You may have heard a lot of buzz about gut health or digestive health because having a healthy gut is imperative to your immune system and your microbiome overall. Some food passes through the body and is excreted as waste, while other food is broken down and enters the bloodstream as nutrients for our body. An unhealthy gut means that the food that is broken down can ultimately turn into “bad bacteria,” while in contrast, a healthy gut regularly promotes overall wellbeing as well as a more powerful immune system and better immunity. One way you can encourage better digestive health is through fermented food, which is rich in probiotics or probiotic supplementation. Read on to learn more about probiotics and fermented foods, as well as the benefits and risks. 

What Are Probiotics?

There is a negative connotation for the word “bacteria,” but not all bacteria are harmful. Probiotics are live beneficial bacteria. Even without supplementation, probiotics naturally occur in your body as a combination of this “good bacteria” along with yeasts. Probiotics are a piece of the puzzle when it comes to your microbiome, which is essentially a combination of different organisms in your body. No two microbiomes are alike, and they are a mixture of protozoa, viruses, fungi and yeasts, and bacteria. Probiotics are bacterial microbes, and for most patients, they provide numerous health benefits when consumed, including strengthening the immune system. You can add probiotic microbes to your body in one of two ways: through fermented foods or probiotic supplementation.

Probiotic Supplementation vs. Fermented Foods

It is always preferable to get probiotics from the foods you eat, which rings true for other vitamins and minerals. For example, it’s more beneficial to get your vitamin C from orange or tomato juice or other vitamin C-rich foods and beverages, but sometimes it just isn’t possible to get your daily allowance, or what your body needs, through foods. However, while there are many benefits from eating fermented foods, there are benefits from taking probiotic supplements. It’s wise for most patients to add both to their diet and their supplementation. 

What Are the Gut Benefits of Fermented Foods?

Because fermented foods naturally contain probiotics, there are many benefits to their consumption. Fermented foods promote overall digestive health, and for some patients, fermented foods can decrease the symptoms associated with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), improving an overall quality of life. However, there are other benefits associated with fermented foods, such as:

  • Immune system booster. Gut health impacts your overall immune system, so having too much bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria can lower your overall immunity. However, probiotics can boost your immunity, helping you heal faster when you’re sick and reduce your risk of problems such as the common cold. Fermented foods also typically have an abundance of zinc, iron, and vitamin C—and these are all immune system boosters as well. 
  • Aids with food digestion. Consuming fermented foods helps break down food as you digest it, which not only can ease GI distress, but it helps get nutrients into your bloodstream more efficiently. Fermentation also helps eradicate antinutrients found in food, such as phytates and lectins. 
  • Mental health. Some studies have shown a link between some probiotics found in fermented food (Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum) to reducing anxiety and depression in some patients. 
  • Heart health. Additionally, studies have shown a correlation between heart health (lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol) and the consumption of fermented foods. 

How Do Fermented Foods Coincide with My Gut Health?

While eating fermented foods is generally safe for most, some patients may experience issues with their consumption. For example, some cultured foods include cheese and yogurt. Those with lactose intolerance shouldn’t consume dairy products, but they have other choices when it comes to fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha. Additionally, the high probiotic content can cause side effects for some, as probiotics can cause gas and bloating. This is especially true for fiber-rich fermented foods, such as sauerkraut or kimchi. It’s wise to keep an eye out for any sensitivities or intolerances as you consume fermented foods. Some types of fermented foods are listed below:

  • Sauerkraut
  • Kefir
  • Kombucha
  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Kimchi
  • Salami
  • Sourdough bread
  • Beer
  • Wine
  • Olives
  • Netto
  • Tempeh

While this isn’t an inclusive list, it’s a good beginning for those who want to eat fermented foods to improve their gut health. 

What Are the Benefits of Probiotic Supplementation?

Perhaps you’re not fond of many foods on the fermented food list, or you’re not getting enough probiotic microbes from the food you eat. Many people take probiotic supplements in the form of powders, capsules, pills, and liquid. These carry the same benefits as gaining probiotics from fermented foods, as they help aid with digestion and promote overall gut health. Taking probiotic supplements can also help alleviate constipation, and they may also help with the treatment of some conditions, such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), yeast infections, IBS, IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), and sepsis (infants). Probiotics are consistently the focal point of studies, so their efficacy in treating certain conditions is always being determined. 

Many patients decide to combine probiotics with prebiotic supplementation as well. A prebiotic is a complex carbohydrate, and they are considered a food source for the beneficial bacteria that reside in your gut. Essentially, they feed the good bacteria and aid in bacterial health. Prebiotics in foods can be found in resistant starches, in addition to other foods, such as garlic, dandelion greens, asparagus, onions, leeks, oats, barley, bananas, flaxseed, cocoa, seaweed, and wheat bran. However, prebiotics is also available as a supplement. Some supplements may be a  combination of prebiotics and probiotics, and these are known as synbiotics. 

Are Probiotics Safe?

Just as with fermented foods, some patients should take care when consuming probiotic supplements, and you should always consult your healthcare provider before beginning any supplementation. Generally, probiotics are safe; however, they may cause side effects for some, such as gas and bloating, which is completely normal. Typically, these side effects will dissipate over time. Some should proceed with caution when taking probiotics. This includes:

  • Sick infants. While probiotics can help in cases of sepsis in infants, you should always speak with your physician before giving probiotics to an infant. 
  • Recent surgical procedures. Probiotics can interfere post-surgery for some. 
  • Those who are critically ill. If you have a serious disease, it’s wise to consult your doctor before beginning any type of regimen, including probiotics.
  • Those with weak immune systems. If you’re currently receiving chemotherapy or any other treatment that can weaken your immune system significantly, take caution when it comes to probiotic supplements. 

Even though probiotics naturally exist in the body, in rare cases, they can trigger allergic reactions as well.  For more information on fermented foods and probiotic supplements, or if you need to be seen by a physician, contact Needham Gastroenterology Associates. We provide overall comprehensive and quality care for all types of gastrointestinal conditions and problems.