You’ve heard about them. They have probably populated browser adds on health sites or been discussed on your favorite health podcast. We’re talking about probiotics. As the importance of our internal ecosystems has grown to epic proportions in regards to research, so has the market for probiotics, live bacteria and yeast that is meant to keep our gut healthy.

While we know that they are good for us and that we most likely could benefit from probiotics, the newness of this burgeoning health trend makes it difficult to know how to incorporate them into our diet.

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Luckily, we’ve done the leg work for you! Here’s a comprehensive guide to getting you started on your probiotic journey!

With that said, before starting any new diet regimen, make sure to speak with a medical professional first!

Gut 101

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In order to understand why probiotics are so important, we first need to have a basic understanding of our gastrointestinal system — also referred to as the gastrointestinal tract, digestive system, digestive tract, or gut. Whichever you prefer!

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First and foremost, our gut is responsible for breaking down and absorbing all of the nutrients and water we consume. In order for the rest of our body to receive adequate nutrition, our gut must first process these nutrients from the food we eat and then distribute accordingly. Yet, due to recent interest and research, we’ve discovered that the gut is so much more than that.

Along with being the central nutrient distribution center, our gut is a “system of critical digestive organs [that] acts as a type of switchboard or communication center to and from the brain, and functions as one of the body’s frontlines in the fight against disease.” What makes up your digestive tract? This system of organs includes “the mouth, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver, gallbladder, small intestine, colon, and rectum.”

It’s easy to see how an issue with one of these systems may affect your entire body. In fact, a healthy gut is the key “building [block] the body needs to live, to function, and to stay healthy.”

What are Probiotics

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What makes a healthy gut? Healthy and diverse bacteria. This vast gut ecosystem, also called microbiota, “contains tens of trillions of microorganisms, including at least 1000 different species of known bacteria with more than 3 million genes (150 times more than human genes).” One-third of human’s “gut microbiota is common to most people,” the remaining two-thirds is a carefully curated composition of bacteria that is a completely “individual identity card.”

How are probiotics connected?

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Probiotics are good bacteria “that are either the same as or very similar to the bacteria that are already in your body.” Shouldn’t our bodies naturally have these good bacteria if they are essential for a healthy body? This is where research around gut microbiota gets a little complicated and it all stems from our diet. This is mainly due to the fact that not all bacteria are good for you. Recent research has found “that having too many of the ‘bad’ and not enough of the ‘good’ bacteria — caused in part by an unhealthy diet — can wreak all sorts of havoc on your body’s systems.” Signs of an imbalance or an unhealthy gut microbiota include digestive unrest — constipation or diarrhea — unwanted weight gain, certain skin conditions, and a broad array of chronic health conditions.

How does good bacteria help our bodies?

Essentially, they act as the bouncer to the rest of the body. For instance, good bacteria “such as lactobacillus can help us break down food, absorb nutrients, and fight off ‘unfriendly’ organisms that might cause diseases such as diarrhea.” Probiotics are also used not only to boost the diversity of gut microbiota, but as a supplemental treatment for the negative effects of antibiotics. While antibiotics help kill disease-causing bacteria, they unfortunately also destroy “normal bacteria in the GI (gastrointestinal) and urinary tracts.” Probiotics are theorized to help “prevent or minimize the death of good bacteria.”

Common Bacteria Strains and their Benefits

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When it comes to probiotics, there’s a lot to learn. For instance, there are hundreds of strains of bacteria that live in our body, therefore, different probiotic foods and supplements offer different strains. So, which strains do we need? Do different strains offer different benefits?

While it’s impossible to outline all of these bacteria strains, here are the most common and how they benefit your body.

Lactobacillus Species

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These are some of the most common probiotic bacteria strains which include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgarius, Lactobacillus reuteri, to name just a few common strains.

You’ll notice that the word “species” is included in the name. This is because there are actually many different species of lactobacillus. Yet, lactobacillus species are “friendly bacteria that normally live in our digestive, urinary, and genital systems without causing disease.” Most probiotics should have some strain of lactobacillus due to its many health benefits.

On top of helping diversify and improve gut microbiota health, “lactobacillus is used for treating and preventing diarrhea, including infectious types such as rotaviral diarrhea in children and traveler’s diarrhea,” as well as being used to prevent and treat diarrhea caused by antibiotics. This versatile bacterium doesn’t stop there, lactobacillus has also proven helpful for treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammation of the colon, Crohn’s disease, ulcers, urinary tract infections (UTIs), vaginal yeast infections, as well as skin issues — eczema, acne, canker sores, and blisters.

