Maintaining good gut health isn't just about digestion—it gives you a stronger immune system, too.

By Betty Gold
February 04, 2020

Kombucha, kimchi, kefir… you know these foods are all fermented, and you probably also know that they’re good for your gut. But if you’ve ever wondered why or wanted to understand the science behind good gut health, you’ve come to the right place. We spoke with Raphael Kellman, M.D., a physician of integrative and functional medicine in New York City, to help us grasp the many pros of probiotics.  

How do probiotics work?

Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when consumed regularly, confer a health benefit. Bacteria in our gut can be problematic for our heath, but that doesn't tell the full story: bacteria can be beneficial, too. "The microbiome is our greatest ally," says Dr. Kellman. "I cannot stress enough the importance of eating a diet that will nourish and sustain a positive bacterial balance." After all, the human body is loaded with bacteria; in each of us, there are 10 times more bacteria than human cells, and 150 times more bacteria than DNA. 

According to Dr. Kellman, probiotics help to repair insulin resistance, lower inflammation, and increase brain function. Probiotics also help support digestive health and immune health. Having the right balance of probiotics in the body helps keep the not-so-good microorganisms from taking up residence. They act as an additional barrier, and when you consume probiotics regularly, you are continually giving your body a new dose of microorganisms to support your health. 

Do I need probiotics?

Everyone needs probiotics. "Research has shown that all roads lead to the health of our gut microbiome—our well-being depends on it," says Dr. Kellman. The microbes residing in our intestines are intimately connected to our mood, metabolism, immune function, digestion, hormones, inflammation, and even gene expression, he says.

The most effective way to make over your intestinal bacteria is by changing what you feed them. "Diet is key. It should include lots of fresh prebiotic foods with plenty of probiotic foods as well," he says. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, or miso are all excellent ways to get more of these good microbes—you just need to make sure you are eating some of these foods daily. Prebiotic plant foods like onions, garlic, leeks, jicama, sun chokes, and asparagus help promote bacterial balance by feeding probiotic foods, too.

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Getting probiotics in supplement form is another option, of course. According to Dr. Kellman, a probiotic supplement can help populate gut bacteria if you aren't getting enough from your regular diet. "But with so many options on the market, I advise consulting with a doctor who specializes in probiotic therapies before taking a supplement." He also emphasizes that changing lifestyle patterns to get more sleep, reduce stress, and finding moments of calm throughout the day will build a happy environment for our friends in the microbiome to call home. Stress is one of the prime drivers of leaky gut, slow intestinal motility, suppressed digestion, and absorption issues leading to GERD or acid reflux, he says. 

How much we should be getting for good gut health?

“When you look at food sources of probiotics, many of them contain on average somewhere between 1 billion and 10 billion microorganisms per serving,” says Maggie Luther, ND, Medical Director at Care/of. This means that if you do want to take a supplement and you’re looking for day-to-day support with probiotics, getting something in the 1 billion to 10 billion range will do you just fine. It’s also important to get a number of strains that include both the Lactobacillus species and Bifidobacterium species. The former works more on the small intestine section of your gut, and the latter works more in the large intestine section, so getting a supplement with both forms of probiotics will give you more comprehensive support, Luther says.

On the other hand, if you want to use probiotics for travel or during times when you feel you may want to increase the amount of probiotics going through your system (i.e., times of digestive complaints or immune challenges), Luther recommends using something with 25 billion to 50 billion. “However, there really isn’t a need to use these higher dosed supplements regularly—especially if you’re an all around healthy individual,” Luther adds.

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