Do You Need Probiotics?

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Probiotics supplements have become so ubiquitous that it can be confusing to try to determine which ones you should take. You may even be asking yourself if there is any point to taking probiotics, especially if you are already taking a handful of nutritional supplements.

So What Are Probiotics Anyway?

Our digestive tracts serve as the home for many billions of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and fungi which are actually beneficial to us and essential for normal function. These living organisms, collectively known as the micro biome, are consumed either in foods or in a probiotic supplement, and are vital to not only gut health, but to our immunity and overall health.

Probiotics were discovered by Elie Metchnikoff, who is known as the father of probiotics. He noticed that inhabitants of rural sections of Bulgaria would live to ripe old ages despite living in extreme poverty. When he discovered that they consumed sour milk, he encountered the gut-friendly bacteria which are now known as probiotics.

Another interesting manner in which humans acquire beneficial bacteria is through the birth canal, where a newborn will be exposed to Bacteroides, Lactobacillus, Escherichia coli, and Bifidobacterium. This is the main reason why infants who are born via C-section have weaker immune systems and are more susceptible to allergies.

What exactly do probiotics do? They are believed to protect us in two ways. The first is the role that they play in our digestion. We know that our digestive tract needs a healthy balance between the good and bad gut bacteria, so what gets in the way of this? It looks like our lifestyle is both the problem and the solution. Poor food choices, emotional stress, lack of sleep, antibiotic overuse, other drugs, and environmental influences can all shift the balance in favor of the bad bacteria.

Since our immune response protects us from germs, and also since beneficial bacteria in our digestive tracts are vital to optimal immunity, it makes sense to replenish our guts with probiotics. If our digestive tracts are deficient in probiotics, we are more susceptible to infections, autoimmune disorders, and allergic reactions.

In order for a microbe to be designated as a probiotic, it must meet the following criteria:
1. It must have a documented health benefit,
2. It must be alive when taken, and
3. It must be administered at levels to offer a health benefit.

You should take at least one billion colony forming units (CFU’s) each day.

If you would like to supplement your diet with foods which contain probiotic bacteria, you can incorporate the following foods into your regimen:
Sauerkraut
Pickles
Kimchi
Kombucha
Yogurt
Goat cheese
Miso soup

Watch Out For Soy Products

Soy-based products are still quite popular, and the majority of them are touted as “health” foods. However, there is a huge difference between fermented and unfermented soy products.

People of Asian descent like me tend to eat fermented soy products such as soy sauce, miso and tempeh (I draw the line at natto, which is another fermented soy product with a distinctive texture and flavor which I can’t stand). The fermented forms of soy based foods are safe because the fermentation process destroys the antinutrients which are present in soybeans.

In stark contrast, unfermented soy products, including soy milk and tofu, have high concentrations of these antinutrients, including phytates, phytoestrogens, MSG, saponins, trypsin inhibitors, and goitrogens. These substances have multiple deleterious effects on the body, such as impaired absorption of vitamins and minerals, interference with pancreatic and thyroid function, disruption of endocrine function, and damage to the nervous system.

For these reasons, I am strongly opposed to the consumption of soy-based products and eliminate them from patient and client diets whenever possible. If you are vegan, or if you are intolerant of whey or casein, look for other forms of protein, such as pea, quinoa, hemp and amaranth, which cause less inflammation when consumed and have a more benign side effect profile.

Kombucha

Kombucha is a fermented beverage made from black tea and either sugar, honey or fruit, which has beneficial probiotic and antibiotic qualities. Once the solution is mixed, it is then fermented by a combination of bacteria and yeast better known as SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). There are numerous positive effects on the body, which are discussed here.

GUT HEALTH:

Kombucha is loaded with good bacteria (known as probiotics), as well as enzymes and yeast which assist in breaking down foods for enhanced absorption and digestion. Since the mixture is doing some of the work in digestion, your gut is better able to do its job without being overloaded. Kombucha also restores a healthy pH balance in the gut, and its consumption is highly recommended for individuals dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, Candida overgrowth, and many other digestive disorders.

The fermentation process involved in the production of kombucha also produces butyric acid, which has strong antimicrobial and anti-cancer features, protects the gut against yeast overgrowth, and destroys parasites which might be lurking in your gastrointestinal tract.

ALL THAT GOOD STUFF:

The fermentation process involved in making kombucha produces by-products such as acetic acid, which inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria, thus conferring a protective effect upon the body against infection. Kombucha also contains naturally occurring glucosamine, so chugging this fermented beverage can also aid in joint function and health. It is also chock-full of vitamin C and vitamin B, and truly helps to cleanse the liver and rid the body of free radicals.

I remember a roommate from 2008 who had begun drinking raw kombucha regularly, and he insisted that it was the most fantastic new health beverage. What I hadn’t realized then was that kombucha has actually been around for over 2,000 years, originating in China, then spreading to countries such as Korea, Japan, Russia, and India.

My roommate kept insisting that I try kombucha, even when I told him that the slimy sludge floating in the bottles made me want to gag. I finally did try a sip of kombucha in 2009, and found that I didn’t like the incredibly tart, vinegary flavor at all.

Despite my first unfavorable experience kombucha, I decided to try some of the newer brands, like Health-Ade, Synergy and Revive, last year. It turns out that kombucha has come a long way, with better flavor, and the SCOBY colonies are somehow less disgusting than what I remember from years ago. The fruitier versions are fizzy, refreshing, and quite tasty. Because of its acidity, kombucha should not be consumed in excess. My recommendation is to drink 4 ounces per day to obtain the probiotic benefits of this strange and popular beverage.