Real talk. When was the last time you had a good movement? Are you regular? Do you want to be?
It isn't always pleasant to talk about, but good health means good gut health. And good gut health means a frank discussion about the quality of what you're flushing.
Maybe you already do the right things. You drink water and eat a lot of fiber. You could set a watch by your digestive tract. But sometimes, things aren't as great as they should be, right? And, as much as you hate to admit it, your medicine cabinet does betray your sometimes-upset stomach.
Don't worry - it doesn't have to be this way. There is an easy fix that can keep you right on track. That's where probiotics come in.
Before we get into probiotics, let's do a quick refresher on gut health. That's right; it's back to Biology 101.
Lesson #1: The Anatomy of The Gut
Digestion. We all do it. And if you remember anything from Biology, you already know that digestion starts way before the food even hits the vat of acid in your stomach. In fact, digestion is one of the few bodily functions that has a definite start and end point.
It all starts with food. You cook it, you smell it, your mouth waters to provide saliva to break down the food as you chew, and then you swallow. That's step one, by the way. All that chewing and swallowing is called mastication, which is aided by enzymes in saliva that break starch down into polysaccharides and lipids into smaller lipids.
The Esophagus and Stomach
After swallowing, food moves down the esophagus, through the esophagus sphincter, and into the stomach. The stomach is full of corrosive acids that break down pretty much everything into smaller chemical compounds. The food broken down by gastric juices is then ushered through the pyloric sphincter where it then becomes chyme, or partially digested food.
The Small and Large Intestines
Now in the upper small intestine, the pancreas secretes its own digestive enzymes that continue to break macronutrients down into basic chemical compounds. As chyme moves further into the intestines, bile secreted from the gallbladder enters into the equation to simplify fats.
The small and large intestine have little hair-like follicles called villi that absorb nutrients from the chyme as it moves through the digestive tract. These nutrients include vitamins, amino acids, cholesterol, and glucose. Water and sodium are removed from the digested food in the large intestine and the colon.
The Last Bit
What is left is a nutrient-free byproduct that is then eliminated as waste since it's pretty much useless to our bodies at that point. And there you have it. Pretty simple for a process that can take anywhere from 4 hours to 24 hours
But the digestive tract isn't just a one-trick pony. Every stage also has safeguards to protect us from food poisoning and allergic reactions. As soon as any of the digestive organs detect something not right in digesting food, it immediately stops all nutrient absorption and immediately begins a purge.
That's right; you can pretty much guess where digestion stopped based on how your body decides to purge. If you are vomiting, then your stomach found something wrong in your food. If you're doing the do, then your intestines are responsible for finding something wrong.
Digestion fun fact! Contrary to popular belief, swallowed gum can be broken down by gastric acids, so that gum you swallowed in elementary school is long gone.
Now that you are refreshed on the basic anatomy of your gut, it's time to learn how to maintain your gut health.
Lesson #2: What Is A Probiotic?
Probiotics are thousands of good bacteria that are essential to good gut health.
Yes, you read that right. Good bacteria. Commonly referred to as helpful bacteria, probiotics are live cultures of bacteria that keep your gut health in balance. Probiotics aid in digestion and the immune system - and researchers are still trying to figure out why probiotics are so good for us.
What researchers do know is that there are two main types of probiotics: Lactobacillus, found in fermented foods, and Bifidobacterium, found in dairy foods. Taking or eating the right kinds of probiotics may help with lactose intolerance and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
What are probiotics specifically? They come in many forms, usually in foods we eat or supplements we take. Most of us are keeping up with our gut health by ingesting probiotics without even realizing it since probiotics are actually very common in many common foods.
Lesson #3: How Do Probiotics Work?
We're still figuring this one out, but researchers think our best bet to understanding is by observing cultures of bacteria that have been fed antibiotics.
Antibiotics are medications that drive away bacterial infections. We've all had a course of antibiotics that have thrown off our entire body systems. For women, it is very common for doctors to prescribe yeast infection medication alongside antibiotics for this very reason. Antibiotics basically fry the natural pH and bacterial balance of the human body - a steep price to pay to get rid of the flu.
But controlled studies have shown that probiotics replace the bacteria that antibiotics destroy. Hence the name probiotics. Antibiotics and probiotics are very much an example of yin and yang.
Lesson #4: What Else Do Probiotics Help With?
