Our body’s gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) is a very active and complex system that plays an important role in overall health. Our gut microbiome, or the healthy bacteria that live there, helps the intestine in its role as a barrier, allowing nutrients to be absorbed while keeping toxins and pathogens from entering into the body. Maintaining a healthy microbiome enhances immune function, improves absorption of nutrients, reduces bloating, and much more.
Bacteria Are Good for Me?
Probiotics are live microorganisms (mostly bacteria, but also other microbes like yeast, too) that are either the same or similar to those found in the body that when consumed in adequate amounts may result in a health benefit. In other words, probiotics are "good" bacteria found in certain foods that help maintain the barrier function of the intestine and improve its immune response.
For probiotics to be effective they must be active or live cultures of bacteria. The most familiar probiotics are Lactobacilli and Bifido-bacteria, found mainly in cultured dairy products. Streptococcus thermophiles and Saccharomyces are other strains of bacteria more commonly found in fermented foods. One thing to keep in mind is that many specific species exist within these broad categories of bacteria and not all do the same thing or have the same benefits in all people.
While much work remains, the current research on the health benefits of incorporating probiotics in your diet is promising. The strongest evidence appears in the treatment of acute diarrhea and antibiotic-associated bouts of diarrhea by shortening the duration of symptoms, and in the treatment of atopic eczema. Other potential benefits of probiotics being researched include reduced symptoms of lactose intolerance, decreased risk of colorectal cancer, prevention of certain allergy symptoms, enhanced immune response, and management of irritable bowel syndrome.
How Can I Increase Probiotics?
The best way to increase probiotics is through food. Food sources of probiotics may include:
- Cultured dairy products—buttermilk, cottage cheese, kefir (a cultured or fermented milk beverage similar to yogurt), sour cream, yogurt
- Fermented vegetables—kimchi (a Korean fermented dish made of vegetables with various seasonings), pickled ginger, pickles (brine-cured without vinegar), sauerkraut
- Fermented soy products—miso (a Japanese food made by fermenting rice, barley, and/or soybeans with salt and fungus), natto (fermented soybeans), shoyu and tamari (types of soy sauce), tempeh (made from partially cooked, fermented soybeans)
- Others—beer (micro-brew), kombucha (fermented drink made with tea, sugar, and probiotic bacteria and yeast), wine, yakult (a Japanese milk-like product)
Including these foods on a regular basis as part of an overall healthy eating pattern can help improve your digestive health.
Probiotics are also available in supplement form, such as powders, creams, capsules, and suppositories. As with any dietary supplement, you should consult your health care provider before you begin taking a supplement. Anyone can consume the above-mentioned food sources of probiotics. However, unless prescribed by a doctor, supplements are not recommended for people with chronic health conditions, women who are pregnant or breast-feeding, and children. If you do consider a supplement, do your research! Supplements should define the specific strain of bacteria present, including the number of live cells or colonies (CFU, colony-forming units), a suggested dose or serving, storage recommendations, and scientific documentation of health benefits. While the research is promising, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any health claims related to prevention or treatment of any health problem for probiotics. Remember, probiotic supplements have different types of bacteria, and effects will differ from person to person; therefore, it is important to learn as much as you can from reliable sources of information.
Try kimchi (kim-chee), a spicy condiment made with fermented vegetables (mainly cabbage) and various Asian seasonings. It can be found in the produce section of most grocery stores. You can:
- Mix into rice
- Stir into soup, stew, or stir fry to add a different flavor
- Mix with pasta or rice noodles and top with chicken or sautéed shrimp
- Use as a topping on burgers, pulled pork, deli-style sandwiches, or pizza
- Add to omelets
Examine Your Choices
|Food||What I do now||What I plan to buy/change|
|Yogurt||Purchase any kind of yogurt||Look for live, active cultures in the ingredient list.|
Pork, Apple, and Miso Noodle Soup
Serving size: makes 4 servings, about 2 cups each
- 1 Tablespoon canola oil
- 12 ounces lean ground pork
- 2 tart, firm apples, peeled and chopped
- 2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
- 4 cups water
- 8 ounces udon noodles, preferably whole-wheat
- ¼ cup white miso (look for it near tofu in the refrigerated produce section)
Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook, stirring occasionally about 2 minutes or until done. Stir in apples and cook, stirring occasionally, until just beginning to soften, about 2 minutes more. Add broth and water; bring to a boil. Add noodles and cook according to the package directions, stirring occasionally.
When the noodles are almost done, carefully scoop out about ½ cup of the cooking liquid from the pan and combine with miso. Stir the miso mixture into the soup and remove from heat. Serve immediately.
Per serving: 406 calories, 27 g protein, 57 g carbohydrate, 9 g total fat, 2 g saturated fat, 2 g monounsaturated fat, 8 g fiber, 49 mg cholesterol, 767 mg sodium.
For this recipe, visit the Eating Well website
Adams, I. “FCS3-555: Probiotics Friendly Bacteria.” University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, n.d.
Duyff, R. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. 5th ed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017.
“Eat This For: Optimal Gut Health.” International Food Information Council Foundation, October 2017.
“Probiotics: In Depth.” National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, National Institutes of Health, October 2016.
Prepared by Sharon McDonald, senior extension educator and food safety specialist. Edited by Lynn James, senior extension educator.