Improve your gut and overall health by including probiotics in your vegan diet.
Gut health is getting all the attention in the wellness scene right now, and for a good reason.
Scientists now realise that the composition of the bacteria in your gut can determine how healthy or how ill you are. If you have a lot and enough of the gut-friendly species, you are more likely to thrive, but if you have more of the unfriendly species, you may suffer from a lot of digestive issues and chronic diseases.
The Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiome consists of certain bacteria, yeast and parasite species. You have ten times more bacteria in your gut than you have cells in your body, and those bacteria constitute 99% of the DNA in your body.
That technically means you are 99% bacteria and 1% human. Isn’t that mind-blowing?
The composition of your gut bacteria is determined at birth. The bacteria that colonise your gut if you are born via c-section is different to what you have if you are born vaginally. Breastfeeding also results in a different gut bacteria composition compared to bottle-feeding.
Babies that do not populate enough of the friendly bacteria can end up being very sickly with conditions like rashes, eczema and even asthma.
As you grow older, the food you eat, the drugs you take, the amount of alcohol you drink, and your stress levels also impact your gut microbiome. Your gut flora (bacteria) acts as an organ. They are, in fact, are a crucial component of your immune system. They play vital roles in:
- boosting your immunity,
- fighting off invading pathogens,
- impacting how you react to drugs
- determining whether you are overweight, underweight or a healthy weight
- determining how quickly you age
- absorbing nutrients from the food you eat
The Gut-Friendly Flora
The gut-friendly flora or probiotics consist of certain strains of bacteria and yeasts. Scientists have discovered that we have around 40,000 different types of bacteria in our guts. Most of these bacteria are from two families; Bacteriodetes and Firmicutes. The rest comes from the Actinobacteria and Proteobacteria families.
- Bacteriodetes: Bacteroides and Prevotella
- Firmicutes: Clostridium, Enterococcus, Lactobacillus, and Raminococus
- Actinobacteria: Bifidobacteria
- Proteobacteria: Helicobacter pylori and Escherichia coli
The main friendly bacteria species in your gut are the Lactobacilli, which reside mainly in the small intestine, and the bifidobacteria, which live in the colon. These bacteria are not always present in your gut; you have to get them through food.
Even when you get them from food, they only stay in your gut for up to twelve days at a time, so you have to eat foods that contain them regularly to ensure you have a steady supply.
The yeast strain, Saccharomyces boulardii is another essential component of your friendly gut flora.
How probiotics benefit and improve your health
Probiotics help to fight off infections. The Lactobacilli species, for example, produce various compounds that are toxic to harmful pathogens. They also make antibiotics that are toxic to a range of harmful bacteria including Staphylococcus, Clostridium, Salmonella and Streptococcus species.
Saccharomyces boulardii prevents the growth of harmful bacteria and parasites. It is particularly useful at inhibiting strains of E. coli, Clostridium difficile and Helicobacter pylori that cause disease. Saccharomyces boulardii also prevents diarrhoea, food poisoning and gut inflammation.
Probiotics may be useful in alleviating the symptoms of various conditions including asthma, eczema, flatulence, irritable bowel syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, high blood pressure and vaginal infections.
In addition to their immune functions, probiotics have various nutritional benefits. They:
- produce vitamin K, and many B-vitamins include B1, B2, B3, B5, and B12
- facilitate protein digestion
- enhance the absorption of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) from your food
- make antioxidants present in your food more available to your body
- produce essential fatty acids
Probiotic-rich foods and supplements
Fermented foods are naturally rich in probiotics. Such foods are usually fermented by culturing them with specific strains of bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Streptococcus and then leaving them to age for long durations.
Fermented foods are present in some form in many countries around the world.
West Africans, for example, ferment cassava to form foods locally known as gari and fufu. They also ferment locust beans to form iru. Asians ferment soybeans to form tempeh, soy sauce, miso, and natto. Note that most commercial brands of soy sauce and miso available in the US and UK are not probiotic because they are not made via the fermentation process. Even if they were fermented, they might have been pasteurised to kill bacteria.
If you want probiotic soy sauce or miso, you need to look for brands that clearly state on the packaging that it is unpasteurised and contains living organisms.
Kimchi is the result of cabbage and radish fermentation. In Europe, sauerkraut, raw vinegar, and yoghurt are common. Other probiotic-rich foods include kefir, kombucha, lassi (native to India), leban (native to Isreal).
Supplements are an alternative way to get probiotics in your diet if you cannot easily access fermented foods. Try to choose supplements that contain lactobacilli and bifidobacteria as they are the strains that occur naturally in your gut.
The amount of bacteria present in supplements varies across brands. Some offer as little as 1 billion while others provide over 25 billion. Don’t get too caught up with the number on the label; your prime concern should be whether or not the bacteria are living and therefore active.
Endeavour to check the expiry date on the packaging and choose brands that are well known and well researched. Better yet, get a recommendation from a registered dietician or a certified naturopath.
Supplements tend to cause bloating and flatulence if you’re new to them. It may be worth starting with a quarter of the dose recommended and then working your way up as your tolerance increases. If you find that you’re not tolerating them at all, stop taking them and get advice from your physician.
I hate swallowing pills, so I prefer to get my probiotics via food. You may have seen me rave about the Raw Supergreens Powder by Vivo Life. Apart from tasting delicious, it contains probiotics and a load of other beneficial micronutrients. I usually add half a serving to smoothies or merely dilute it in water and drink it.
Probiotics need prebiotics to thrive. The best supplements usually have prebiotics included in them. Inulin and FOS are the prebiotics traditionally included in supplements. If your supplement doesn’t contain a prebiotic, you can easily get them from food.
I will cover prebiotics in greater detail in the next part of this series. Stay tuned.
Do you get probiotics directly from your food or do you use supplements? Have you noticed any improvement in your digestive health?