What do Kombucha, Kimchi, and Kefir have in common? Yes, they all start with the letter “K,” but this isn’t “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader.” So what’s the real answer we’re looking for?

They all contain bacteria that are good for us. We call them “probiotics.”

Yes, despite their bad rap, bacteria can actually be good for you. Now that doesn’t mean you should ditch the Purel just yet. There are still plenty of bacteria that we try and avoid – Salmonella, Strep, Listeria…unfortunately the list does go on. But luckily, there are also some bacteria that play for our team and try to keep us healthy. Those are our probiotics.

You can think of them as little foot soldiers that live in our intestines and spend their time fighting battles for us, left and right. (I doubt any medical journal would quote that analogy, but just go with it…)

So what battles are they fighting?

For starters, they keep the peace within the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. They prevent inflammation and GI diseases related to inflammation, they keep the concentration of cancer-promoting materials in check, and they help us stay “regular.” (By “regular,” I don’t mean normal or mundane….catch my drift?)

They are also very beneficial to the immune system overall. They alleviate and prevent allergic reactions, improve oral health, and keep us from getting sick in general (think: flu, common cold, etc.).

To top it all off? Recently there has been some research that sees a role for probiotics in the world of weight management.

Sounds like a win-win, right? Load on the probiotics!!!

But first let’s discuss a few things.

There are all kinds of probiotics – choosing the right ones is important. Not everyone makes a good foot soldier. So too, not every strain of bacteria makes a good probiotic. The science on it is still relatively new, but there are definitely some good ones out there that have already been identified. (i.e. Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, L. reuteri, bifidobacteria, blah blah blah. You get the point)

Then, we have to feed our probiotics. You wouldn’t let your foot soldiers starve, would you? No, because then they wouldn’t have the strength to fight. Same thing here. We have to keep our probiotics alive so they can protect us.

What do we feed them? Prebiotics! (Someone smart must have come up with that one…)

Prebiotics are fibers that the human body cannot digest. So when we eat something that contains prebiotics, the prebiotics from that food are left intact in our intestines, which is exactly where the probiotics live. (Convenient, right?) Probiotics essentially feed off of the stuff that we don’t want. It’s like cutting off the crust of your bread and then finding someone who loves the crust – it’s a perfectly symbiotic relationship!

So where do we get these probiotics? And then where do we get the prebiotics to feed them?

Probiotics are found in fermented foods, like kombucha, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut and yogurt. Prebiotics are found in fibrous foods, such as leeks, onions, beets, fennel, some grains, peaches, and nectarines, just to name a few.

There are also supplements that contain both probiotics and prebiotics, BUT as with all supplements, regulation by the FDA is limited, so you never really know what you’re getting. My advice? Stick to the real thing: food! It’s nature’s finest.

Verdict:

Go out and load up your cart with some probiotics and prebiotics. Your body will thank you.

The caveat: Because probiotics are still a kind of bacteria, if your immune system is compromised in any way (read: very young or very old, sick acutely or chronically, or pregnant) consult your doctor before getting on board. Yes it looks fun, but your health is valuable. We’ve got one life and one body – we shouldn’t mess with it!

One (or two) last note(s):

These foot soldiers aren’t immortal. (Sorry, I can’t help but keep this analogy going…) Some may die, others may get hurt, and they’ll need reinforcements. What does this mean to you? Eating just one dose of probiotics and prebiotics isn’t going to cut it. They need to be a regular part of the diet to actually create a flourishing colony inside of us. Otherwise, they’ll eventually die out. 

Finally, you know how when we get sick with an infection we take antibiotics to kill the bad bacteria that are making us sick? Well, unfortunately those antibiotics don’t discriminate, and they kill off all the bacteria in our bodies, even our probiotics. So, you might be doing an amazing job at building up your probiotics, but once you take that round of antibiotics, you’re essentially starting at square one again. (I hate being the bearer of bad news, but someone’s gotta do it.) The solution? In the famous words of Tom Hanks, there’s no crying in baseball – so don’t sulk about it and jump right back on the bandwagon!

 

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