Plus, lactobacillus bacteria have been known to lower high cholesterol, help treat lactose intolerance, and boost the immune system. 

Bifidobacteria

Raw Purple Sauerkraut/One Green Planet

Similar to lactobacillus, bifidobacteria refers to “a group of bacteria that normally live in the intestines,” called lactic acid bacteria. This term — lactic acid — may be familiar as it’s a common bacteria strain found in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, and miso. Bifidobacteria offers many of the same health benefits as lactobacillus and are “used for diarrhea, constipation, an intestinal disorder called irritable bowel syndrome, for preventing the common cold or flu, and lots of other conditions.” With that said, more research is necessary to substantiate these treatments.

Saccharomyces Boulardii

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Saccaromyces boulardii is a bit different from bifidobacteria and lactobacillus. This one is “a yeast, which is a type of fungus.” Yeast is single-celled fungi that are essential in many processes, in particular, the digestion of food (especially sugar) to obtain energy for growth. This is why yeast is an integral part of fermentation. Saccharomyces boulardii is not a unique form of yeast but is actually part of the saccharomyces cerevisiae strain, which most of us know as baker’s yeast.

While it may be unique from the other forms of probiotics, saccharomyces boulardii treats many of the same issues such as various forms of diarrhea “including infectious types such as rotaviral diarrhea in children, diarrhea caused by gastrointestinal (GI) take-over (overgrowth) by ‘bad’ bacteria in adults, traveler’s diarrhea, and diarrhea associated with tube feedings.” Along with bifidobacteria, saccharomyces boulardii is also used to counteract, treat, and prevent the negative effects of antibiotics.

Bacillus Coagulans 

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Bacillus coagulans differs from the other probiotics in that it “produces lactic acid and, as a result, is often misclassified as lactic acid bacteria such as lactobacillus,” or bifidobacteria. When you’re selecting a probiotic, you may see the term Lactobacillus sporogenes (also called spore-forming lactic acid bacterium), which are both alternative ways of identifying bacillus coagulans. The production of lactic acid results in “reproductive structures called spores,” which is the main identifying factor between bacillus coagulans and lactic acid bacteria.

Along with the gastrointestinal health benefits that all probiotics share — treatment of diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel syndrome — bacillus coagulans has also been shown effective for treatment of Clostridium difficilecolitis — “excessive growth of ‘bad’ bacteria in short bowel syndrome. Bacillus coagulans have also been used for experimental use in cancer prevention and to “prevent respiratory infections and ramp up the immune system.”

Plant-Based Sources of Probiotics

Homemade Raw Sauerkraut/One Green Planet

Even with a healthy diet, you’re still not guaranteed to have a healthy microbiota. This is in part due to soil degradation caused by large agriculture and farming operations. Most of the food we ingest has far lower amounts of nutrients than it once had. Therefore, our bodies aren’t getting the same nutrient-rich products that help build a healthy microbiota.

This is where probiotic-rich foods play an integral role in gut health.

Along with selecting naturally probiotic-rich foods, take note of where you are sourcing your foods from. Purchasing fruits and vegetables from small, local farms is a great step in the right direction. Look for hydroponically grown foods — “growing plants in a nutrient solution root medium” — or even try your hand at a backyard garden!

Once you’ve found a reliable source of nutrient-rich fruits and veggies, here are a selection of particularly probiotic-rich options.

Sauerkraut and Kimchi

Potato Kimchi Pancakes/One Green Planet

Both sauerkraut and kimchi are essential plant-based, gut microbiota ingredients to have in your kitchen. With that said, these products don’t have probiotics, a large misconception. Why are they on the “probiotics” list? Sauerkraut and kimchi are “high in organic acids, which give food its sour taste and [supports] the growth of good bacteria.” While consuming probiotics is important, creating an environment where those good bacteria can thrive and multiply is just as important.

You can make your own sauerkraut — such as this Raw Purple Sauerkraut — and kimchi — such as in these Potato Kimchi Pancakes — or you can purchase these fermented staples, such as this Oregon Brineworks Organic Raw, Fermented Classic Sauerkraut or this no sugar added Madge’s Food Company Premium Vegan Kimchi.

Coconut Kefir

Presto 06300 Dehydro Electric Food Dehydrator/Amazon.com

Traditional kefir is a fermented product that has been made for thousands of years “from milk and fermented kefir grains.” The end product is slightly “similar to yogurt, but because it is fermented with yeast and more bacteria, the final product is higher in probiotics.”

