Most people know that probiotics help to support healthy digestion, but few people realize that they can also boost immunity, reduce IBS symptoms, and even support circulation and healthy blood pressure. My son Dr. Drew Sinatra, a naturopathic physician, often prescribes probiotics to his patients with impressive results. Below, he shares why you should incorporate probiotics into your daily health routine.
Did you know that our bodies are composed mainly of microorganisms? In fact, our bodies contain 10 times more microbial cells than human cells. Normally, these microorganisms work together synergistically to keep our bodies in a healthy state.
But when these bacteria become unbalanced, it can affect the health of your entire body—including your heart.
In fact, when patients see me in my practice they often leave with a “prescription” to take probiotics. But to get the full benefits of probiotics you need to take the right ones in the right amount. Before I get to that, I want to explain what probiotics are and how they work.
Why Does Your Body Need Probiotics?
Probiotics are strains of bacteria that support your health. The term probiotic literally means “pro” for in support of and “biotic” pertaining to living organisms. Many people know that probiotics support healthy digestion, but few realize that they actually support health throughout your body. The benefits of probiotics include helping to regulate your digestive function, immunity and endocrine system. Plus, these bacteria support cardiovascular health.
While there are many strains of probiotics, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are two of the most common strains you may see on food and supplement labels. These strains of bacteria improve digestion and help with the absorption of nutrients. They also help to modulate immune system function, reduce inflammation in the intestines, and even lessen symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Research has also shown that certain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium probiotics support the cardiovascular system by regulating the production and breakdown of cholesterol particles, as well as supporting healthy blood pressure and circulation.
Unpasteurized Fermented Foods
Many cultures around the world prepare and eat fermented foods rich in probiotics, including sauerkraut, kim chi, miso, tempeh, beet kvass, pickled vegetables, kefir, yogurt, and other dairy products. In fact, kombucha, which contains several strains of probiotics, is becoming a popular drink.
But in the United States food supply, we use pasteurization processes to kill pathogens (“bad” bugs). Although pasteurization is a necessary treatment for many of our foods and beverages since it destroys pathogenic organisms, it also destroys much needed probiotics. Unfortunately this means that most store-bought fermented foods, including yogurt, contain few probiotics—unless they’re added back in after pasteurization.
The best way to get probiotic-rich fermented foods is to make them in your own kitchen. One of my favorite books on how to make fermented foods is called Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.
There are also other foods that you can eat besides fermented foods that can positively affect your gut flora. A study from the British Medical Journal showed that increasing dietary fiber can increase the amount of Akkermansia muciniphila probiotics in the gut. These probiotics are associated with favorable cholesterol, a better waist-to-hip ratio, and reduced cardiovascular risk factors.
Other studies have also shown that that the bacteria in our gut can affect the way we store fat and balance blood sugar levels. So, getting enough probiotics in our diet—and through supplements—is critical to good health. Plus, you want to eat fiber with your probiotics, since non-digestible fiber compounds act as prebiotics, providing fuel for the probiotics.
If You Eat Fermented Foods, Do You Still Need Probiotic Supplements?
If I had to answer this question 30 years ago I probably would have said “no.” Today, however, my answer is “yes” since the soil has become increasingly sterile with the overuse of pesticides and herbicides, and getting a steady influx of probiotics into your gut is absolutely necessary.
One of the most troublesome herbicides in our environment is a chemical called glyphosate (also known as Roundup Ready). Glyphosate was actually patented as an antibiotic, and the antibiotic mechanism kills off bacteria and fungus in the soil, but reduces beneficial soil microorganisms as well. What we’re left with is a soil devoid of healthy growth-promoting microorganisms.
To add insult to injury, antibiotics have been overused in both the livestock we eat—and in us humans—over the last 70 years. While antibiotics can be lifesaving, they affect the gut microbiota by reducing healthy bacterial strains. This can lead to an overgrowth of fungus (Candida) and other pathogenic bacteria (Clostridium difficile).
There are many probiotic formulas available that can help replenish levels and support your gut bacteria. When searching for a probiotic, you want to look for one with clinical studies that show it works.
You also want to look at the label to see how many colony forming units (CFUs), or number of probiotics, are packed in a formula. While the optimal dose remains unknown, it’s generally recognized in the medical community that formulas should contain at least 100 million CFUs for proper colonization. But doses can be as high as hundreds of billions.
Some people find that when they first take probiotics, they develop more gas and bloating. This is actually quite common and is likely due to the subtle shift in gut microbiota and a change in your bowel pH (acidity). If this happens to you, you can reduce the dose for a few days and within two weeks the symptoms should resolve.
Sometimes probiotics contain fructooligosaccharides (FOS), which act as prebiotics to help stimulate the growth of probiotics. These can also cause abdominal discomfort in some people.
Should you take your probiotics with or without food? There’s actually a debate in the medical community about the best timing when it comes to probiotic supplementation. Some people believe probiotics should be taken on an empty stomach so stomach acids won’t degrade the probiotics. I’ve also read research that recommends taking probiotics slightly before or with meals as this leads to greater assimilation along the GI tract. Personally, I recommend taking a probiotic whenever it’s most convenient for you.
Adjust the Rest of Your Diet, as Well
In addition to taking probiotics, you want to avoid foods that will affect your gut bacteria. I tell all my patients to eat an organic diet as much as possible as doing so reduces your exposure to glyphosate and antibiotic residues in foods that affect gut flora. Plus, I cannot emphasize the importance of reducing sugar from your diet. Sugar in its many forms provides fuel for yeast in the gut, which alters the gut flora and can set you up for a whole host of ailments.
I also suggest investing in a water filter to remove chlorine from the tap water. Chlorine is a disinfectant that reduces the spread of viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms. But it can also reduce the good bugs including healthy gut flora, so you want to make sure you are eliminating chlorine exposure with water filtration devices.
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