PROBIOTICS ARE VITAL TO GOOD HEALTH

     Why are probiotics so important to our health?  It is easier to appreciate their significance if we understand what they are.  Basically, probiotics are health promoting bacteria in our intestines and other areas of our body.  In addition to bacteria, there are also probiotic yeasts.  We can think of them as good bacteria or good yeasts.  Good bacteria help break down food to make nutrients more accessible.  They also convert vitamins into forms that our body can utilize.  But they are essential to our health not only for the role they play in digestion.  Recent research has discovered that the good bacteria are also necessary in order to keep our immune system in balance.

     Science has discovered that the bacteria in our gut actually communicate with our immune system cells through chemical messengers that exchange information.  It’s a kind of language, the way they “talk” to each other.  When we don’t have enough good bacteria in our digestive system, primarily our intestines, it’s not only our digestion that can become compromised.  It’s our immune system as well. 

     The immune system’s function is to attack bacteria and yeasts (the bad ones) and viruses that can cause disease.  If it is not strong enough, it can’t do a good job of fighting them off.  So in addition to problems such as constipation, we might also be susceptible to frequent sickness.  That’s why when people have repeated courses of antibiotics without replacing the good bacteria, they can become more vulnerable to getting repeated infections in the future.

     Another problem with an imbalanced immune system is that it can attack things it’s not supposed to attack.  For example, with certain allergies, the immune system could be attacking food, pollen, dog or cat hair, or dust mites, which results in people getting allergy symptoms.  If the symptoms are serious, temporary relief may be called for.  But if the immune system can be better regulated, the allergy symptoms may not be as severe, which can reduce the need for medication.  The ultimate goal, of course, is to eliminate the allergic response altogether.

     The immune system is made up of particular kinds of white blood cells made mostly by our bone marrow.  They travel around the body through the blood and the lymph system.  The white blood cells attack the “bad guys” (disease-causing bacteria, viruses or yeast) and either destroy them at the site of the infection or carry them via the lymph system to the lymph nodes.  There the immune system works to destroy the “bad guys”. 

WHERE DO WE GET PROBIOTICS?

     Long before there were natural food stores with shelves full of probiotic supplements or grocery stores with probiotic beverages, our ancestors got theirs the old fashioned way, through their diet.  They ate fermented foods, and every culture had their own.  It was one way they preserved food before refrigeration.  Some examples are yogurt, sauerkraut, sour poi, kimchi (and other fermented vegetables), miso, tempeh, kefir, and kombucha.

      There are alternatives to kefir made from cow’s milk, including coconut water kefir and water kefir.  In addition, there are non-dairy yogurts:  coconut milk yogurt, almond milk yogurt, and soy yogurt.  With kombucha, which is typically made from black tea, most of the caffeine is consumed in the fermentation process.

     Vinegar can also be a fermented food, depending on how it’s produced and how long it’s fermented.  Tsukemono and pickles can be a source of probiotics, again, depending on how long they’re fermented and as long as preservatives are not added to them.  Most commercial products are not fermented long enough to produce probiotic benefits. Beer, wine, and liquor are also fermented, but the alcohol inhibits the growth of good bacteria.

WHICH PROBIOTICS ARE BEST?

     If you choose a food for its probiotic benefit, be sure to read the label carefully.  Preservatives such as sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate, and others are often added because they prevent bad bacteria from growing.  However, they also keep the good bacteria from growing as well.   Commercial products typically add chemical preservatives as a safeguard to extend shelf life.  But fermented foods don’t need preservatives to do that. That’s why they were fermented in the first place.  For example, I have never found preservative-free sauerkraut in regular grocery stores, but many health food stores do carry it.

     I think it is important to use both probiotic supplements and fermented foods.  Why not just take a supplement?  Many different species of good bacteria and good yeast die as soon as they are exposed to oxygen.  That makes it next to impossible to get them into a supplement because of the manufacturing and processing.  No supplements have those types of good bacteria, but they are available in fermented foods, where they are protected from oxygen within the food or the liquid.

     For treatment purposes, specific kinds of probiotics can be better for particular conditions.  In that case, supplements are helpful because a person might need a certain dose of a particular type of probiotic.  For example, C. diff is an infection in the intestines caused by a bad bacteria and there is one kind of good yeast that has been found to be helpful in its treatment, saccharomyces boulardii.

ADVICE FOR GETTING FERMENTED FOODS INTO PICKY EATERS

        Most picky eaters will eat yogurt.  Avoid commercial yogurts with added sugar, stick to organic plain whole milk yogurt, and then add your own fruit, honey, or 100% pure maple syrup.  If you or your child cannot have dairy, try coconut milk or almond milk yogurts and add fruits ornatural sweeteners.  If your child won’t eat that, you can spoon some yogurt into a small amount of sorbet or coconut milk ice cream. 

     Try coconut water kefir (e.g. Kevita) available at Safeway and health food stores – this is naturally carbonated and can be a replacement for soda.  If your child won’t drink it, you can dilute a teaspoon of the coconut water kefir in juice or a large amount of water.  Also, some parents have had success pureeing small amounts of sauerkraut or fermented beets or carrots (available at health food stores), and mixing small amounts into spaghetti sauce, soup, or stew after it’s cooked, so the heat doesn’t destroy the good bacteria.

FINAL THOUGHTS

     Some final words of advice when it comes to probiotics:  If you have sensitivity to dairy, choose non-dairy fermented foods.  If you aren’t currently eating many fermented foods in your diet, add them to your diet gradually – suddenly consuming high amounts of fermented foods can cause temporary loose stool as your body adjusts to the good bacteria.  If you have acid reflux, be careful about spicy fermented foods like kimchi. 

     If you have high blood pressure, you should use caution with salty fermented foods like sauerkraut.  If you have yeast/Candida overgrowth, limit kombucha to 1-2 times a week, as excessive consumption can sometimes aggravate bad yeast overgrowth.  Please be sure to check with your doctor.  And do eat a variety of probiotics rather than for example, just eating yogurt every day.  Each food has certain types of good bacteria, and we need a balance.