When I read that microorganism cells outnumber the human cells in my body by as much as 10 to 1, I was shocked. I’d heard that humans play host to colonies of bacteria but I never thought that there were literally billions of tiny organisms living in and on my body. I recently found out that the vast majority of these microorganisms live in the digestive system and play a significant role in your digestive and general health.
The fact that the bacteria in your gut contribute enormously to your health has sparked interest in how Probiotics can help promote and sustain optimal health. I never thought that microorganisms could be so important to me.
Probiotics are foods and food supplements that contain beneficial bacteria. These good bacteria are supposed to establish themselves in your gut and boost your health from there. The supposed benefits of probiotics include better digestion, stronger immune function, healthier skin, weight loss and protection against various diseases. Sounds great! With this range of benefits taking care of the helpful bacteria in your gut might be one of the most important things you can do for your health.
But how can you get probiotics into your diet? What benefits can you expect? And more importantly, which ones really work? In this article I’m going to talk about:
- what probiotics are
- how they can benefit you
- what are some of the more convenient ways of getting them in your diet
I’ll also give you a brief review of which brands and bacteria you can rely on to deliver results – and which ones you would do better to avoid.
Probiotics come in many forms. Fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir all contain beneficial bacteria and have long been respected as health-promoting foods. Probiotic supplements that contain specific strains of bacteria are gaining popularity. However, the title of today’s most popular probiotic has to be given to yogurt.
Yogurt is produced by allowing bacteria to ferment the lactose in fresh milk and turn it into lactic acid which gives yogurt its distinctive flavour. Many of these bacteria survive digestion and have been connected to a range of health benefits from better digestion to improved immune function.
There is plenty of evidence showing that probiotics have an incredibly wide range of health benefits from helping depression to heart health to immune system support and beyond. The probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum have been sown to relieve the symptoms of anxiety in people who have been diagnosed with depression. While this may seem hard to believe, the mechanism likely responsible for this is probiotics reducing systemic inflammation.
These probiotics are thought to reduce inflammation in the gut which in turn reduce inflammation in the brain. Similarly, probiotics reducing inflammation can also help with many skin complaints including acne, psoriasis, eczema and dermatitis. Perhaps the most interesting benefits of probiotics are their effects on weight loss and digestion.
That bacteria in your gut affects your digestion shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, after all there are billions of them in there! What is surprising (to me at least) is the range of digestive conditions that probiotics have been shown to help. The strongest evidence is of probiotics helping to cure diarrhoea that comes as a result of antibiotic use.
This makes intuitive sense: antibiotics are used to kill an infection, but they also kill the necessary natural bacteria in the gut. Your digestion won’t work normally until the good bacteria recover or get reinforcements in the form of probiotics. Probiotics have also been shown to help with IBS, and inflammatory gut diseases like Crohns disease and ulcerative colitis.
Given the growth of obesity worldwide over recent years, perhaps the most promising effect of probiotics is their influence on weight loss. Something truly startling is that obese people have different gut bacteria to individuals with lean physiques. This has lead scientists to hypothesize that our guts bacteria is very important in determining how lean or fat we are. The most impressive finding in this area of research is from one study in particular.
This study was conducted on a large group of obese individuals. Over the course of 12 weeks the people involved were given a probiotic supplement of Lactobacillus gasseri. Amazingly, they lost 8.5% of their belly fat mass as a result of the probiotic, as well as improving a range of other health markers. However, when the participants stopped taking the probiotic they regained all of their belly fat within one month. Clearly, probiotics can be helpful, they would need to be integrated into your diet over the long term for lasting effects to be achieved.
Probiotic yogurt brands
There are many ways of getting probiotics into your diet: from probiotic supplements to delicious foods like sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir. The most widely available probiotic food is without a shadow of a doubt yogurt. As well as being a source of good bacteria, yogurt is high in protein and an ideal breakfast food. These days, with more and more brands trying to appeal to health-conscious consumers, there are many options available when it comes to probiotic yogurts.
- Activia is a range of probiotic yogurts produced by Dannon. Activia is available in several favours including strawberry, vanilla, mixed berries and prune. Activia includes a variety of healthy probiotics comprised of Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Streptococcus thermophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis. This blend of probiotics is designed to improve digestive health and regular bowel function.
The big advantage of this brand is that it is so widely available. If you travel a lot or are unsure of which local brand to trust, Activia could be a good choice. However, as with any globally standardised food product some quality will have been sacrificed in order to produce a homogenous product.