Aside from being vastly important to good gut health, probiotics have also been found to help balance the bacteria in other areas for the body, such as:
Skin conditions, like eczema
The common cold
Help depression and anxiety
Prevent diverticular disease
You might be wondering if probiotics are really all that helpful. What if probiotics are just the latest in many health fads? Well, while it's wise to take the benefits of probiotics with a grain of salt since probiotic research is still in preliminary stages, it also wouldn't be smart to write off the probiotic products that have been around for ages.
What probiotic products? Food, of course.
Many cultures - especially Asian and Slavic nations - have been packing their foods with probiotics for centuries. As it turns out, probiotics are a natural byproduct of food preservation in many cases. Read on to learn which foods have the most probiotics - and where to get them!
Lesson #5: Probiotics In Foods
It's easier than you might think to manage your balance of probiotics because plenty of foods are packed with probiotics. That's right, by eating the right things, you can boost your gut health!
Probably the most basic probiotic-rich food. All yogurts have some amount of probiotics in them because all yogurts are fermented.
In the case of yogurt, it is the milk that is fermented during production, which produces lactic acid and boosts the culture of probiotics in the product. While any yogurt will do to regulate your intake of probiotics, this one seems to be the most popular.
Another dairy that undergoes fermentation to become a sold product. You've probably heard that all cheese is basically mold - and even some cheeses, like bleu cheese, boast more mold than others - and that's basically correct. But what you haven't heard is that probiotics in cheese. Just be careful not to eat too much!
A tart, tangy, cultured yogurt-milk smoothie with an origin in Russia.
Kefir is a unique food product overflowing with probiotics. Traditional kefir is made by fermenting cow or goat milk with kefir grains. Typically, the cow or goat is raised on a diet of kefir grains, and then more kefir grains are added during fermentation and strained from the product before being consumed. You can make your own from scratch, or use a starter kit to DIY this probiotic bombshell. Or you can simply buy it here.
Similar to traditional kefir, the coconut version is made with kefir grains. However, coconut kefir only uses coconut milk or coconut water, so this variation is completely dairy free for those who are lactose intolerant or just really enjoy coconut products.
Hailing from Germany, sauerkraut is a sour cabbage topping that Americans like to put on hotdogs - and it is absolutely punching with probiotics
The probiotics in sauerkraut also come from a fermentation process in which the sugars in the cabbage are converted by lactic acid — sensing a theme here? Any sauerkraut will do, but this one tastes amazing! Or take a look at this recipe!
A beverage from many Slavic countries made from rye bread or "black bread." The probiotics in kvass come from the fermentation process.
Are you wondering if kvass is beer? Well, while certainly related to the beer family of beverages, kvass is only slightly alcoholic at 1% of alcohol per glass. This traditional beverage is enjoyed by children and adults alike and is best compared to meade rather than ale. You can try this kvass, or make your own fruity batch.
A traditional staple in Korean cooking, kimchi is another case of fermented vegetables being probiotic holy grails.
Kimchi is typically made with salted napa cabbage and other Korean vegetables which are gloriously seasoned by garlic, ginger, scallions, and other Korean seasonings. Kimchi is an essential for healthy eaters, as in addition to being rich in probiotics, kimchi is also excellent for heart health and aiding in digestion. You can make your own kimchi by following this recipe. Or you can buy this kimchi!
Another Asian tradition good for your gut health, kombucha is rich in probiotics and antioxidants.
Kombucha is a fermented green tea with a vinegary, tangy, carbonated flavor. You can boost the health-giving in kombucha by adding fruits and juices to the blend after the 10-day fermentation process. Kombucha is thought to be good for preventing diabetes and heart disease, as well as boosting the immune system. When it comes to kombucha, you have the option of making your own at home or buying from a store.
Whether as a soup or as a spread, miso is a probiotic must!
Traditional Japanese miso is made by fermenting salted soybeans with a type of fungus called koji, though some variations include the addition of rice, barely, and seaweed. As a soup, miso is usually served with tofu and serves as a sort of side dish for many meals, including breakfast. You can make your own miso at home by purchasing a mix like this one.
Another probiotic champion from Japan, natto is another case of fermented soybeans.
Make no mistake; natto is an acquired taste. It's a bold smell and a sticky texture, usually served with soy sauce, karashi mustard and Japanese bunching onion over rice. Natto is typically a breakfast food that hasn't quite caught on in America yet. You have the option of tailoring natto to your tastes by using this recipe, or you can buy natto here!
Think of tempeh as fermented soybean cake from Indonesia that has more probiotics than your pinky finger.
