You’ve probably heard how beneficial it can be to boost your probiotics intake with probiotic foods. Over the past decade, extensive research has been conducted on gut flora, a phrase used to describe the approximately 100 trillion bacteria that inhabit the human digestive tract. Since it can be challenging to visualize 100 trillion of anything, let alone tiny little organisms, it can be helpful to measure the bacteria population of your gut in other ways: for example, your gut flora accounts for approximately 7 pounds of your total body weight!
For optimal well-being, it’s essential to maintain a healthy, balanced gut flora population. In the simplest terms, you don’t want the bad bacteria to outnumber the good bacteria.
Probiotics are live bacteria that are either identical to or very similar to the good strains of bacteria living in your gut. Many foods naturally contain probiotics—more on that soon—and you can also find probiotic supplements for sale just about everywhere these days. Chances are, the drugstore nearest you offers at least one formulation.
Many experts believe that by eating probiotic foods, or taking probiotic supplements, you can boost the population of good bacteria in your gut, which benefits your health on a multitude of levels.
How Probiotics Improve Your Health and Well-Being
Remember the trillions of bacteria living in your digestive tract? They play a vital role in your overall health and well-being. They’re especially influential when it comes to the health of your digestive tract and your immune system. And cutting-edge research makes it increasingly clear that the state of your gut and your brain are intimately intertwined.
According to a study published in PLOS Pathogens, a peer-reviewed, open-access medical journal, bacterial microorganisms like probiotics influence human behavior so significantly that they could possibly be used to treat specific mental illnesses by modulating the “microbiome-gut-brain axis.” In other words, it’s possible that rather than relying on prescription drugs to navigate depression and anxiety, people could alleviate difficult symptoms by shifting the composition of their gut bacteria.
Eating more gut-friendly foods can rapidly improve your health in a variety of ways. That’s because the food you eat directly impacts the health of your gut bacteria. The nutrients you ingest fuel those bacteria, and different strains prefer different kinds of fuel.
A 2017 study found that changing your diet can dramatically alter the composition of your gut bacteria in just 24 hours. What’s more, eating specific foods has been linked to predictable changes. For instance, eating plant protein increases populations of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. That results in decreased inflammation, improved gut barrier strength, and a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and irritable bowel disease.
Try These 13 Naturally Probiotic Foods
Fermented foods naturally contain a wealth of probiotics, which quickly go to work healing any imbalances and optimizing the health of your gut. The process of fermentation has been used for hundreds of years to keep food fresh for long periods of time, and many cultures prepare traditional foods like sauerkraut and kimchi using various fermentation methods.
To amp up your probiotic intake, look for opportunities to work the following 13 probiotic foods into your diet.
This probiotic-rich beverage has a tangy flavor similar to yogurt, but unlike yogurt and other dairy products, people with lactose intolerance tend to be able to enjoy kefir too! Drinking kefir can even allow people with lactose intolerance to try other dairy products without experiencing stomach irritation, bloating, and gas.
A study conducted at Ohio State University found that drinking kefir “either eliminated or drastically reduced symptoms related to lactose intolerance.” Researchers believe this effect occurs because microbes in the kefir help your body properly digest lactose.
Kefir contains as many as 30 strains of good bacteria that can substantially improve your health on numerous levels, from fighting free radicals to enhancing the function of your immune system and more.
Plus, the fermentation creates a natural carbonation element that makes kefir delightfully fizzy.
Probably the most popular member of the fermented foods family, yogurt is made by mixing two strains of probiotics—Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus—into pasteurized milk. The bacteria produce lactic acid, which causes the milk to become thick, creamy yogurt.
Research indicates that probiotic yogurt can help to treat and prevent diarrhea, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, and even colon cancer. Plus, yogurt can have special probiotic benefits for women—it’s been shown that the live, active cultures in yogurt help balance vaginal pH.
Not all yogurts you’ll find in the grocery store are probiotic foods, however. Some yogurts are heat-treated after fermentation, which kills off the beneficial bacteria. Be sure to purchase yogurts with the phrase “live active cultures” on the label, and avoid varieties with added sugar—that will fuel the bad bacteria in your gut, essentially canceling out the good done by the probiotics.
By adding a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, known as a SCOBY, to green or black tea, you can brew a batch of kombucha, an effervescent beverage. Kombucha’s distinctive flavor can be divisive. Some adore it and others find it to be excessively vinegary.
Records reveal that for at least 2,000 years Chinese medical practitioners have used kombucha as a remedy for conditions ranging from acne, fatigue, and headaches to arthritis, hypertension, and cancer.
Few studies on kombucha’s benefits have been conducted with humans to date, but research done with animal subjects indicates that it can quell inflammation and reduce symptoms from diabetes, among other beneficial effects.
This fermented soy product has a dense texture and a funky, nutty flavor. It can be used in tons of dishes, from tempeh tacos to tempeh bolognese! And, of course, don’t forget about immensely popular vegan tempeh bacon.
Besides the probiotics it offers up, tempeh is an excellent source of protein and calcium. A single ounce provides 5.2 grams of protein and 3% of your daily recommended calcium intake.
