Probiotics are a hot topic these days and the shelves of health food and grocery stores are lined with countless options. Should you take them in a pill, a powder or in a whole-food format? When and how often can you take probiotics and why isn’t your body making its own supply?
In this article I’m going to highlight what probiotics are and how they benefit your digestive system, when your body needs them, and how to take them most effectively.
Let’s dive in and answer these and other questions on how probiotics can best support your health.
What are probiotics?
In latin, pro- means “for” and -bios means “life”. Whereas antibiotics destroy both harmful and helpful bacteria, probiotics are naturally occurring beneficial bacteria that support the digestion and absorption of nutrients.
But it doesn’t stop there!
- help white blood cells fight germs and other disease agents
- help maintain intestinal balance by controlling unwanted organisms such as harmful bacteria
- supply certain nutrients (i.e. Vitamin B’s — especially B12), which are needed for healthy blood cells
- balance bowel movements so that neither diarrhea or constipation sets in
- protect the naturally occurring intestinal mucous lining
- promote healthy skin
- support urinary and vaginal health
- help maintain good oral health
- help to balance blood sugar
- help with inflammation in the body
So what exactly are probiotics?
They are various strains of beneficial, live bacteria, which are found naturally in fermented foods and drinks, or which can be taken via a lab-created supplement. Probiotic supplements contain millions to billions of these bacteria and the specific amount is generally shown on the label as CFU (colony forming unit).
There are different strains of probiotics -- some work in the large intestine and some work in the small intestine.
Dr Bernard Jensen, DC, identifies three main types of probiotics:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus guards the large intestine
- Lactobacillus bifidus (aka bifidobacterium) protects the small intestine
- Lactobacillus bulgaricus works through the entire intestinal tract to support the other two types
When does your body need probiotics?
There are instances when your naturally occurring good gut bacteria are destroyed, compromised or simply can’t keep up with some health imbalances going on in your body.
Here are some examples of when supplementing with probiotics can be beneficial:
- acute bacterial infection or the ‘stomach flu’
- overgrowth of unwanted organisms such as candida or intestinal parasites; candida may show as a vaginal yeast infection in women or thrush in babies
- bowel movements that are either too firm or too loose (i.e. constipation or diarrhea)
- chronic gut issues such as bloating or indigestion
- after medicating with antibiotics
- when the immune system is compromised or low-functioning
- presence of cavities or other oral health issues
- to help balance blood sugar
- inflammatory condition in the body
I regularly make my own kombucha, water kefir, cultured vegetables and/or cultured dairy products and rarely resort to a store-bought supplement. Keep reading for probiotic-rich food options!
What are the best food sources of probiotics
Naturally fermented or cultured foods are rich in probiotics.
Here are the top options if you would like to increase naturally occurring probiotics through diet:
- Kombucha: a raw, fermented drink made from tea and a sweetener such as sugar or honey. Make sure the kombucha is not heat treated/pasteurized. Kombucha is easily made at home at a fraction of the cost of store-bought and you can control the quality of the ingredients (check out my kombucha making course here). This is by far my favourite way to get probiotics!
- Cultured vegetables: sauerkraut (made from cabbage, carrots or beets), kimchi (the Korean version of sauerkraut) or pickles. In order to be effective, these vegetables need to be lacto-fermented and not heat treated through pasteurization or canning.
- Fermented soy: natto, tempeh or miso; choose only non-GMO & organic soy.
- Water kefir: similar to dairy kefir (see below) but it’s cultured in water, sugar and lemon. Water kefir is thought to originate from a cactus and can be a rich, easy-to-digest and delicious source of probiotics
- Cultured dairy products: kefir, yogourt, buttermilk or certain cheeses; note that many people have problems digesting dairy, even cultured dairy, so this would not be my top recommendation for probiotic-rich foods. Commercially cultured dairy products typically are not a great source of probiotics. I would suggest making your own kefir if you have access to high quality whole milk. Choosing goat milk over cow’s milk makes for better digestibility. Probiotic-rich cheeses include raw, unpasteurized goat, milk or A2 cow’s soft cheese.
- Beet kvass: a fermented drink originally from Eastern Europe, made from beets, whey, salt and water. It’s not readily available in stores but easy to make at home.
- Apple cider vinegar (ACV): rich in probiotics and enzymes, it can supply beneficial bacteria to your gut and support your health in many other ways (you can even clean your house with it). Read my article on ACV here! In order to be effective, apple cider vinegar needs to be raw/unpasteurized and preferably made from organic apples.
What to look for in a probiotic supplement and how to take it
When acute or chronic health conditions require a more therapeutic dose than what probiotic foods can provide, look for a probiotic supplement that contains all three of the main probiotic types (lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus bifidus and lactobacillus bulgaricus). This ensures that the entire intestinal tract is supported.
Ideally a CFU count of at least 1-10 billion will ensure enough of the bacteria get into the intestinal tract. Sometimes daily doses of 50 billion or 100 billion may be necessary. Probiotics are best protected from the stomach acid by an enterically coated capsule. It’s also important to combine probiotics with prebiotics… keep reading!
Probiotic supplements are best taken on an empty stomach, about 15-20 minutes before breakfast and/or before bedtime.
To encourage your gut to keep making its own probiotic colonies, I would suggest taking probiotic supplements only for short periods of time, such as two weeks out of every month.
When the immune system is compromised or there is a severe health condition, your body may need more probiotic support. Always check with your trusted healthcare practitioner on what the best potency and dose is for you.
What are prebiotics and why are they important?
Prebiotics are the foods that probiotics need in order to thrive in your intestinal tract. When supplementing with probiotics, it’s important to also add prebiotics so that all those good bacteria have something to snack on while they establish themselves in your gut.
Some probiotic supplements come with prebiotics added right to the capsule. Common sources include inulin or FOS (fructooligosaccharides).
Whole food sources of prebiotics are high-fibre foods and include chicory, dandelion greens, bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic, artichokes, apples, seeds such as flax or chia, legumes like lentils and various types of berries.
There you have it. Probiotics are essential to so many aspects of your body’s wellbeing and are readily available in many whole foods that your can easily make at home.
While supplementation may sometimes be necessary, I think you’ll really enjoy incorporating kombucha, kefir or raw sauerkraut into your regular diet. If you already do, I’d love to hear your favourite probiotic food or drink. Comment below!
All my best,
Live/Dried Blood Analysis - Homeopathy - Essential Oils Specialist
Health & Life Coaching
P.S. Find out the 10 daily habits for a healthy gut in my free PDF checklist. Get it here.
References and resources:
The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates
Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon
Dr. Jensen’s Guide to Better Bowel Care by Dr. Bernard Jensen