A mainstay in many vegan diets, tempeh is somewhat similar in texture to tofu, though the tastes are not quite the same. Tempeh is easy enough to make with this recipe. Or, if you want to try it first, you can buy a bundle like this one. You might also consider tempeh starter packs!
Many cultures have taken a whirl with pickling cucumbers, but did you know pickled cucumber are positively piping with probiotics?
Unlike their cousin the plain pickle, pickled cucumbers are not exactly the gherkin on your burger. Traditional pickled cucumbers are made very simply with cucumber left in vinegar or brine, usually seasoned by salt, onions, and other seasonings. Try this recipe to pickle your own cucumbers! Or try a Swedish version that is slightly sweeter!
Specifically, brine-cured olives are bursting with probiotics. This is yet another example of how fermenting a vegetable in a brine brings all the probiotics to the yard. Unless you're a fan of pitting your own olives, you might just skip a step and buy these.
Apple Cider Vinegar
While apple cider vinegar has many purported beauty benefits, the reason it makes this list is because of how loaded it is with probiotics.
Apple cider vinegar is made from crushed and juiced apples. Many salad dressings, vinaigrettes, and food preservatives are made using apple cider vinegar. But don't be mistaken - apple cider vinegar does not taste anything like apple cider. And while it isn't the best idea to drink straight apple cider vinegar, putting a teaspoon in your water once a week is safe and has been known to aid in digestion and weight loss. It's better to leave the production of apple cider vinegar to the professions, so try this brand.
There are other foods that have a lot of probiotics in them, as well. Fruit and yogurt blend smoothies, for example, and even tofu or other soy-based foods have probiotics. But just remember that probiotics are usually more plentiful in foods that have been fermented!
Lesson #6: Probiotic Supplements
Food isn't the only place to find probiotics. Boosting your gut health doesn't have to mean eating the right foods. Good gut health can also come from choosing the right supplements.
To be clear, supplements aren't the answer to all health issues. Supplements are only meant to supplement what your body has trouble absorbing during digestion, and that means that you need to be careful about mixing supplements. When in doubt, consult with a doctor and follow the recommended dosing.
So how do you choose the right supplement for you?
Remember Those Two Probiotic Types From Before?
First, you need to ask yourself what your primary goal is. What do you want the probiotic supplement to do for you? Depending on your answer, you'll need to be looking at one of two different types of probiotic strains.
Remember them from earlier? Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are two types that do two totally different things. So be aware of that when you're choosing a probiotic for yourself.
This type is great for boosting gut health and has a few different strains that do specialized work.
Acidophilus is good for vaginal health, diarrhea, and acne
Rhamnosus is good for GI support and eczema
Plantarum is good for correcting GI inflammation
Casei is good for brain function and diarrhea
Keep in mind that acidophilus is probably the most common lactobacillus probiotic to find in supplements. The other strains are less common, but still available as supplements or in foods.
This type is a gut health superstar with many of its strains being dedicated solely to gastrointestinal support and boosting the immune system.
Lactis is good for the immune system
Longum is good for constipation
Bifidum is good for the immune system and GI support
Breve is good for GI support
The bifidum strain is the most promising of this type of probiotic since studies have found that bifidum, in particular, prevent bacterial pathogens from flourishing in the gut.
What Are Some Trusted Probiotic Supplements?
There are hundreds of probiotic supplements to choose from, and some are more effective for some people than others. Here are the choicest for gut health!
In Review: Why Gut Health Brings Glory
Having good gut health is the cornerstone of having good health. When your gut health is bad, it's like a canary in a coal mine - the first sure sign that you aren't as healthy as you could be.
Caring about your gut health is the first step to making sure the rest of your health is good. It's important to pay attention to stomach pains and the regularity of your visits to the bathroom, as well as what you're producing when you go. Digestion is a long, continuous journey that doesn't end just because you flushed.
Probiotics are a good starting point to correcting your gut health - that's why they are the latest craze in health circles. Probiotics are good for managing your flora, pH balance, and the bacteria in your gut to keep your immune system strong. Probiotics are also a smart step to take when taking antibiotics so that your immune system isn't completely thrown off kilter.
Probiotics can come from many sources - although most of those sources are fermented. Eating foods rich in probiotics is a big step to managing a healthy diet that promotes good digestion and even managing your weight.
Probiotics can also come in the form of supplements. There are many supplements to choose from, so it's important to know what your goals are for taking probiotic supplements. Pay attention to labels and read the nutritional facts to make sure you're choosing the right probiotic for you.
You're now a master of probiotics!