Probiotics hold the key not just for better health and a stronger immune system, but also for treating digestive issues, mental health illness and neurological disorders. Research continues to prove that probiotics benefits and side effects go far beyond what we previously thought.
In this, The Ultimate Probiotic Guide to Better Health article, you will learn everything you ever need to know about probiotics, including the top 10 probiotics, best probiotic foods, best probiotic supplements and how to use them.
Probiotics Benefits Begin in the Gut
The first and most overlooked reason that our digestive tracts are critical to our health is because 80 percent of your entire immune system is located in your digestive tract!That is an astounding percentage.
In addition to the impact on our immune systems, our digestive systems are the second largest part of our neurological system. It’s called the enteric nervous system and is located in the gut. This is why it’s called our second brain!
Many people with health issues, such as thyroid imbalances, chronic fatigue, joint pain, psoriasis, autism and many other conditions don’t realize that these illnesses originate in the gut.
If these issues and many others are connected to our gut health, then what elements are essential for digestive health? Consider this: According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, upward of 60 million to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases. In addition, digestive disease and disorders cost the U.S. over $100 billion per year.” (1)
These statistics are staggering, yet poor gut health actually affects much greater numbers than these statistics illustrate. That’s because your digestive health affects every physiological system in your body.
The many toxins we’re subjected to today decrease digestive function, affecting our ability to utilize nutrients and rid ourselves of cholesterol, triggering chronic inflammation in the body, which is the cause of many chronic conditions and diseases.
The secret to restoring your digestive health is all about balancing out the good and bad bacteria in your gut. If you’re going to be healthy, you MUST consider consuming probiotic-rich foods and supplements daily.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are bacteria that line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection. There are actually 10 times more probiotics in your gut then cells in your body!
Your skin and digestive system by themselves host about 2,000 different types of bacteria. Probiotics benefits have been proven effective in supporting immune function and healthy digestion, as well as beautiful skin.
Your good gut bacteria is also responsible for:
- Producing vitamin B12, butyrate and vitamin K2
- Crowding out bad bacteria, yeast and fungi
- Creating enzymes that destroy harmful bacteria
- Stimulating secretion of IgA and regulatory T-cells
Probiotics have been in our systems right from the moment that we stepped into the world. When a newborn is in the birth canal of the mother during delivery, that’s when the baby is exposed to the bacteria of his or her mother for the first time. This event starts a chain of events inside the baby’s GI tract, and the infant’s GI tract starts to produce good bacteria.
If you don’t have enough probiotics, the side effects can include digestive disorders, skin issues, candida, autoimmune disease, and frequent colds and flus.
Historically, we had plenty of probiotics in our diets from eating fresh foods from good soil and by fermenting our foods to keep them from spoiling.
However, because of refrigeration and dangerous agricultural practices like soaking our foods with chlorine, our food contains little to no probiotics today, and most foods actually contain dangerous antibiotics that kill off the good bacteria in our bodies.
By adding more probiotic foods into your diet, you could see all of the following probiotics benefits:
- Stronger immune system
- Improved digestion
- Increased energy from production of vitamin B12
- Better breath because probiotics destroy candida
- Healthier skin, since probiotics naturally treat eczema and psoriasis
- Reduced cold and flu
- Healing from leaky gut syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
- Weight loss
Top 7 Probiotic Killers
Most people, including children, are in need of a probiotic boost due to the use of prescription medication, particularly antibiotics, as well as high-carbohydrate diets, the consumption of chlorinated and fluoridated water, and conventional foods, such as non-organic meat and dairy that contain antibiotic residues. These chemicals kill off probiotics in your system, which over time damages your digestive tract. (2)
Here are the top seven probiotic killers that can prevent your body from getting all the tremendous probiotics benefits it needs:
- Prescription antibiotics
- Tap water
- Genetically modified foods (GMOs)
- Emotional stress
- Chemicals and medications
In order to improve your gut flora balance, make sure to avoid the probiotic killers. We’re exposed to many of these foods, toxins, and stressors on a daily basis, and if you’re going to restore your digestive health, they must be addressed. If they’re not addressed, your gut micro-organisms become imbalanced, and your system can become a breeding ground for bad bacteria, yeast, viruses, fungi and parasites. (3)
The only way to fix this issue and heal your gut is to eliminate the foods that feed bad bacteria and start consuming probiotic-rich foods and supplements so probiotics benefits can work their magic.
