Hack #1: Probiotics, prebiotics and microbiome:
what they are and why they matter
When I started my functional medicine program a year ago, one of the things my doctor “prescribed” as part of my supplement regimen was a good probiotic. They aren’t the first to talk about this–the wellness and nutrition circles have been promoting the benefits of probiotics for many years. The general idea is that over 70% of your immune system resides in your gut, and you can fast-track your way to better health by taking good care of your gut’s microbiome.
The quick summary is that you can give your immune system a big boost with a few minor dietary tweaks and additions. It can be as simple as adding a few bites of fermented vegetables or a few sips of kefir to each meal. There’s a raging debate around probiotic supplements, so I’ll go over what I’ve learned about that as well.
Unless you are studying nutrition, the terms probiotics, prebiotics and microbiome probably aren’t part of your regular vocabulary so here are the basics.
Probiotics: A certain type of “friendly” bacteria and yeast that reside in your gut.
Probiotics represent the healthy (“good”) bacteria your gut needs to keep your body functioning at its optimal level. When the good bacteria in your gut is flourishing, lots of disease and illness can be avoided including obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression, just to name a few. There is also growing evidence that there is a link between your mental health and your gut.
In layman’s terms, you can think of probiotics as good bacteria that you can get from eating many types of fermented foods. Foods like yogurt, fermented vegetables, miso, kimchi and kefir are common examples of food that increase the number of desirable (good) bacteria in your gut.
Prebiotics: The food that probiotics need to thrive.
You need prebiotics for probiotics to do their job. You can think of prebiotics as fiber. Fiber is essential for your body to function at its highest level and for your probiotics to be effective. Without fiber, your gut health won’t be optimal, and you can waste a lot of time and money consuming good, but ultimately ineffective, probiotic foods and supplements. The easiest way to get fiber is by eating a wide range of plant-based foods. When you hear the word “prebiotics”, think FIBER.
Microbiome: the community of microorganisms living inside your body
Gut microbiome is a phrase you might start hearing more and more. It is the community of bacteria (good and bad) living in your gut. The goal of prebiotics and probiotics is to improve your gut’s microbiome.
How much, how often and how exactly?
There is a wide range of bacteria strains (over 500), and each person’s composition of these strains is unique to them. This means there isn’t a “one size fits all” solution, but there are general trends that are beneficial to almost everyone.
The common advice is to have a few bites of fermented foods with each meal, ideally at the beginning of the meal. Fermented foods include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, fermented vegetables, kimchi, sauerkraut and raw apple cider vinegar. For me, I eat fermented vegetables and apple cider vinegar daily and then supplement throughout the week with small amounts of goat milk kefir.
It is also worth noting you should check the labels when shopping for fermented foods. The processing of some foods destroys the probiotics. For example, if sugar or vinegar is added to the fermenting process for vegetables, they won’t be probiotic-friendly. Make sure to read the labels.
For those who want to take the supplement route, probiotic supplements can offer an even wider range of bacteria strains. There is lots of controversy about the effectiveness of probiotic supplements and whether the bacteria is “dead” by the time you take the capsule. The functional medicine team I work with recommends probiotic supplements that require refrigeration. I take the Vivomixx brand. You can do your own research, but I’d steer away from the non-refrigerated probiotic supplements.
I should add I don’t take these capsule supplements daily but every two or three days. If you are eating a wide range of fermented foods regularly and you aren’t facing a specific health issue, you can probably maintain good gut health without daily capsule supplements.
If you have a specific health issue, it is worth doing a bit of research to find the probiotic strain that’s best suited to address your concern. This article is a bit daunting, but it does a good job of giving a basic overview of what strains of probiotics benefit different types of health conditions.
There’s always the question of “how do you know if your probiotics are working?” From personal experience, the way I know is that I rarely get sick (maybe once every two or three years), my energy is high, and my mood is generally good. Is this from the probiotics? I don’t know, but it is probably from a range of lifestyle choices including the probiotics. With a tiny bit of focus, it isn’t hard to add probiotics to your daily diet so why not try it for a month or so? It might just be the boost your immune system needs. 🙂