You probably don't spend much time thinking about your microbiome, but it has profound effects on how your body functions. What, exactly, is it? "Biome" describes a community with its own unique location, characteristics, and forms of life. On earth, a biome could be a particular rainforest, desert, coral reef, or other distinct type of environment with its own climate, vegetation, and animals. In our bodies, the microbiome is a community of microscopic organisms-trillions of tiny bacteria that live in our intestines and influence just about every facet of health.
Antibiotics, poor diet, and toxins can all disrupt our microbiome by killing off beneficial bacteria. This can lead to common digestive issues and a variety of seemingly unrelated maladies, from skin conditions, foggy thinking, and food cravings to autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammation, and faulty metabolism that provokes weight gain and resists all attempts at weight loss.
To support microbiome health, probiotic supplements contain different types of beneficial gut bacteria. While they aren't a magic cure for a junk-food diet or a toxic lifestyle, when used correctly they can help restore balance to our microbiome, improve overall health, and even unlock the door to lasting weight loss.
DID YOU KNOW...
Fermented foods like kimchi are naturally rich in friendly gut bacteria.
"Gut bacteria have far-reaching effects on numerous aspects of our physiology, including genetic control-turning genes on and off," explains Raphael Kellman, MD, author of The Microbiome Diet. "They play a vast role in neurological function, gastrointestinal health, and the health of the gut wall, which plays a critical role in nutrient absorption and blocking absorption of toxins," he says.
And there's more. Our microbiome both regulates our immune system and helps it learn to distinguish between friendly and harmful substances, so that it attacks only the harmful ones. This is critical for avoiding autoimmune diseases, where the immune system attacks healthy tissues. In addition, says Kellman, "It plays a significant role in controlling cancer development."
Metabolism and Weight
Gut bacteria can help or hinder weight control. When balanced, they can eliminate cravings and improve metabolism, enabling healthy weight loss.
This, says Kellman, is how it works: An unhealthy diet leads to insulin resistance, where cells become insensitive to insulin and can't take in fuel in the form of blood sugar. As a result, the pancreas produces excess insulin, which leads to inflammation, fat storage, and weight gain. Plus, there's a rise in risk for diabetes, heart disorders, and other diseases.
"The gut bacteria, and some of the probiotics, can play a very important role in improving insulin resistance, inflammation, metabolism, and one's ability to lose weight," says Kellman.
Asparagus is a potent prebiotic that nourishes healthy gut bacteria.
PROBIOTICS: A gut-friendly diet includes foods that are naturally rich in probiotics. Kellman's top picks include:
- Sauerkraut made with live cultures (check ingredients).
- Kimchi, a Korean version of fermented vegetables.
- Other fermented vegetables, such as pickles made with live cultures.
- Kefir, a fermented milk drink, preferably from sheep's or goat's milk, which is easier to digest than cow's milk.
- Yogurt from sheep's or goat's milk, without added sugars. Yogurt with live cultures from nondairy milk is also available.
PREBIOTICS: These are foods that nourish beneficial gut bacteria. If you experience gas or bloating, Kellman recommends avoiding all grains and perhaps beans for a few weeks until symptoms subside, and incorporating some of these prebiotic foods into your diet:
- Jerusalem artichoke
Prebiotics such as inulin and arabino-galactans can also be found in supplements, but should not be taken if you're experiencing gas or bloating.
How to Use Probiotics
For a healthy gut, Kellman emphasizes the need to eat a whole-food (rather than processed) diet, and to include foods that are natural sources of probiotics and prebiotics, which feed beneficial bacteria (see "Gut-Friendly Foods," p. 18). When choosing probiotic supplements, look for a diversity of beneficial bacteria.
"You're dealing with a tremendous amount of synergy between the different bacteria and they work in fellowship,"
he says. "The number one priority is to improve the overall ecology." In a supplement, look for:
- At least three types of Lactobacillus, such as acidophilus, rhamnosus, and plantarum.
- Different types of Bifidobacteria.
- A daily dose of 25-50 billion CFUs (colony forming units).
Kellman recommends taking probiotics with food and dividing the daily dose into two or more servings, but they can also be taken once daily or without food.
For weight loss, after following the basic regimen for a few weeks, you can add Lactobacillus gasseri, a specific probiotic that aids with weight loss.
Take Your Pick
Probiotics come in all forms these days, and are also customized for individual health needs. Here are some of our favorites by category or type:
FOR WEIGHT LOSS:
Garden of Life
Dr. Formulated Probiotics Fitbiotic
FOR SENIORS & FREQUENT TRAVELERS:
Udo's Choice Adult's Probiotic
EXTRA DIGESTIVE HELP:
Digest Gold + Probiotics
Immunables Kids Immunity Probiotics
Chewable Acidophilus and Bifidum
Ultimate Flora Probiotic Gummies
ohso Probiotic Chocolate Bars