20 Probiotics Benefits Proven by Research
The strongest evidence to date finds that probiotics benefits include:
- boosting the immune system
- preventing and treating urinary tract infections
- improving digestive function
- healing inflammatory bowel conditions like IBS (4)
- managing and preventing eczema in children
- fighting food-borne illnesses
New studies underway may soon prove that probiotics can:
- reduce flu and colds
- reduce overuse of antibiotics
- treat kidney stones
- treat colic
- prevent cavities and gum disease
- treat colitis and Crohn’s disease
- combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria
- treat liver disease
- battle cancer (5)
- manage autism
- lower cholesterol
- fight bacteria that causes ulcers
- improve acne
- lose weight
How Probiotics Work
Your gut contains both beneficial and harmful bacteria. Digestive experts agree that the balance of gut flora should be approximately 85 percent good bacteria and 15 percent bad bacteria.
If this ratio gets out of balance, the condition is known as dysbiosis, which means there’s an imbalance of too much of a certain type of fungus, yeast or bacteria that affects the body in a negative way. By consuming certain types of probiotics foods and supplements, you can help bring these ratios back into balance.
Also, it’s important to understand that probiotics are not a new idea. Throughout history, cultures have thrived on probiotics found in fermented foods and cultured foods, which were invented for food preservation long before the refrigerator.
In fact, the refrigerator could be one of the worst inventions for you digestive health because now we don’t have to culture or ferment our foods to keep them from spoiling so we lose out on those vital probiotics and probiotics benefits.
4 Steps to Get More Probiotics in Your System and Reap Probiotics Benefits
1. Eat More Sour Foods
Step No. 1 is consume more sour foods. Embrace what I call the power of sour and sour foods like apple cider vinegar, specifically, and fermented vegetables. They contain some probiotics, but also they contain certain types of acids like gluconic acid and acetic acid, healthy acids that create a certain type of pH in your body that supports the growth of probiotics in your system.
So again, it’s great to get some healthy sour foods. What I would start doing is add one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to a drink two times a day. So before breakfast and lunch or breakfast and dinner, add one tablespoon of apple cider vinegar in your meal, and then start consuming more fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchi, or drinking kvass. Get some fermented vegetables like sauerkraut several times a week in your meals; that’s one way to boost probiotics in your system.
2. Consume More Probiotic-Rich Foods
The second way is just to start consuming more probiotic-rich foods. Now, probiotic-rich foods are things like high-quality goat milk yogurt, kefir or even different types like coconut kefir, but getting more probiotic-rich foods in your diet is essential to boosting and increasing your probiotics.
I would start trying to consume one serving of probiotic-rich food a day. You can add kefir, one of my favorites, in your morning smoothie, and you can eat some organic probiotic yogurt during the day. And again, get some good fermented foods in your diet — at least one serving a day or more.
3. Feed the Probiotics in Your System
Step No. 3 to naturally boost probiotics in your system is to start to feed the probiotics. So think about this: Probiotics are living organisms. If they’re going live in your body, they need fuel, they need to feed off something, they need good soil. That soil is fermentable fiber.
Getting good, high-quality fiber in your diet can actually cause probiotics to increase in your body. And the best type of fiber is soluble fiber, known as fermentable fiber. Some of my favorite high-fiber foods include chia seeds. Chia seeds benefits include that it is a great form of fermentable fiber, as are beneficial flaxseeds — adding chia and flax into a morning smoothie is fantastic.
Along with that, organic fruits and vegetables are a great option. And then also, nutritious sweet potatoes and regular potatoes are also good forms of fermentable fiber. A high-fiber diet consisting of these foods fuel probiotics.
4. Take a Quality Probiotic Supplement
Last but not least, taking a quality probiotic supplement is a great way to get more probiotics in your body. Taking a quality probiotic supplement can naturally boost the good probiotics in your system.
Top 10 Probiotic Foods List
If you want to start consuming probiotic-rich foods, here is a list of the most beneficial probiotic foods:
Similar to yogurt, this fermented dairy product is a unique combination of milk and fermented kefir grains. Kefir has been consumed for well over 3,000 years, and the term kefir was started in Russia and Turkey and means “feeling good.”
Kefir is created by the fermentation of milk by the bacteria, and yeasts in kefir starter break down lactose in the milk. That’s why kefir is suitable for those who are otherwise lactose intolerant.
It has a slightly acidic and tart flavor and contains anywhere from 10 to 34 strains of probiotics. Kefir is similar to yogurt, but because it’s fermented with yeast and more bacteria, the final product is higher in probiotics.
If you want to learn more, check out this article on how kefir benefits your health.
Made from fermented cabbage and other vegetables, sauerkraut is not diverse in probiotics but is high in organic acids (what gives food its sour taste) that support the growth of good bacteria. Sauerkraut is extremely popular in Germany today.
