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Nutrition Notes

Probiotics and their effect on health

Karen Lentner head shotNutritionist Karen Lentner

Have you ever heard that a healthy gut is the key to a healthy body?

Bacteria live throughout our bodies, and the millions of bacteria that live in our digestive system play an enormous role in our overall health. They help our digestion and absorption of food and nutrients, our brain health, and they also regulate our immune system and help fight infection. The mix of good and bad bacteria in our gut is different for everyone and may be affected by the types of food we eat, by stress, illness, lack of sleep, environmental factors, and medications, including antibiotics.

What can I do to keep my gut healthy?

Research has shown that a healthy gut has a balance of good and bad bacteria, and having several diverse bacteria is a good thing. Probiotics are beneficial, active, and live microorganisms that may help replace the good bacteria lost after taking antibiotics (why your doctor may tell you to eat yogurt while taking antibiotics) or consuming too much sugar. The term probiotic means “for life,” and probiotics are the good bacteria that help keep your body working the way it should.

Foods containing probiotics include:

  • Yogurt, buttermilk, and aged cheeses such as gouda, and bleu
  • Kefir, a fermented drink similar to a drink-style yogurt
  • Raw sauerkraut must be fermented with lactic acid bacteria; check the label as many do not contain probiotics
  • Kimchi, a fermented Korean side dish of vegetables, mostly cabbage, and a variety of spices
  • Kombucha, a flavored beverage produced by fermenting sweet tea with yeast and bacteria
  • Pickles, fermented with a salty brine, not vinegar; check labels for probiotics
  • Sourdough bread starter that contains Lactobacillus and wild yeast strains, making gluten more digestible
  • Miso, a paste made from fermented soybeans that may be added to soups, marinades, and dressings
  • Tempeh, fermented soybeans in a cake form, often used in stir fries, curries, or sandwiches

Most common probiotics include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium - look for live active cultures on food labels!

What about prebiotics?

In addition to probiotics, our bodies need prebiotics to help promote the growth of good bacteria in your gut. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fiber that feed and nourish the good bacteria in our gut and can reduce bloating and improve digestion and regularity.

Foods containing prebiotics include:
  • asparagus
  • garlic
  • raw apple cider vinegar
  • onions
  • legumes
  • apples
  • leeks
  • bananas
  • oats
  • barley
  • wheat bran
  • flax seeds

Try eating prebiotics and probiotics at the same time to create an environment where the good bacteria will survive. They may help treat conditions including diarrhea, constipation, IBS, eczema, symptoms of lactose intolerance, and allergies.

What about supplements?

If possible, eat a mixture of foods before taking a supplement. Supplements aren’t regulated as medications are, so quality and ingredients vary.

Keep your gut healthy!

Exercise regularly and focus on eating a healthy diet rich in probiotics and prebiotics daily or at least three times weekly!

Find more Nutrition Notes articles.

The Nutrition Department at LifePath manages the Meals on Wheels program and operates dining centers and luncheon clubs across Franklin County and the North Quabbin.