How do probiotics improve your health, and what makes for a good probiotic shake? We’re glad you asked, because we have the details on the health benefits of probiotics, plus delicious probiotic shakes you can try at home.
The Health Benefits of Probiotics
There are a ton of benefits that come from adding probiotics to your diet, whether as a supplement or in your usual protein shake. Probiotics are live microorganisms that are in the fermented foods we eat, like kimchi and sauerkraut. When consumed they join the beneficial bacteria you already have in your gastrointestinal tract.
Probiotics are often confused with prebiotics. It’s a simple distinction. Prebiotics are dietary fiber foods that feed your currently existing gut bacteria, while probiotics are the actual beneficial bacteria that will happily take residence in your gut. These bacteria then support your immune system’s functioning, improve your digestive health, and may even help you lose weight. Here’s how.
1. Immune Boost
Adding more beneficial bacteria to your gut flora is like gaining a whole slew of wellness warriors in your immune system’s army. There are good and bad bacteria living within you, and the more good you have, the better your chances of keeping the bad bacteria from overpopulating and making you sick. On top of that, the more good bacteria you have, the more antibodies your body can create, which move throughout your body killing harmful invaders before they can compromise your health.
This 2015 review found that probiotics helped reduce the likelihood of contracting respiratory infections and shortened the time they took to heal. In another study, researchers found that women taking the probiotic Lactobacillus crispatus had a 50% lower risk of developing UTIs. Yet another study showed that the probiotic Lactobacillus GG lowered the severity and the frequency of respiratory infections in children by 17%. This data indicates that probiotics are good for the health of human beings of all ages.
By maintaining a healthy gut bacteria balance, you can help prevent illnesses before they happen, and that includes digestive issues like diarrhea. Diarrhea is a frequent side effect of taking antibiotics due to the fact that antibiotics often wipe out your good bacteria along with the infection they’re meant to treat. It’s a necessary evil that can quickly be corrected by consuming probiotic foods like kefir, kimchi, or Greek yogurt.
Studies show that probiotics are proven to reduce the risk of diarrhea associated with antibiotic use (by as much as 42%), and they can help reduce the length of diarrheal episodes by about 25 hours—that’s over one full day of discomfort you can avoid. This is true in cases of travel diarrhea and more. Strains that are particularly effective in this area include Saccharomyces boulardii (the yeast), Lactobacillus casei, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus.
Diarrhea is a (hopefully) short and temporary digestive condition, but what about chronic digestive issues? Probiotics can also help conditions like ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and Crohn’s disease.
The success of strains Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are well documented in cases of mild ulcerative colitis, and the probiotic E. coli Nissle has been shown to be just as effective as medications in keeping the condition in remission.
Consuming probiotics can help keep the over 1 million sufferers with inflammatory bowel conditions in the United States healthy and comfortable for longer periods of time, and can even help save some lives. Probiotics have also been found to reduce the risk of developing severe necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening condition that impacts premature babies, by up to 50%.
3. Ease Allergies and Eczema
Probiotics can also help treat eczema in infants and children. Researchers administered probiotic milk to infants, which greatly reduced eczema severity. Children whose mothers consumed probiotics while pregnant were 83% less likely to develop eczema in the first 2 years of their lives. Likewise there is some indication that prebiotics may reduce the inflammation associated with milk allergies.
4. Brain and Heart Health
Here’s a probiotic benefit that may surprise you: improved mental health. Science has found a link between gut health and brain health, and researchers believe consuming probiotics can help improve mood and mental health conditions.
One review showed that Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains helped improve conditions like autism, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and overall memory. Specifically, one 2016 study showed that people who consumed 100 grams of probiotic-rich yogurt every day for 6 weeks had less stress, anxiety, and depression than those who did not. Similar results were seen in another 2016 study that found that 8 weeks of probiotic supplementation helped reduce C-reactive protein levels, an inflammatory marker, in people with depression.
Probiotics also improve heart health by lowering harmful levels of LDL cholesterol and improving blood pressure. Bacteria produces lactic acid that helps break down bile, preventing it from being absorbed into the bloodstream and contributing to cholesterol levels.
A review of studies shows that those who eat probiotic yogurt can lower their total cholesterol levels by 4%, while another suggests probiotics help to increase “good” HDL cholesterol levels, improving the body’s HDL:LDL ratio. HDL cholesterol helps to clean up smaller LDL particles before they can build up on the walls of the arteries, which in turns helps to keep blood pressure levels stable and lower.
5. Weight Loss
Probiotics can help you lose weight, including dangerous belly fat that crowds your organs and contributes to visceral fat (fatty deposits deep in your organs). They do this in multiple ways, including absorbing the dietary fat in our intestines, increasing post-meal satiety, and improving the effects of diets.
This 2014 study found that women who consumed Lactobacillus rhamnosus over a 3-month period lost 50% more weight than the control group. This was also found with the strain Lactobacillus gasseri, which helped reduce participants’ belly fat by 8.5%.