Sauerkraut is high in vitamin C and digestive enzymes. It’s also a good source of natural lactic acid bacteria, such as lactobacillus. Sauerkraut juice has been studied to benefit digestive issues like leaky gut, diarrhea, and constipation, and is also effective at helping you kick a cold fast.
Kimchi is a cousin to sauerkraut and is the Korean take on cultured veggies.
It’s created by mixing the main ingredient, such as Chinese cabbage, with a number of other foods and spices, like red pepper flakes, radishes, carrots, garlic, ginger, onion, sea salt and fish sauce. The mixture is then left aside to ferment for three to 14 days.
4. Coconut Kefir
Made by fermenting the juice of young coconuts with kefir grains, this dairy-free option for kefir has some of the same probiotics as traditional dairy kefir but is typically not as high in probiotics. Still, it has several strains that are great for your health.
Coconut kefir has a great flavor, and you can add a bit of stevia, water and lime juice to it to make a great-tasting drink.
A popular dish in Japan consisting of fermented soybeans, natto contains the extremely powerful probiotic bacillus subtilis, which has been proven to bolster your immune system, support cardiovascular health and enhance digestion of vitamin K2.
Natto can also contain vitamin B12, which is lacking in vegan diets and is one of the highest plant-based sources of protein at 17.7 grams per 100-gram serving size.
Possibly the most popular probiotic food is live cultured yogurt or greek yogurt made from the milk of cows, goats or sheep.
Yogurt in most cases can rank at the top of probiotic foods if it comes from raw, grass-fed animals. The problem is there is a large variation in the quality of yogurts on the market today. It’s recommended when buying yogurt to look for three things: First, that it comes from goat’s, sheep milk or A2 cows milk; second, that it’s grass-fed; and third, that it’s organic.
Kvass is a common fermented beverage in Eastern Europe since ancient times. It was traditionally made by fermenting rye or barley, which gives it its mild flavor. In more recent years, it’s been created using beets, fruit, along with other root vegetables like carrots.
Kvass uses lactobacilli probiotics, which have blood- and liver-cleansing properties.
Miso is one of the mainstays of traditional Japanese medicine and is commonly used in macrobiotic cooking as a digestive regulator. Miso has been a staple in Chinese and Japanese diets dating back approximately 2,500 years.
Today, most of the Japanese population begins the day with a warm bowl of miso soup believed to stimulate the digestive system and energize the body.
Made from fermented soybeans, rice or barley, adding a tablespoon of miso to some hot water makes an excellent, quick, probiotic-rich soup.
The fermentation process can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of years to complete, and the end result is a red, white or dark brown paste with a buttery texture.
Miso soup is famous throughout the world, and it’s very easy to prepare. Simply dissolve a tablespoonful of miso in a pot of water filled with seaweed and other ingredients of your choice.
Kombucha is an effervescent fermentation of black tea that’s started by using a SCOBY, also known as a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Kombucha has been around for over 2,000 years and was thought to originate in 212 B.C. in the Far East. It later surfaced in Japan and then spread to Russia.
Many claims have been made about kombucha, but its primarily health benefits include digestive support, increased energy and liver detoxification.
Read more here on the health benefits of kombucha.
10. Raw Cheese
Goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and A2 aged cheeses are particularly high in probiotics, including thermophillus, bifudus, bulgaricus and acidophilus. Always buy raw and not pasteurized or you will not be getting any of the probiotics benefits.
How to Pick the Best Probiotic Supplements
It’s important to note that there are different types of strains of probiotics. The probiotics benefits experienced with one probiotic strain may be completely different from the health benefits seen from another probiotic.
Certain strains of probiotics support immunity, others digestion, and some even help burn fat and balance hormones.
If you want to use probiotics to help with a specific health concern, it’s vital to select the right probiotic for the right condition. Or you can consume a wide range of probiotics in your food to be covered.
As we said earlier, you are what you digest, and there are no other compounds in the world that support digestion and the assimilation of nutrients better than living probiotics. While many companies now produce probiotics, the majority of them are ineffective at best. Most probiotic supplements today are destroyed by your stomach acid before they ever get to your digestive tract.
When reading a probiotic label, it should reveal the genus, species, and strain of the probiotic. The product should also give you the colony forming units (CFUs) at the time of manufacturing.
Also, the majority of probiotics can die under heat so knowing the company had proper storing and cooling of the facility is also important.
There are five specific things you want to consider when buying a probiotic supplement:
- Brand quality — Look for brands that are reputable like Garden of Life, MegaFood, and Axe Naturals.
- High CFU count — Purchase a probiotic brand that has a higher number of probiotics, from 15 billion to 100 billion.
