- Yogurt: This dairy-based culture may be the most common probiotic food, found in many varieties all over the world, including yogurt made from goat milk, sheep milk, and cow milk. It’s important to choose a high-quality variety to improve your gut health. Look for organic yogurt that is high in probiotics––especially lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. and bulgaricus—made from the milk of grass-fed cows, goats, or sheep, with no sugar added. You can sweeten with a little bit of raw honey, if you like.
- Cultured Vegetables: Cultured vegetables such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, and kvass are a sure way to feed your microbiome with nature-made probiotics. Dating back thousands of years as a way to store food through the long winter months or to store food without refrigeration, culturing vegetables is a practice that many cultures around the world have used. The fermentation process naturally promotes beneficial probiotics. You can find many varieties at your local grocer. Look for the varieties that are refrigerated to preserve the natural probiotics.
- Apple Cider Vinegar: Apple cider vinegar (ACV), made from apples broken down by fermentation, is an age-old elixir known for its many probiotic-rich properties. ACV is rich in probiotics and enzymes. For the most potent probiotic-rich ACV, choose organic, raw, and unfiltered.
- Miso: Often consumed as a breakfast broth in Japan, fermented soybean paste, known as miso (cultured with rice, barley, and salt), is a tasty ingredient that not only makes a wonderful soup or sauce, but is also known for its nature-made probiotics. As an age-old fermented food, miso provides the gut microbiome with an abundance of good bacteria. When choosing miso, look for the unpasteurized, enzyme-rich variety that is stored in the refrigerator.
- Sourdough Bread: Not all breads are created equal, but a good old-fashioned sourdough may surprise you with its nature-made probiotic potency. The fermentation process that creates the sourdough bread adds a few significant improvements––including probiotics and prebiotics––improving the bread’s digestibility, and making the other nutrients it contains more absorbable.
Non-Fermented Foods High in Prebiotics
Prebiotics are functional foods that promote the friendly bacteria in your gut microbiome—essentially feeding your probiotics. Typically, prebiotics are found in the form of three primary types of fiber (or non-digestible carbohydrates)––inulin, fructo-oligosaccharides, and oligosaccharides. Prebiotics support your good bacteria’s ability to flourish. While there are many prebiotic foods, here are a few foods that are particularly rich in prebiotics for you to consider including in your diet.
- Bananas: Along with being a well-known fruit, bananas are a great source of probiotics. Bananas are high in gut-resistant carbohydrates––those that pass through your digestive tract unchanged and feed the probiotics, making them a great prebiotic food to power-up your microbiome. One study showed that the prebiotic fiber in bananas supports digestion and decreases bloating.
- Oats: You may have eaten a bowl of oatmeal for your warm breakfast cereal but have you tried steel-cut oats? Steel-cut oats are a rough-cut version of whole oats with even more fiber and a greater prebiotic levels. High in beta-glucan soluble fiber, whole oats feed those beneficial probiotics.
- Flaxseeds: Known for their high omega-3 content, flaxseeds are a healthy powerhouse prebiotic. Researchers have found that the fiber in flaxseeds promotes good gut flora and a healthy gut and strong digestion in obese, postmenopausal women.
- Garlic: Garlic can add a spicy and pungent flavor to your meals. While garlic is a tasty addition, it is also a prebiotic food due to its high inulin levels and the naturally occurring fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS)––making it a dynamite naturally occurring prebiotic.
There are many ways to nourish your microbiome and support good gut health with natural probiotics. Eating an array of naturally fermented foods along with prebiotics will ensure a well-balanced and effective digestion that contributes to your overall wellness.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.
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