Ready to add probiotics to your diet? You’ve got several options: you could take a probiotic supplement, eat probiotic foods, and even add probiotics to shakes and smoothies.
Probiotics are found in the following fermented foods:
- Yogurt: Did you know yogurt is just fermented milk that contains lactic acid bacteria? You may be able to tolerate it even if you have dairy sensitivities.
- Certain cheeses: While just about every kind of cheese is somewhat fermented, they don’t necessarily contain live cultures. Check the labels on mozzarella, cheddar, Gouda, and cottage cheese to find out if they’re probiotic.
- Traditional buttermilk: This fermented dairy drink, nicknamed “grandma’s prebiotic,” has nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin B12, in addition to probiotics.
- Kefir: Made using either goat’s or cow’s milk, kefir is named after the Turkish word keyif, meaning “feeling good.”
- Kombucha: This fermented drink comes from black or green tea and can be made at home.
- Sauerkraut: You either love or hate the distinctly sour flavor of this fermented shredded cabbage dish, a lunch side favorite.
- Kimchi: A spicy Korean side that contains Lactobacillus kimchii for digestive health, kimchi is a mix of napa cabbage, Korean horseradish, and various seasonings.
- Tempeh: A vegan’s delight, this high-protein fermented soybean food boasts vitamin B12 (unlike unfermented soybeans).
- Miso: Well known in soup form, miso is a Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with koji, a fungus, which has been found to lower the risk of stroke and breast cancer.
- Natto: Like tempeh and miso, natto is a Japanese fermented soybean staple that contains Bacillus subtilis.
- Pickles: In the U.S, Canada, and Australia pickled cucumbers are just called pickles, but in Europe they’re known as gherkins. Whatever you call them, they can help with digestive health.
Probiotic Shakes and Recipes
You may already be accustomed to blending up your own mixtures of plant protein powder, coconut milk, and high-antioxidant fruits like blueberries to give yourself a healthy boost for the day or the amino acids needed for an effective workout. But have you thought about including probiotic strains into a nice chocolate shake?
There are ready-to-drink probiotic shakes available for purchase (we include probiotics in our VeggieShake blends!), and while many of them are non-GMO, vegan, and gluten free, nothing beats the natural flavors of real foods.
Key Ingredients for Homemade Probiotic Shakes
There are many probiotic foods that don’t really lend themselves to a tasty smoothie or shake, so here are the ones you may want to focus on when blending probiotic shakes at home, with recipes.
- Kefir: Its taste easily overwhelmed by the other ingredients and its consistency rich and filling, kefir blends easily into a smoothie-style shake. This recipe from registered dietician and culinary nutrition expert Jessica Levinson shows you just how easily kefir can be made into a Strawberry Kefir Smoothie for a quick probiotic boost.
- Cultured coconut yogurt: Kristina and Mitja at Vibrant Plate have a Vegan Probiotic Berry Smoothie recipe featuring a lesser-known probiotic yogurt, the kind made from coconut milk. This is especially valuable for those who are lactose intolerant but still wish they had a probiotic yogurt of their own—it exists! You can make coconut yogurt at home yourself, or buy it pre-cultured at grocers like Trader Joe’s.
- Kombucha: While kombucha has a distinctive taste that might be unpleasant in some smoothie combinations, the right recipe can incorporate it perfectly. Here’s a Kombucha Smoothie recipe from mom and food maven Olena Osipov at ifoodreal that mixes frozen fruit, unsweetened almond milk, a honey or syrup of choice, and fizzy kombucha into a fast, refreshing pick-me-up for you and your gut health.
- Whey: Here’s a creative use of the probiotic cultures in whey from Cultures for Health: whey ice cubes. By freezing portions of liquid whey blends, you have the perfect ingredients for an Instant Probiotic Smoothie whenever you need one.
- Probiotic protein powder: Perhaps the most convenient form of probiotics around due to a long-lasting shelf life, protein powder mixes that come pre-loaded with probiotics help you sort out most of the work of making a smoothie before you even start. Just combine with liquid and blend knowing you have a properly balanced probiotic shake in your hands.
- Dairy yogurt: Clearly liquid and softer forms of probiotic foods make for better beverages than trying to blend up sauerkraut or kimchi. We’ll leave you with our own favorite prebiotic yogurt recipe from the VeggieShake archives: Drink Your Greens Probiotic Smoothie. We’ve combined peaches, kale, almond milk, and plantains to ensure all the benefits of antioxidants like vitamin C from the fruit and vitamin K from the leafy greens. We also love blending with the dairy-free milk alternative almond milk, full of vitamins and nutrients. The probiotic digestive enzymes are courtesy of this shake’s key ingredient: yogurt. Blend it all up and you’ve got a creamy, rich smoothie and a happy gut full of health-giving probiotics.
Bring Bacteria Back
Sure, bacteria gets a bad rap, but we now know not all bacteria is created equal and there are good microbes keeping us alive and healthy. So eat up those probiotics whenever you get the chance!