- Yoplait Original. According to Yoplait, Yoplait Original contains a range of clinically proven probiotics as well as calcium and vitamins A and D. Lactobacillus acidophilus is the primary organism in Yoplait Original, although the yogurt does also contain a variety of other microorganisms. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center Lactobacillus acidophilus is the most commonly used probiotic. It works by contributing to the formation of substances that make your intestines unfriendly to harmful bacteria.
Like Activia, Yoplait Original comes in a wide variety of flavors and is available internationally. Again, like Activia, the disadvantage of Yoplait Original is that it is standardized for sale in many different countries and so won’t be of the same quality as a fresh, organic product that could not be traded internationally in the way that Yoplait Original and Activia are.
- Stonyfield Yogurt. One probiotic yogurt brand that’s closer to what I would recommend is Stonyfield yogurt. Their products are available in the US and are certified organic, which means that the producers do not use chemicals, herbicides, pesticides or antibiotics in accordance with US Food and Drug Administration standards, so you can be sure that the product is naturally top quality. Their live yogurt contains a blend of 6 probiotic bacteria: Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidus, Lactobacillus casei and Lactobacillus rhamnosus. The cultures from the Lactobacillus family are reputed to be beneficial in regulating the digestive tract.
Whatsmore, the Stonyfield yogurt flavours sound absolutely delicious. They include French vanilla, strawberry pomegranate, raspberry, key lime and peach. The disadvantage of Stonyfield is that, as an organic company, they are likely to be more expensive than Yoplait Original and Activia. But if you’re happy to pay the price Stonyfield is probably a better choice in terms of quality.
- Local Options. I can’t sample and review every probiotic yogurt company in the world, even though I would like to try. However, as a rule of thumb, smaller local producers of probiotic yogurt are usually the best options for people trying to gain some health benefits from probiotics. Look for companies that concentrate on making quality yogurt products rather than producing a wide range for a mass market.
Two great examples of companies like these are Yeo Valley from the UK and Glenisk from Ireland. Both companies produce great quality probiotic yogurt from organic milk, giving you the best chance of improving your health by eating their products. Another big plus is that they both produce a wide range of delicious flavors so you can really enjoy the process of doing your gut a favor.
If you can’t find any of these brands where you usually shop there are certain things you should look out for if you want to buy some probiotic yogurt.
- Firstly, as I already mentioned, products from smaller companies that concentrate on quality will make a better contribution to your health.
- Secondly, look out for yogurt that contains added sugar. Just because a yogurt has some probiotics does not mean that it will be healthy in every way. Flavored yogurts are a big culprit here, so if in doubt buy natural yogurt.
- Lastly, if a yogurt really has probiotics it should say on the packaging what strains of bacteria are used. Nobody is going to remember every member of the Lactobacillus family but as long as there’s something like that mentioned there are some probiotics present.
Yogurts are definitely the easiest way to include probiotics in your diet. It is a universal product and is pretty easy to add to a healthy breakfast. However, if yogurt isn’t your thing there are still plenty of ways of getting all the great benefits of helpful bacteria in your diet regularly.
Sauerkraut is a product made from shredded vegetables that have been fermented by lactic acid bacteria. Sauerkraut is usually made from cabbage although it can be made using anything from carrots to fennel bulbs. It has a delicious salty and sour taste and is a great side dish to have with almost any type of meat. It’s important to buy raw sauerkraut as pasteurization kills the valuable probiotics.
Kimchi is like a kind of asian sauerkraut. The traditional Korean dish is made from cabbage and spices giving it a spicy flavor. It contains the helpful bacteria Lactobacillus kimchii in addition to other bacteria from the same family all of which have been linked to digestive health. Like sauerkraut, pasteurization kills the bacteria in kimchi so finding a raw product is essential.
Kombucha is a drink of east asian origin made by fermenting tea with yeast and bacteria. There are many claims about the health benefits of kombucha but it has not been researched extensively. All the same, it contains probiotics and therefore likely has some health benefits.
Hearing how important microorganisms are to my health made me realize that I need to be taking better care of my gut bacteria. After all, they are taking good care of me! Probiotic yogurt, or other probiotic products, can be easily included in any diet and I think it is a good idea to eat some probiotics every day.
The science around probiotics, gut bacteria and human health is still at an early stage but we already know that the right bacteria can help digestion, weight loss and immune function. I can only imagine what else gut bacteria are responsible for. Until we know for sure, I’m going to keep eating high quality probiotic yogurts and sauerkraut as often as I can and I would encourage you to do the same.
If you have improved your health with probiotics please comment below and let me know how. Feel free to share this article with anyone you think might be interested.