Want to improve your digestion, immune system, and moods, clear your skin, lower your risks of certain diseases, and achieve a healthy weight? Reaching all of these health goals and more lies in your gut, literally.
Microorganisms including bacteria and yeasts live along your digestive tract, but when your system is strained by stress, illness, medication, or an unhealthy diet, the natural balance of “good” bacteria to “bad” can be compromised (also referred to as “gut dysbiosis”), leading to leaky gut syndrome, constipation, bloating, mood swings, weight gain, and other medical concerns.
Adding probiotics to your lifestyle through supplements or dietary changes is one of the easiest and most effective ways to balance your gut and restore your health. In this article, we’ll take a look at the basics of probiotics: what they are, how they work, and where you can find them.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are “good” live bacteria that are similar or the same as the bacteria that already live inside your body (humans have upwards of 400 varieties in their bodies), and they provide a health benefit to their host when consumed. There are many strains commercially available as dietary supplements — with Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus casei being among the best known — each of which address specific aspects of your health, from improving how your body absorbs nutrients to improving skin and hair.
How Do Probiotics Function in the Body?
While the benefits of probiotics have been known for over a century, scientists and medical professionals are still researching the exact ways they work in the complex gut ecosystem (or biome). We do know that consuming them helps the repopulated good bacteria in the gut flora, which improves the overall vitality and strength of the digestive and immune functions.
Health Conditions and Diseases That May Improve With Probiotics
Many health conditions and diseases are linked with the gut system because over 80% of the body’s immune function takes place there. Conditions that have been shown to improve by supporting the gut system include allergies, autism, acute and travellers’ diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, thyroid disorders, and autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis. Additionally, they can help improve short-term conditions from becoming more enduring or serious, for example, supporting the body against yeast infections or other symptoms associated with the use of antibiotics.
Add Probiotic-Rich Vegetarian and Vegan Foods to Your Diet
Anyone can get the health benefits of probiotics, even without taking supplements, by including them as part of their diet. Probiotic-rich foods have been a staple of food cultures around the world for centuries, and traditional foods that contain them are safe to consume on a daily basis. While dairy products such as yogurt and kefir are often associated with live probiotic cultures (and are even marketed for their gut-friendly health benefits!), there are plenty of vegan sources of probiotics to choose from as well including kombucha, fermented vegetables such as organic pickles, kimchi, and sauerkraut, and fermented soy products including as miso and tempeh.
Additionally, you can consume apple cider vinegar, either by drinking a small amount in the morning or using it as an ingredient in your cooking. Note, the rise of probiotics’ popularity over the last decade has caused many food manufacturers to add them to processed foods they are not naturally found in (such as energy bars), and the benefits of consuming them this way are still a subject of research.
Lifestyle Changes That Improve the Effectiveness of Your Probiotics
Consuming probiotics can certainly improve health on their own, but there are many ways people can support their effectiveness. Make efforts to reduce your stress levels, avoid foods that inflame your digestive lining (such as alcohol or processed foods), get more sleep, and avoid environmental toxins when possible —for example, swapping your regular household cleaners and air fresheners for natural products — to maximize how your probiotics help you.
Which Probiotics Are Right for You?
As mentioned above, traditional probiotic-rich foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi are safe for regular consumption for anyone, but those looking to improve specific health conditions with probiotics should consult their healthcare provider or dietician to identify the strains that will provide the most benefits for their personal needs.