In the last 15 years or so, “probiotics” and “gut health” have gotten a lot of attention. I’d say a majority of people these days have probably heard about probiotics, know they support gut health in some way and have considered taking a supplement for the benefits. Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon with various supplements and food products boasting the health benefits of these little bugs. But what ARE probiotics? Why are they important and why can they sometimes miss the mark?
Probiotics are usually referred to as the “good” bacteria and yeasts that live in our body and on the surface of our skin. This beneficial bacteria helps you to digest food, helps keep “bad bacteria” in check to prevent illness and supports the lining of the digestive tract to prevent food particles from entering the bloodstream resulting in immune challenges and/or food intolerance. Probiotics actually create vitamins B and K in the intestines for the body to utilize and they also aid in the breakdown and absorption of medications (Cleveland Clinic, 2020).
Research microbiologist Kiran Krishnan claims that humans are 10 times more bacteria than we are human, calling us a “holobiome”, or a superorganism that is like a walking, talking rainforest. The microbes that live inside and outside of our bodies play a huge role in how we respond to stress, food and our environment. They control our behaviors, mental and physical health, immune system and so much more (Gore, 2017).
In fact it is said that 80% of our immune system lies in the gut. But what is “the gut”? The gut is often thought of as the lower intestinal tract, but it actually comprises the entire digestive tract, beginning with the mouth, travelling down through the esophagus, stomach and ultimately the small and large intestines. When you eat probiotic rich foods or take a probiotic supplement, these are the most nourishing for the lower GI tract. However, this tends to bypass the upper digestive tract, which is often the root of gut issues.
As I’ve explained in a previous blog, digestion is a north to south process. If there are any problems in the lower GI, we need to address the issues that may be occurring higher up. Sometimes this can be as simple as dropping into a relaxed and mindful state while eating (think rest to digest) or taking the time to properly chew your food (the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food so the stomach and intestines can do their job). Other issues that can impact the lower GI: 1) Having the wrong pH of stomach acid 2) Pancreas burnout from processed foods resulting in insufficient digestive enzymes 3) Liver/gallbladder congestion from consuming poor fats or a low fat diet. These are just a few examples of digestive problems that will cause a chain of events that can lead to improper bacteria balance in the lower GI.
With all the hype that probiotics have gotten in recent years, I see very little conversation about these other common problems. This is where I feel probiotics miss the mark. While it likely will do no harm to take probiotics and you may see some improvement, it is not actually getting to the root of the problem, which is often an organ struggling further north in the digestive system.
Another problem with probiotics, is the quality and sourcing varies greatly. Yogurt, for example- first of all… can we talk about how out of control the yogurt section is in grocery stores these days?! When I was a kid there were maybe three options for yogurt. Today, the entire back wall of Wegmans is yogurt, it’s a bit much if you ask me! Sure, it can be a good source of beneficial bacteria if it’s plain or low sugar and if you can tolerate dairy. However yogurts laden with sugar (which is most of them) are going to cause more damage than good. Sugar feeds the bad bacteria in the gut, leading to imbalance and overgrowth of the harmful bugs. Some yogurts, especially those marketed to children, can have upwards of 26 grams of sugar in one serving! That is 6.5 teaspoons of sugar! Someone might eat yogurt thinking it’s a healthy option, but they might as well eat a bowl of ice cream! Read the label. Divide the grams of sugar by 4, and that tells you how many teaspoons are in the food. Example: 12 grams of sugar ÷ 4 = 3 teaspoons of sugar.
There are also many products available that claim to have yogurt in them like yogurt covered pretzels or raisins for example. It may seem like this is a healthy snack, but really this is just glorified frosting. Again, products like this likely have no probiotic benefit and will be high in sugar which creates an imbalance. I was reading the label of a probiotic gummy supplement yesterday. The serving size was 2 gummies which had one full teaspoon of added sugars! Again, I wouldn’t recommend this product considering the sugar content would essentially cancel out any benefit from the probiotic.
The best source of probiotics is from your food! I recommend trying lacto-fermented vegetables like pickles, sauerkraut, dilly beans, kvass and kim chi. I’m not talking about the kosher pickles on the shelf, look in the refrigerated section of the store. These pickled veggies and drinks must be refrigerated in order to keep the active cultures alive. They are the best source of probiotics because they do not contain added sugars. Having a small serving of these foods with each meal also aids in digestion, since they naturally contain the enzymes needed to digest foods. Plain full fat yogurt, kefir, sour cream and sometimes cottage cheese will have active cultures as well. Drinks like kombucha are an OK option too, although they are brewed on sugar, thus can be a source of hidden sugars.
If you try any of these foods and experience digestive discomfort like bloating or gas, your body is giving you feedback that you likely have imbalanced bacteria in your gut. This means you may need to speak with a healthcare professional or holistic nutritionist like me, who can help you navigate a gentle detox and slowly add in various forms of digestive support and probiotics.
So what is the best way to support the gut? Eat a wide variety of whole foods, including vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fats like butter and olive oil, good quality meat, fish and eggs. Limit grains to whole grain, properly prepared versions like sourdough or soaked oats if you can tolerate them. Limit white refined sugars and processed foods. Completely avoid poor fats like vegetable oils, canola, margarine and spreads.
Another thing to consider is your water, chlorinated water will kill both the good and bad bacteria in the gut, leading to imbalance. I recommend using a water filter for your drinking water as well as your bathing water - the hot water from the shower or bath opens your pores, allowing chlorine to be more easily absorbed in the bloodstream. Speaking of bloodstream, alcohol from hand sanitizers will also be absorbed through the skin and can damage the gut. I recommend using sanitizers only when absolutely necessary, instead wash hands with good old soap and water!
Some signs and symptoms that you may have gut bacteria imbalance:
Often feel digestive discomfort (bloating, gas, gurgling, constipation or diarrhea)
Brain fog, difficulty concentrating, feeling spacey or unreal
Food intolerances or allergy
Suffer from anxiety, depression, ADHD or frequent mood swings
History of antibiotic use
Have an autoimmune disorder
Frequent yeast infections
Skin issues like rashes or redness
If you believe you may have an imbalance in your gut, food intolerances, or difficulty with digestion, please reach out for a free 15-20 nutritional consult with me to see if Nutritional Therapy is right for you! Navigating changes in foods, supplementation and understanding which organs might need support can be overwhelming. I’m happy to support you in the journey to better health!
(2020, March 9) Probiotics: What is it, Benefits, Side Effects, Food and Types. Cleveland Clinic.https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/14598-probiotics
Gore, Hilda Labrada. (2017, March 27) Improve Your Microbiome. Weston A Price Foundation. https://www.westonaprice.org/podcast/69-improve-your-microbiome/