More and more lately I have been asked by patients if they should be taking a probiotic as these dietary supplements have been receiving a lot of media attention. There is good reason for this given the emerging research on the significant effects our gut health has on our overall health status; that being said, it is important to know what the research is saying about actual supplementation.
The gut microbiome, which is used interchangeably with the gut microbiota, includes the trillions of microbes in our body’s ecosystem, including bacteria, archaea, fungi and viruses. Our microbiota in fact has ten times more bacteria than human cells. The magnitude of our microbiome is staggering – the genes in our microbiome alone outnumber the genes in our genome by about 100 to 1 – wow! There are huge intra-individual as well as inter-individual differences in our microbiomes, though generally over time our microbiome is relatively stable.
Our understanding of how our microbiome relates to our health is a relatively new area of study and the research is in its infancy. What we do know is that our microbiome is associated with not just our physical health (including a link with improved immunity, gut disorders, metabolic disease, autoimmune disorders, and certain types of cancers), but our emotional and psychological health – for example there is an association between our microbiome and our mood regulation and outcomes such as depression and anxiety.
This may motivate us to ensure we have an optimal gut microbiome, and for good reason. We must understand, then, all of the different factors that affect the health of our microbiome, including but not limited to method of birth delivery (vaginal birth or not), our environment, hygienic factors, our diet, and even our exercise habits influence our gut microbiome. So diet alone is insufficient to significantly alter our microbiome.
That being said, there are dietary factors that can hinder or promote a healthy microbiome. Consumption of prebiotics – the nutrients our microbiome needs to flourish – is important. Fortunately we don’t need dietary supplements to achieve this as these ‘nutrition boosters’ can be found in natural foods containing non-digestible components known as fructooligosaccharides, such as inulin and galactooligosaccharides. These foods include bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans and whole-wheat foods (yes – whole wheat – gasp! Sorry…).
Probiotics are the actual good gut bacteria (aka live cultures) that make up a healthy gut flora. These are the components that infer immunologic benefits, may improve susceptibility to and improvement of symptoms related to allergies, improve lactose intolerance, as well as influence greater physiological outcomes such as metabolic disease and those listed above. Probiotics also occur naturally in foods included fermented dairy (yogurt, kefir, some aged cheeses) as well as other fermented foods like miso, kimchi, tempeh, kombucha, and sauerkraut.
Better yet, combine prebiotic-containing foods with probiotic foods – slice up a banana into some Greek yogurt, or add sautéed onions and garlic into a miso soup! This creates a synergistic effect of these nutrients – that is, combining these 2 groups of foods together has even greater health benefits than consuming them individually.
It is tempting to think that if some is good, more is better, and thus consumption of supplements containing pre- and probiotics is beneficial. Currentl wisdom is to only take probiotics if warranted for certain medical situations (including frequent consumption of antibiotics, or having a diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, for example). Otherwise aim to get these nutrients from foods. Dietary supplements are just not well regulated and we don’t always know what we are getting; plus research does not show benefits of taking pre- and probiotic supplements anyways.
So next time you’re at the grocery store grab a Kombucha (filled with healthy probiotics), or try may favorite tempeh and cauliflower recipes that combines both pre- and probiotics, and improve your all-too-important gut health! Recipe here: http://withloveandcupcakes.com/2014/09/16/tempeh-cauliflower-garlic-black-pepper/