- Strain diversity — Search for a probiotic supplement that has 10–30 different strains.
- Survivability — Look for strains like bacillus coagulans, saccharomyces boulardii, bacillus subtilis, lactobacillus rhamnosus, and other cultures or formulas that ensure probiotics make it to the gut and are able to colonize.
- Research — Do your homework and look for brands that have strains that support your specific needs.
Here are a few more things to look for:
Stay away from general health claims and consider how much information is really on a label.
- Stability: Probiotics need to be kept cold in order to preserve their potency. This applies to their production, transport, storage and sales.
- Date: The fresher the better when you’re talking about living organisms.
- Sugar: Sugar is not a good food source for probiotics. Prebiotics are the food source meant to keep probiotics alive. A synbiotic is a supplement that contains both prebiotics and probiotics. The best synbiotics contain healthy plant starches and fiber.
- Living vs. dead: “Live and active cultures” is a better bet than “made with active cultures.” After fermentation, the product may be heat-treated, which kills off both good and bad bacteria (extending shelf life).
- Bacteria type: “Live and active cultures” does not necessarily mean that the kinds of bacteria the product holds have been proven as beneficial. The bacteria strain should consist of two names and two letters: the genus, species, and strain. If the label lists two names, it could be any one of hundreds of bacteria without research or proven health benefits behind it.
- Potency: This is where it gets tricky. Most probiotic products don’t list a number of bacteria their products contain, and the amount that’s effective depends upon many qualifiers. Health benefits can occur with 50 million CFUs for certain conditions and may take as many as 1 trillion CFU for others. The higher the number the better. The Food Standards Code claims that at least one million live bacteria per gram are necessary for yogurt and other fermented drinks to provide the 10 billion CFU needed for health effect.
Beneficial Probiotic Strains
- Bifidobacterium bifidum — the most dominant probiotic in infants and in the large intestine, supports the production of vitamins in the gut, inhibits harmful bacteria, supports immune system response and prevents diarrhea. (6)
- Bifidobacterium longum — supports liver function, reduces inflammation, removes lead and heavy metals. (7)
- Bifidobacterium breve — helps colonize healthy gut community and crowd out bad bacteria. (8)
- Bifidobacterium infantis — alleviates IBS symptoms, diarrhea and constipation. (9)
- Lactobacillus casei — supports immunity, inhibits h. pylori and helps fight infections. (10)
- Lactobacillus acidophilus — relieves gas, bloating, improves lactose intolerance. Shown to help with a 61 percent reduction in E. coli, lower cholesterol levels and the creation of vitamin K. (11) Also, important in GALT immune strength.
- Lactobacillus bulgaricus — a powerful probiotic strain that has been shown to fight harmful bacteria that invades your digestive system and is stable enough to withstand the acidic digestive juices of the stomach. It also neutralizes toxins and naturally produces its own antibiotics.
- Lactobacillus brevis — shown to survive the GI tract, boost cellular immunity, enhanced natural T-killer cells and kill h. pylori bacteria. (12)
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus — supports bacterial balance and supports healthy skin, helps fight urinary tract infections, respiratory infections, and reduce anxiety by reducing stress hormones and GABA neurotransmitter receptors. (13) Also, survives GI tract.
- Bacillus subtilis — an endospore probiotic that’s heat-resistant. Elicits a potent immune response and supports GALT. (14, 15) Suppresses growth of bad bacteria like salmonella and other pathogens.
- Bacillus coagulans — an endospore probiotic that’s heat-resistant and improves nutrient absorption. Also, has been shown to reduce inflammation and symptoms of arthritis. (16)
- Saccharomyces boulardii — a yeast probiotic strain that restores natural flora in the large and small intestine and improves intestinal cell growth. It’s proved effective in treating inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease. (17) It’s been shown to have anti-toxin effects, be antimicrobial and reduce inflammation. (18, 19)
Are There Probiotic Side Effects?
Probiotic side effects can sometimes include diarrhea if you take too much too fast. You can start off with a smaller amount like one tablespoon of kefir or one probiotic capsule a day and work your way up.
But overall, the side effects of probiotics are nothing but positive, making probiotics benefits all the sweeter.
Final Thoughts on Probiotics Benefits
- Do your best to remove substances that can destroy probiotics, like sugar, grains, GMOs, tap water, antibiotics and emotional stress from your life.
- Consume two servings daily of probiotic-rich foods from the top 10 list to receive probiotics benefits.
- Another way to get all those great probiotics benefits it to take a probiotic supplement that has at the very least 10+ strains of probiotics with at least 15 billion CFUs.
This article first appeared on Dr.Axe.com.