The most familiar use for miso, to most Americans, is in miso soup, a common appetizer at sushi restaurants. But this gut-friendly food is made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, a traditional Japanese fermentation agent that generates rich, umami flavor.
Research has linked miso, which just so happens to be a complete protein, to improved digestion, a stronger immune system, and a reduced risk of several kinds of cancer.
You may associate sauerkraut more with ballparks than health food stores, but don’t let that stop you from reaping its probiotic benefits. Sauerkraut, technically speaking, is lacto-fermented cabbage. As with yogurt—and all fermented foods—pasteurization kills off the health-promoting compounds. When unpasteurized, however, it contains rich stores of Lactobacillus that increase populations of helpful bacteria in your gut.
Sauerkraut has been found to help individuals shed stubborn belly fat, supercharge immune system function, and more. According to a study done with mice and published in the World Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology, naturally-fermented sauerkraut can lower cholesterol levels too.
This spicy staple of Korean cuisine is made from salted and fermented vegetables, typically, napa cabbage and Korean radishes mixed with seasonings like gochugaru, scallions, garlic, ginger, and jeotgal.
Kimchi is already wildly popular in Korea—the average rate of consumption is 40 pounds per person, per year—and it’s catching on in the United States, too, thanks to its vibrant flavor and potent health benefits.
This fermented food is loaded with lactobacilli, which increase digestive regularity, help to prevent and halt yeast infections, and may even stop the growth of cancerous cells.
8. Green Peas
No, that’s not a typo. According to research conducted by a team of Japanese scientists and published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, green peas contain Leuconostoc mesenteroides, which testing revealed could survive gastrointestinal digestion and induce intestinal and systemic immune responses.
The authors believe that this strain of probiotics could be a promising means of protecting your mucosal barrier. One way to think of the mucosal barrier is as a second skin running through your digestive tract that acts as a first line of defense against toxins and other harmful compounds.
Plenty of olives don’t contain any probiotics at all, but salt-brined olives undergo a natural fermentation process. Olives are a great dairy-free, plant-based source of probiotics—specifically, Lactobacillus plantarum.
A review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that research done with rats shows that this strain of probiotics can improve liver health and immune function as well as reduce inflammation, and research done with humans indicates it can decrease bloating associated with irritable bowel disease as well as regulating the activity of compounds in the bloodstream.
Natto is yet another traditional fermented Asian food that science shows has serious health benefits. Natto has a mild, earthy taste and looks, according to a New York Times reporter, like “a mishmash of tiny brown jelly beans suspended in white goo.” Made from fermented soybeans, it’s a uniquely high dietary source of vitamin K2, which safeguards cardiovascular and bone health and promotes skin elasticity.
And, as you might guess from its inclusion on this list, natto contains formidable quantities of probiotics. Dr. Ann Yonetani, a Columbia-trained specialist in cell reproduction, believes the probiotics in natto can survive the high-acid environment of the human stomach and “colonize the intestine, where conditions are more welcoming.” That means you’re likely to get maximum benefits from them.
11. Beet Kvass
One interesting side benefit of the increased popularity of probiotics is that it’s led American consumers to products that were previously difficult if not downright impossible to find in the United States, like kvass.
Traditional preparations of kvass, a fermented beverage that originated in Russia, use stale rye bread to yield a bubbly brew similar to beer. Beet kvass, as you might guess from the name, uses beets as the source of starch and adds whey to speed up the lacto-fermentation process. The longer the beets are left to ferment, the more pronounced the flavor of the final beverage. And fermenting nutrient-rich beets amplifies their properties, so they improve your health even more than if you consumed them raw or cooked.
12. Apple Cider Vinegar
Unfiltered apple cider vinegar contains a “mother,” strands of protein, enzymes, and probiotics that give the vinegar a cloudy appearance and, according to some experts, is the source of many of its health benefits.
The most exciting benefits of apple cider vinegar identified so far have to do with its ability to balance blood pressure levels. The findings of one study showed that apple cider vinegar can improve insulin sensitivity following a high-carb meal and lower blood sugar and insulin levels. And another found it can also reduce fasting blood sugar levels.
Adding unfiltered apple cider vinegar to your diet can rebalance the pH levels in your stomach, stimulate circulation, and regulate lymphatic system function, which ensures cellular waste and toxins are flushed from your body. You can also enjoy this apple cider vinegar smoothie.
13. Dark Chocolate
This one may sound too good to be true, but research indicates that dark chocolate contains probiotics and prebiotics, making it a synbiotic food. Prebiotics feed the beneficial bacteria already living in your gut, making dark chocolate a doubly effective gut health remedy.
Findings presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society indicated that bacteria in the stomach transform dark chocolate—via fermentation—into anti-inflammatory compounds that improve both the health of your heart as well as your entire body.
American Chemical Society researchers recommend choosing a chocolate bar with a cacao content of at least 70% in order to access the maximum benefits, and to consume a minimum of 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder or 3/4 of an ounce of solid chocolate.