When we think of healthy living, we don’t necessarily jump right to bacteria, do we? Most people equate bacteria with negative things like E.coli, salmonella, hepatitis A, and other nasty toxins. Don’t panic, but you actually have around two to six pounds of bacteria currently living in your body. The microorganisms inside of you outnumber your cells ten to one.
The good news is, these microbes, like bacteria, are generally friendly. They work to support your body and keep its complex functions operating effectively. Scientists estimate that just 1 percent of existing bacteria are harmful, contrary to popular belief. So how can we support the hard-working, undervalued bacteria in our body? Enter probiotics.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms found in the gut that restore healthy bacteria and balance the digestive system. Even though the body contains probiotics, the rise of processed foods has increased the need for extra probiotics from food or supplements.
Types of probiotics
Though other bacteria may also be used as probiotics, there are two primary types of probiotic bacteria strains, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
- Lactobacillus is the probiotic you are likely most familiar with, as it is naturally present in fermented foods such as sauerkraut and tempeh. This strain is particularly beneficial for those with lactose sensitivity, as it can aid in digestion and reduce dairy-related diarrhea.
- Bifidobacterium is found in certain dairy products and other food and has been shown to reduce inflammatory skin conditions, constipation, and diarrhea.
Though it is a yeast, not a bacteria, saccharomyces boulardii is also a probiotic to soothe the digestive system. It is often called brewer’s yeast and is used in the fermentation of many foods, including beer, kefir, and kombucha.
The rise of probiotics
If you’ve watched television at all in the last 15 years, you’ve likely seen silver-haired, former “scream queen” Jamie Lee Curtis touting the incredible probiotic benefits of the yogurt brand Activia for digestive health. While Activia certainly isn’t the answer to your gut problems (more on that later), the company’s advertising helped inform a new generation about the benefits of probiotics and increase awareness of this critical bacteria.
However, probiotics are certainly not new and have been around for thousands of years. But where did they come from? The answer to this question lies in the pages of history books. Fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, and cheese, are documented as far back as 6,000 B.C. in the Fertile Crescent.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Nobel prize-winning Russian biologist Elie Metchnikoff suggested that eating certain types of bacteria could benefit health. Since then, scientists have been studying the amazing benefits of probiotics. New technologies uncovered a complex forest of interconnected bacteria living within us.
Why do we need probiotics?
The human body was designed incredibly to support the development of good bacteria and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria. Unfortunately, the modern lifestyle and diet have knocked gut bacteria out of balance over time. The rise of processed foods, lack of live foods, antibiotic overuse, and stress has created a world against beneficial gut flora. Hence, the rise of digestive issues in the United States.
Probiotics and antibiotics
Since their discovery nearly 100 years ago, antibiotics have saved thousands of lives, killing dangerous bacteria that would have been a death sentence before their discovery. However, antibiotic overuse is becoming a serious issue, with modern doctors handing out antibiotics like candy.
Why is it a problem? Antibiotic overuse creates antibiotic-resistant bacteria and kills good bacteria along with the bad. Though conventional doctors prescribe antibiotics even when not strictly needed, they have been reticent to accept and normalize probiotics.
Along with reserving antibiotic use for situations where it is strictly necessary, utilize probiotics to help combat the effects of antibiotics. Do what you can to protect and replenish your delicate gut microbiome.
How do probiotics benefit the heart?
There is some evidence suggesting that probiotics could contribute to heart health by lowering oxidized LDL cholesterol in the body, a risk factor for heart disease. Other studies suggest that probiotics could reduce blood pressure and even lower the risk of coronary heart disease.
Other benefits of probiotics
- Reduce diarrhea – If you’ve taken antibiotics, you likely know of the common and uncomfortable side effect that often tags along. Diarrhea. One of the most well-known benefits of probiotics is their ability to reduce or even eliminate this uncomfortable condition. Trials have shown that probiotics, specifically Lactobacillus, could reduce antibiotic-related diarrhea in infants and children by as much as 60 percent.
- Relieve constipation – Though it seems counterintuitive, probiotics can reduce both diarrhea and constipation. Researchers at King’s College in London pooled the results of 14 small studies. They found that probiotics containing Bifidobacterium “reduced “gut transit time” by 12.4 hours, increased the number of weekly bowel movements by 1.3, and helped soften stools, making them easier to pass.
- Improve mental health – Studies have shown that probiotic supplementation could alleviate mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, OCD, and memory loss. Though most studies have been performed on animals, there is growing evidence to support mental health benefits in humans.
- Boost immune system – The gut microbiome is closely tied to the immune system, with studies suggesting that probiotics can reduce the risk and severity of respiratory infections.
- Aid in weight loss – Certain probiotics could be beneficial in reducing belly fat by preventing the absorption of dietary fat into the intestines. There is also some evidence to suggest that specific probiotics could help you feel full longer and increase the number of calories you burn.
What are prebiotics?
While probiotics are living bacteria that contribute to a healthy gut biome, prebiotics are specialized plant fibers that give that healthy bacteria the fuel it needs to flourish. Every healthy diet should include prebiotics as well as probiotics.
Excellent prebiotics include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
- Apple skin
- Chicory root
Adding these organic, probiotic-rich whole foods to your diet and eliminating hormone-laden industrial meats and fast, processed, and packaged food can go a long way towards restoring your gut flora. Remember, only eat organic foods and ensure that any dairy products are raw and from grass-fed cows, do not contain added sugar, and are enjoyed in moderation.
Remember Acivita? Avoid yogurts like this at all costs. They may contain beneficial probiotics, but they also contain loads of refined sugar that negate any benefits and leave you worse than before.
Excellent probiotic-rich food to add to your diet:
- Raw yogurt
- Fermented pickles
- Fermented sauerkraut
- Miso soup
Though real, organic, fermented food is the best source of probiotics, supplements can be beneficial to restore a damaged gut. The FDA doesn’t regulate probiotics like other drugs, as they are considered dietary supplements. It is up to the integrity of the manufacturers and the quality of independent studies, as well as your own research, to confirm that the statements on probiotic containers are accurate.
Natural Heart Doctor produces a supplement called Heart Helpers Probiotic to support heart, digestive, and overall health. Quality probiotic supplements are not known to produce any adverse side effects and can be an excellent addition to your supplement regimen.
Note: Some supplements contain both a prebiotic and a probiotic. These are known as synbiotics.
If you are just starting your journey to gut health, be patient with your body. Give your gut what it needs; a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet with plenty of good probiotics. A gut that has endured years of neglect will take some time to heal and will require an entire lifestyle overhaul, not just the addition of a few supplements. Don’t let that scare you, though! Small changes multiply over time and lead to incredible results that will leave you looking and feeling your best.
Include gut-healthy probiotic-rich foods in your diet and consider trying our Heart Helpers probiotic with 25 billion colon-forming units and 10 bacterial strains.
Eat Well · Live Well · Think Well
Medical Review 2022: Dr. Lauren Lattanza NMD