For those of us who are would rather not consume animal products, there’s a great alternative. Coconut kefir! This dairy-free kefir is “made by fermenting the juice of young coconuts with kefir grains,” and it still has “some of the same probiotics as traditional dairy kefir [yet] is typically not as high in probiotics.”

Plus, you can make coconut kefir right in your kitchen! It’s best if you have a dehydrator on hand — such as this Presto 06300 Dehydro Electric Food Dehydrator —  pick up some vegan probiotic capsules — such as these Deva Nutrition Vegan Probiotic Capsules — and find yourself a coconut!

Apple Cider Vinegar

Green Tea Donuts With Crunchy Coconut Glaze/One Green Planet

If you don’t have a bottle of apple cider vinegar stored away in your pantry, it’s time to purchase some! This diverse vinegar can be used to reduce bloating, ease heartburn, aid in weight loss, control blood sugar and cholesterol, and even condition your hair and moisturize your skin. Plus, it’s a great ingredient, much like sauerkraut and kimchi, that build a friendly environment for probiotics to thrive. Raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar is made from “fermented apples, which contain pectin — an essential [nutrient] for good digestion.” This pectin also encourages “the growth of good bacteria.”

One of the best things about apple cider vinegar is its culinary diversity. This vinegar is excellent for desserts — like in these Green Tea Donuts with Crunchy Coconut Glaze, these Unicorn Chocolate Cupcakes, or this Healthy Banana Bread — health-conscious beverages — like this Peach and Lemongrass Shrub or this Rhubarb and Ginger Shrub Drinking Vinegar — and is an excellent ingredient for dips and dressings — like this Easy Sour Cream, this Spicy Chipotle Salad Dressing, or this Sesame Citrus Dressing.

Miso

Wakame Soup/One Green Planet

Miso is yet another miracle fermented food that also happens to be wonderful for your gut microbiota. This probiotic ingredient is “created by fermenting soybean, barley or brown rice with koji,” which is a fungus. The fermentation process for miso “takes anywhere from a few days to a few years to complete.” Miso can be added to soups and stews or used in place of animal-based spreads such as butter or cheese.

For more ideas on how to use miso, try a few of these plant-based, miso-rich recipes: Wakame Soup, Garlic Miso and Onion Soup, Miso Coriander Stir-Fry with Sweet Potato Noodles, or this Sunflower ‘Cheddar’ Spread.

Probiotic Supplements

Garden of Life Whole Food Probiotic Supplement/Amazon.com

Another great way to get your daily dose of gut-friendly probiotics is through supplements. With that said, not all supplements are created equal. First off, it’s important to find a vegetarian or vegan capsule. Always look for non-GMO, organic or both! It’s also a plus to find gluten, dairy, and soy free capsules. Next, you’ll want to identify why you want a probiotic — if you’re targeting a specific ailment or issue or if you simply want to boost your overall health.

Constipation Relief

Garden of Life RAW Probiotics Colon Care/Amazon.com

If you’re looking for something to get your digestive tract moving smoothly and regularly, then you’ll want to focus on probiotic supplements with B. Lactis, “B. longumS. cerevisiae and a combination of L. acidophilusL. reuteriL. plantarumL. rhamnosus and B. animalis.This Garden of Life brand RAW Probiotics Colon Care supplement will not only help with constipation relief, but it is also gluten and soy free, non-GMO, and vegetarian.  

Diarrhea Relief

Florastor Daily Probiotic Supplement/Amazon.com

On the other hand, if you’re suffering from the opposite issue and are looking for relief from diarrhea issues, look for “Lactobacillus rhamnosus GGLactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus.” If you’re symptoms stem from irritable bowel syndrome focus on “B. coagulansS. boulardii and a combination of several Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains.” Florastor offers a great supplement with a combination of these diarrhea fighting bacteria strains called Florastor Daily Probiotic Supplement. This supplement is gluten-free, non-GMO, and vegetarian.

Brain Booster

Hyperbiotics PRO-15 Probiotic/Amazon.com

For those seeking a probiotic that will not only improve gut health but will also relieve specific brain-related and psychological issues including “anxiety, depression, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and poor memory,” look for “Bifidobacterium longumBifidobacterium breveBifidobacterium infantis, Lactobacillus helveticus and Lactobacillus rhamnosus.” This vegetarian Hyperbiotics PRO-15 Probiotic supplement is a great choice to give your brain a boost.

Looking to boost your probiotic intake? We highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!

For more Vegan Food, Health, Recipe, Animal, and Life content published daily, don’t forget to subscribe to the One Green Planet Newsletter!

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