I'm a big fan of developing a more respectful relationship with the germs that live in and around us. After all, they help us with our digestion, immunity and metabolism, and without them we become predisposed to allergies as well as various chronic and autoimmune diseases.
We've discussed some of the best lifestyle strategies for improving your microbiome (such as opening a window, and playing outdoors), but since the majority of germs are in your gut, food can play a big role in getting more of the "good guys" down there to help out.
One of the best known probiotic foods is live-cultured yogurt, especially handmade. Read your labels, as many popular brands are filled with high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and artificial flavors and are way too close to being a nutritional equivalent of ice cream. As with most food, the most health claims made on the packaging means more marketing, not more nutritional value.
Miso is one the mainstays of traditional Japanese medicine and is commonly used in macrobiotic cooking as a digestive regulator. Made from fermented rye, beans, rice or barley, adding a tablespoon of miso to some hot water makes an excellent, quick, probiotic-rich soup.
Made from fermented cabbage (and sometimes other vegetables), sauerkraut is not only extremely rich in healthy live cultures, but might also help with reducing allergy symptoms. Sauerkraut is also rich in vitamins B, A, E and C.
Similar to yogurt, this fermented dairy product is a unique combination of goat’s milk and fermented kefir grains. High in lactobacilli and bifidus bacteria, kefir is also rich in antioxidants. Look for a good, organic version at your local health food store.
This is a form of fermented tea that contains a high amount of healthy gut bacteria. This probiotic drink has been used for centuries and is believed to help increase your energy, enhance your wellbeing, and maybe even help you lose weight. However, kombucha tea may not be the best fit for everyone, especially those who've had problems with candida.
Although this isn’t a food per se, it's great to add to your morning smoothie. Microaglae refers to superfood ocean-based plants such as spirulina, chorella, and blue-green algae.
Believe it or not, the common green pickle is an excellent food source of probiotics. The less commercialized the better, but most pickles will have some microbial value.
I wouldn’t necessarily call soy a health food any longer as it's mostly GMO. However, tempeh can be a great substitute for meat or tofu. Tempeh is a fermented, probiotic-rich grain made from soy beans. A great source of vitamin B12, this vegetarian food can be sautéed, baked, or eaten crumbled on salads.
An Asian form of pickled sauerkraut, kimchi is an extremely spicy and sour fermented cabbage, typically served alongside meals in Korea. Besides beneficial bacteria, Kimchi is also a great source of beta-carotene, calcium, iron and vitamins A, C, B1 and B2. Kimchi is one of the best probiotic foods you can add to your diet, assuming you can handle the spice, of course.
Poi is a staple food of Hawaii, made by mashing cooked taro plant until its consistency is liquid to dough-like. Poi hasn't been officially recognized as a probiotic food like these others, even though it contains more beneficial bacteria that yogurt. While poi is loaded with good germs, it's stirred up some controversy as there's currently no way to mass produce it in a way that's 100% sanitized. (In order to pass health and hygiene standards in America to prepare and sell anything, everything has to be 100% sanitized.) Too bad, because fresh, fermented poi is teeming with bacteria. In order to reap these benefits from po, you might have to fly to Hawaii to get it, which sounds fine to me!
Olives in brine have large amounts of probiotics because the brine allows the probiotic cultures to thrive. Snack on your favorite type of olive or add to a salad or pizza.
Delicious and nutritious – really! Dark chocolate contains probiotics and antioxidants to keep your stomach healthy and your sweet tooth satisfied.
Soy naturally contains some probiotic benefits, but new soy milk products on the market have added extra live cultures. Look for labels that say “live and active cultures” to be sure.
Soft fermented cheeses like Parmesan, Gouda and Swiss can contain “good” bacteria that are able to navigate the GI tract without breaking down. Probiotic cheese may be an especially wise choice for the elderly, as a 2010 study by Finnish scientists found that daily consumption of one slice of probiotic Gouda for four weeks increased beneficial markers of immunity. Another study found that Cheddar cheese containing probiotic strains of L. casei and L. acidophilus had ACE-inhibitory activity, which may help maintain healthy blood pressure levels.
The next time you make a sandwich, pay attention to what's holding your cold cuts and cheese. San Francisco's famous sourdough bread packs a probiotic that may help digestion.
Milk With Probiotics (acidophilus milk)
One of the easiest ways to get probiotics into your diet is by adding acidophilus milk. It's milk that's been fermented with bacteria. Sometimes it's labeled sweet acidophilus milk. Buttermilk -- usually milk that's cultured with lactic acid bacteria -- is also rich in probiotics.
Aside from being found in foods, probiotics come in supplements in capsule, tablet, powder, and liquid forms. Although they don't provide the extra nutrition that foods can offer, they can be convenient. If you're interested, talk to your doctor. If you're ill or have immune system problems, you may want to be cautious about taking probiotics.
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics
While probiotic-foods have live bacteria, prebiotic foods feed the good bacteria already living in your gut. You can find prebiotics in items such as asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, oatmeal, red wine, honey, maple syrup, and legumes. Try prebiotic foods on their own or with probiotic foods to perhaps give the probiotics a boost.
And other Fermented Foods…