What exactly are “probiotics,” and are they a good thing for my digestive health?
In the strange and surreal world of the 21st century, people are hungry for the past. Literally. If you’re following the latest food trends, you may have noticed that ancient foods are in vogue – whether it’s a “paleo” diet of foods that existed before agriculture, Ayurvedic or Chinese herbs, or our immigrant grandmothers’ recipes. The processed foods and TV dinners that older generations enjoyed, once deemed the forefront of a “modern” lifestyle, are now treated with a dose of skepticism — food should be organic, free-range, and untouched by the carcinogenic hands of science and technology.
One of the most popular things in today’s conscious kitchens is kombucha, the fizzy, fermented tea, which originated in ancient China. When you see it advertised at your local health foods store, or it’s coming from your friend’s home-brewed batch, it’s often touted to have a range of health benefits, because it’s chock full of “probiotics.” Many people throw this word around, without properly understanding what it means. Kombucha contains a type of lactic-acid bacteria and other bacterial cultures, which are used in the process of brewing it, that are known to be probiotics. It’s not the only natural source of probiotics, though – other good sources of probiotics are yogurt, kimchi, kefir, miso, sourdough bread, or my Brooklyn dad’s all time favorite, sauerkraut.
So what is a probiotic, exactly? According to the Mayo Clinic, probiotics are defined as “foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the ‘good’ bacteria (normal microflora) in the body.” (The word comes from the Latin word pro, which means “for,” and the Greek word bios, meaning “life.”) As you may or may not already know, there is a world that lives within us called our gut biome, the millions of bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our digestive tract, and help us digest our food. According to proponents of probiotics, many unhealthy aspects of contemporary life, including poor sleep, unhealthy food, too much alcohol, and especially antibiotics, damage the ‘good’ bacteria in our digestive systems, leading to a host of health problems. Therefore, the solution is to give the friendly organisms a boost, to help them do the jobs they’re supposed to do.
There is definitely some truth to these assertions, and science is proving the connection between an unhealthy gut biome and a range of physical and mental illnesses. When there is an imbalance in the gut microbes, it can create an issue called dysbiosis, which has been linked to obesity, IBS, celiac disease, and colon cancer. Other non-digestive diseases, such as liver disease, multiple sclerosis, inflammation, decreased immunity, and heart disease, have also been correlated with changes in the gut biome. Finally, since serotonin, the neurotransmitter that is responsible for our happiness and well-being, is produced in the gut, imbalances in the gut flora can contribute to anxiety and depression.
Here’s the catch to probiotics though, that’s important to keep in mind – the fermented foods that contain the most probiotics usually haven’t been pasteurized. Pasteurization, named after the French chemist who developed it, Louis Pasteur, is a process where foods are mildly heated, up to 100 °C (212 °F), in order to kill the dangerous bacteria that can thrive with them. While pasteurization has saved many lives since its invention in the 19th century, the tradeoff is that when you kill the “bad” bacteria, you also kill some of the “good” bacteria that live within those foods as well. When a food isn’t pasteurized, you’ll definitely get more of the good probiotics – but there’s a risk that the dangerous type of bacteria, such as E. coli, can also be present. In the case of kombucha, if it’s homemade in unsanitary conditions, there’s a risk of dangerous bacteria or mold developing in the brew, as well as a risk of lead poisoning when improper ceramic containers are used, because the fermentation process can pull lead out of the glaze. (However, if you’re buying store-bought kombucha, it’s generally safe for consumption, because it’s created in sterile conditions and proper containers.)
Scientists are still studying the full effects of probiotics, but they definitely seem to be a part of a healthy diet. In fact, research is beginning to show that probiotics may be a useful tool in the fight against acid reflux and GERD. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, “probiotic use can be beneficial for GERD symptoms, such as regurgitation and heartburn.” The only people who should avoid them entirely are people with suppressed immune systems, because it may increase their risk for infections. Also, while probiotics certainly can help repair your gut biome when you actually do need to take antibiotics, you should probably space out the intake of antibiotics and probiotics, 1-2 hours apart. If you’re getting your foods from a trusted grocery store, or taking an over-the-counter probiotic supplement, you’ll probably be a-ok… and maybe even a little healthier.
At Wonderbelly, we aspire to strike a happy medium between science and mother nature – that’s why we use the most effective ingredients pharmaceuticals have to offer while ensuring the medicine is clean label certified, non-GMO verified, vegan and all that good stuff. So go ahead and slap some sauerkraut and kimchi on that chili dog, and wash it down with some safely-made kombucha – and, of course, take a Wonderbelly Antacid, if you need help settling things down. We’d love to hear more about what you think, and about your own adventures with probiotics, here at the Spill Your Guts blog, and in our growing virtual community. What does your gut tell you?