In a day and age where diet fads are common and superfoods come and go, it’s surprising to see that probiotic foods have remained relevant for years. If anything, interest in probiotic foods and their benefits has only increased over time.
What Are Probiotic Foods?
Probiotic foods are foods that contain living microorganisms that promote a healthy bacterial environment in the body. Probiotic literally translates to “for life,” which makes sense as probiotic foods have been used for ages as a means of maintaining good health and treating certain illnesses.
History of Probiotic Foods
Probiotic foods and their health value have been recognized as far back as the Old Testament, where one version of the Old Testament claims that Abraham’s long life (175 years) was attributed to the consumption of sour milk. It wasn’t until 1907, however, that there was actual, scientific proof of this connection.
Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff conducted a study on Bulgarians, specifically focused on their longevity and their consumption of probiotics. Metchnikoff was able to prove a correlation between a large consumption of probiotic foods and the healthy, long lives of Bulgarians. Since then, interest in probiotic foods has continued to increase, with spending on probiotic foods and supplements increasing as well.
Some of the most common probiotic foods include:
- Greek yogurt (with live cultures and no added sugars)
- Dark chocolate (cacao content of 70% or above)
- Authentic sauerkraut
- Fermented soybeans (natto and miso soup)
- Green olives
- Certain aged, soft cheeses (such as Swiss or Parmesan)
Our intestines contain healthy bacteria that help us digest our food and absorb the nutrients we need. Probiotics can be helpful in promoting the work of that healthy bacteria and provide many benefits to our bodies, including:
- Improve our immune function
- Protect against bad bacteria to prevent infection
- Improve our digestion and absorption of nutrients
- Treat or prevent diarrhea
- Treat or prevent irritable bowel syndrome
- Treat or prevent diseases like ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s, and H. pylori
- Help treat vaginal infections and urinary tract infections
- Ease skin ailments like eczema in children
- Prevent oral cavities
Not all probiotics work the same way in the body. For example, the probiotic that can help prevent oral cavities is different than the probiotic that helps treat skin ailments. There are various species and strains of bacteria in probiotics, but some of the common strains are derived from two species of bacteria:
- Bifidobacteria: In general, this species of bacteria is thought to help the immune system and prevent the growth of bad bacteria in the intestines. It is also believed to aid the breakdown of lactose in the body.
- Lactobacillus: This bacteria aids in the production of lactic acid, which fuels muscles in the body, increases the body’s absorption of minerals and helps control the number of bad bacteria in the gut.
Common Probiotic Strains
From the two species of bacteria, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus, come several strains of bacteria. The most common strains include:
- B. animalis: aids in digestion and fighting food-borne bacteria.
- B. breve: fights infection-causing bacteria, or yeast. It also helps your body absorb nutrients better by fermenting sugars and making fiber more digestible.
- B. lactis: helps with digestion and improves immune function.
- B. longum: helps break down carbohydrates in the body and can also help fight off free radicals.
- L. acidophilus: helps digestion, fights vaginal infections and can improve eczema.
- L. reuteri: It’s believed to help prevent tooth decay and help the digestive system.
Probiotics for Women
Both men and women can benefit from incorporating probiotics into their diet, but there are a couple of especially useful benefits for women. Probiotics can be particularly helpful to women in fighting off vaginal infections and hormonal imbalances.
Antibiotics, spermicides, and birth control pills can affect the balance of healthy vaginal flora. Certain microbes in probiotics can help restore and maintain that balance for women.
This benefit also extends to maintaining hormonal balance. Beneficial bacterial flora can regulate hormones, including estrogen and thyroid hormones, so taking probiotics that assist this bacterial flora can help prevent hormonal imbalances.