The gut flora consists of many different strains of probiotic bacteria that help us to digest our food and maintain a healthy immune system. Taking probiotic supplements can be helpful in increasing our natural population, but are there foods we can eat to encourage them and how does the effect of this compare to taking a supplement?
It is possible to encourage them naturally through diet and one of the benefits of this is that it allows a variety of strains to flourish, which is the most beneficial to health. Probiotic supplements tend to contain only a few strains, although some also contain prebiotics such as inulin or FOS (fructooligosaccharides), types of plant fibre that probiotics like to feed on, which supports other strains as well as the ones contained in the supplement. Consuming prebiotics in the diet helps to grow a healthy gut flora.
According to Dr Gary Huffnagle, prebiotics are naturally present as soluble fibres in legumes, unpeeled fruits and vegetables and in wholegrains such as oats and barley. Inulin and FOS are types of soluble fibre. Inulin is present in chicory, wheat and onions. Soluble fibre absorbs liquid so it’s important to drink plenty of water for the greatest benefit from the fibre and to keep your digestion comfortable. If you’re not used to fibre in your diet you may experience some temporary discomfort and wind, but this should settle down soon and can be minimised by starting with a low amount of fibre and gradually increasing it.
Fermented foods and drinks are a natural source of probiotic bacteria. A well known source is live yogurt and probiotic yogurt drinks. These can contain high levels of probiotics. Soya yogurts are available for those who cannot have milk. Other fermented foods include: some aged cheeses and cottage cheese, that have been produced by fermentation, rather than with enzymes; kefir, a fermented milk drink; sauerkraut, which is fermented cabbage; miso made from soya, grains and salt; and naturally fermented pickles. Huffnagle points out that many pickles sold nowadays are not true pickles, which should be fermented in salt water, but are soaked and preserved in vinegar, which does not give the same results.
A probiotics friendly diet can be combined with probiotic supplementation if necessary. Some IBS sufferers require very high doses of probiotics to relieve symptoms. There are probiotic products available for specific needs, but for everyday health a diet high in probiotics and prebiotics should maintain a healthy digestion, which is fundamental to other aspects of health.
Reference: Huffnagle, G. with Wernick S. (2007) The Probiotics Revolution Vermilion, London
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