By Dr. Laura Pawlak
In a society of anti-bacterial warfare, who would imagine scientists touting the benefits of consuming foods fermented by living microorganisms?
The organisms are called probiotics, which means “for life.” Identified on the skin and within the body, these beneficial microbes are part of a community of healthful and harmful micro-organisms called the microbiota. Most probiotics are located in your gut, particularly the large intestine (colon). Probiotics aid the digestion and absorption of food, improve immune function, overpower harmful gut microbes, and rebalance the microbiota following antibiotic therapy.
Research continues to demonstrate the versatility of these friendly critters. Potential benefits of probiotics have been seen in the treatment of gut discomfort and diseases of the gastrointestinal system. Other benefits are treatments of vaginal and urinary tract infections.
Probiotics also release vaporous chemicals into the blood system. Scientists are investigating the healthful effects of these metabolic products throughout the body and brain — from fetal life through the elder years.
You can improve the number and diversity of probiotics in your gut. Eating probiotic-rich foods is the first way to shape the makeup of your intestinal microbiota. Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, kefir (a fermented milk drink), and some cheeses are major sources of probotics.
Consuming a variety of fermented foods enhances microbial diversity and potency. Include sauerkraut, cider, miso, tempeh (a soy product that originated in Indonesia), buttermilk — or yogurt and kefir made from nondairy sources. Grapes and grains, which are popular probiotics, can be fermented into wine and beer!
Another way to impact your gut microbiota positively is to eat foods that “feed” the probiotics in your gut. Called prebiotics, foods with a high-fiber content have a positive impact on the growth of probiotics, but not on the harmful bacteria. All plant foods contain fiber, but the fiber in whole grains improves the diversity of the probiotics — especially whole wheat and whole barley.
There is some evidence that good quality oils and certain nutrients in plants may also help probiotics to thrive. The typical Western diet — low in fiber and high in sugar, saturated fats, and processed foods — feeds harmful microbes. Probiotics are not associated with such negative consequences.
Although the fermentation of food and beverages is an ancient custom, the scientific analysis of the many probiotic species and strains is just now unfolding. In the future, healthful longevity will certainly include adding more friends (probiotics) to your gut and feeding them well (prebiotics.)
Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita. She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.” On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.