We’ve all seen them, The famous actress over 50, the sassy girls at the wedding, spooning up yogurt and dishing about the health benefits of the special bacteria in there. They promise good digestive health, as they chat collegially about certain, ahem, issues they are having, down there.
Probiotics, the bacteria that are being pitched to you so vigorously in these charming marketing tools, are a vast population of tiny organisms that populate your digestive tract. They are part of a huge growth market, in part because of these high powered sales pitches, and in part because of good science. Unfortunately, buying pills and powders, or eating yogurt, may not be helping you at all.
To clarify, yogurt is just one of the foods that contain live cultures. Fermenting of foods is a natural action that we have been employing for centuries, by basically allowing things to decay a bit, as the ambient microflora population goes to work, or by seeding the food with a chosen bacteria. Fermentation breaks down foods and makes them more digestible, liberating both flavor compounds and health giving chemicals that you would not have been able to get before the bacteria went to work. Examples include sauerkraut and kimchee, beer, wine, chocolate, miso, soy sauce, tempeh, sourdough bread, black tea, cheese, and more. In most of these foods, the fermentation is either halted by killing the live bacteria, by heating it (bread and chocolate) or greatly slowed by cold storage (yogurt and miso).
For more on fermented foods, check out Sandor Katz website:
Foods in which the organisms are live have always been associated with good digestive health. The gut is populated with colonies of bacteria, a number of which actually do the digesting for you. Yes, there are foods that you cannot break down yourself, but you have a friendly group of microbes down there to do it for you. This is the case with the indigestible starch chains in beans, called oligosaccharides. The only downside is that the bacteria digesting your beans for you give off some gas in the process, so it is actually them who give beans their musical reputation. The upside is that the more of these bacteria you have in the gut, the lower your risks of colon cancer, so maybe the toots are not such a terrible thing.
The science so far is pretty solid on a few things with probiotics. Lactobacillus helps with diarrhea and constipation. A few of them help greatly with dermatitis. Claims are made that they build the immune system, and it makes sense that they would, but it’s still being studied. A big issue in all of this is that a study might find that a certain strain does something, but that is one of thousands and most yogurts don’t tell you with that much specificity what is in there.
Still in the age of antibiotics being given to livestock, probiotics seem like a good way to keep your gut populated with the right bacteria in between onslaughts. And for the general population just looking to stay healthy, they can’t hurt at all. But are all these little bugs something we should use to treat actual health issues?
Well, according to Gail Cresci, a dietitian and expert on probiotics from the Medical College of Georgia, Not Necessarily.
While ms Cresci is deep into the use of specific bacteria to treat specific imbalances, she cautions against a one size fits all approach. According to her, most of the supplements that people take are wasted, never delivering live cultures where they need to go. She cautions that antibiotics are a big problem for the gut, but also says something even more refreshing.
She says that what you eat to feed your bacteria is more important than supplementing. She recommends a balanced, real food diet, with 30% or less of calories from fat and less that 10% saturated, 25-30 gs fiber from whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and then some protein, preferably fiber rich plant sources like beans and nuts, and dairy if you can tolerate it.
So maybe it is less about buying powders and pills, and more about eating right? She must not be on the payroll of a supplement manufacturer.
So, eat plenty of fermented foods, especially with live cultures, to keep your internal populations flourishing, and to reap the many other benefits of fermentation. Vegans who don’t want to eat yogurt can eat other live culture foods. Check out kefir and kraut and kimchee. Don’t fall for ads that claim one brand of yogurt will save you. Eat a good, balanced diet that feeds your friends as well as you.