Experience Life Magazine

Probiotics at Work

Your guide to making the most of your body’s beneficial bugs — for gut health, immunity, metabolism and more.


If you track nutrition news the way some folks follow fashion or sports, you’re already familiar with probiotics, which are quickly becoming one of the biggest food trends of the decade.

Our guts are filled with billions of good bacteria that help regulate our immune systems. When that bacteria is altered or destroyed by antibiotics, drugs and poor lifestyle, they can be degraded enough to cause disease and ill health. Probiotics can repopulate the gut’s healthy bacteria by adding billions of different strains of flora, thereby improving vitality and helping stave off chronic disease.

In 2011 consumers dropped $140 million on probiotic-laced foods (such as yogurt and kombucha) and dietary supplements. Sales in the United States are predicted to spike by nearly 50 percent by 2016. The surge is fueled, in part, by growing evidence that probiotics have the potential to help with ailments ranging from diabetes to obesity to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (For more on how probiotics optimize our health, see “Good Bacteria Welcome.”)

Simply put, says W. Allan Walker, MD, director of the division of nutrition at Harvard Medical School, “probiotics is one of the hottest areas of research in the world today.”

The problem is that the market is so flooded with options (naturally occurring probiotics in fermented foods; regular foods that are enhanced with bacterial cultures; powders, pills, tablets and capsules) that consumers can get overwhelmed and make bad choices.
That is why it’s important to be as informed on the subject as possible.

“Your gut is the center of your universe [and your immunity],” says Atlanta-based nutritionist and naturopath Deirdre Rawlings, PhD, ND, author of the upcoming book Fermented Foods for Health: Use the Power of Probiotic Foods to Improve Your Digestion, Strengthen Your Immunity and Prevent Illness (Fair Winds Press, June 2013). “You have the power to enhance or destroy it.”

Nourish Your Ecosystem

Eager to balance your gut and improve your immunity but overwhelmed by the options? Here’s a simple primer on how to buy, store and consume probiotics.

Seek out fermented foods.
Fermentation concentrates plants’ nutrients, especially B and C vitamins, and inoculates the gut with a host of beneficial bugs. The list of food options is long: yogurt, miso, tamari, sourdough bread and kombucha, for example, are all fermented foods that naturally contain probiotics. (For more options, see “Wanted: Good Bacteria” below.) “Sauerkraut is one of the cheapest probiotics you can buy,” adds Rawlings. Whenever possible, buy natural sauerkraut fermented in saltwater because foods preserved in vinegar (an astringent) can disturb the gut’s natural acid levels.

Be selective when choosing probiotic-enriched foods.
Only fermented foods naturally contain probiotics, but food manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon, sprinkling the beneficial bugs into a wide range of foods, like cereals, snack bars and bread. When probiotic cultures are separated from their original source and added to processed foods, however, their benefits may not transfer. Extreme temperatures are enough to kill many healthy bugs, so the advantages of probiotics added to baked goods and ice cream are questionable, says Walker. “In many cases, the public is being hoodwinked by food makers who are eager to capitalize on people’s desire to eat healthily.”

Buy and store probiotic-rich foods in glass jars or ceramic containers.
Avoid metal tins because they often contain aluminum, which can interact with the lactic acid in fermented foods and potentially create toxins, says Rawlings. And scratched or soft plastics may leach chemicals into your food.

Chill for longevity.
When refrigerated after opening, some fermented foods will keep for several weeks. Beneficial bacteria will multiply as long as the container is not contaminated (so never eat directly from the jar or double-dip). Live supplements will survive for months in the refrigerator; freeze-dried, even longer. Warning: If left unrefrigerated, certain probiotic-rich foods and drinks (like kombucha) can spoil, build up pressure and even explode their packaging.

Analyze your food and supplement choices.
If you are targeting a specific health challenge, such as digestive problems, you might opt for the probiotic supplements route. If so, be aware that the benefits of probiotics vary from strain to strain. For example, the strain that combats irritable bowel syndrome is different from the strain that prevents urinary tract infections. It’s a good idea to consult the supplement manufacturer about any supporting research, says Mary Ellen Sanders, PhD, an industry consultant who serves as executive director of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics. (See “Solid Evidence,” below, for more information about various probiotic strains and their benefits.) But if your main goal is simply to improve your overall health, you might be better off buying high-quality, probiotic-rich foods rather than a supplement, because you’ll get lots of macro- and micronutrients as well as beneficial bacteria. You’ll probably also save yourself some money in the process.

Buy the best supplements you can afford.
When considering your supplement options, keep in mind that probiotics are sensitive to temperature, moisture and oxygen — and the journey from factory floor to large intestine is a long one. Survival, and therefore efficacy, depends on how strains are cultivated, preserved, stored and handled. This is not the time to pinch pennies. “You can’t buy a six-dollar bottle at a big-box store and expect results,” says Rawlings. “When it comes to probiotics, you pretty much get what you pay for.” Check company websites for links to published research, consult integrative health professionals about their favorite brands, and buy from companies you trust.

Consider quantity.
The number of live microorganisms in a probiotic is measured in CFUs (colony forming units). Any supplement label should list how many live microorganisms are in each serving. Recommended doses range from 1 billion CFUs (to maintain a healthy gut, for instance) to 10 billion CFUs (for addressing specific conditions). Ideally, swallow probiotics on a full stomach when stomach acid levels are low to give probiotics their best chance at survival. Some experts counsel building up your levels of probiotics gradually to avoid any gas or bloating.

Increase your fiber intake.
In order for probiotics to do their job and flourish, they need a steady supply of fuel. That fuel comes in the form of a type of soluble fiber known as a prebiotic. The two most widely tested prebiotics have tongue-twister names: fructooligosaccharides (FOS for short) and galactooligosaccharides (or GOS). Ideally, you’ll take a combination of both prebiotics and probiotics (see “Wanted: Good Bacteria,” below, for food-based suggestions). Together the duo contributes to a balanced gut ecosystem that can improve nutrient absorption and help move matter through the digestive system. The happier your ecosystem, the faster your metabolism, and the lower the odds of weight gain as you age, says Rawlings.

Minimize your exposure to environmental toxins, medications and alcohol.
All three can damage the gut’s lining and can make it difficult for good bacteria to thrive.

Eat less junk.
Processed foods contain ingredients that irritate the gut and feed bad bacteria, making it harder for the good stuff to thrive. An occasional Happy Meal won’t do long-term damage, but ingesting processed foods like chips, cookies and soft drinks every day can inflame the gut’s lining and create small fissures between cell walls. The result? Particles of undigested food slither through the cracks and are then targeted by a full-scale immune response, which makes things even more inflamed. Like vermin, bad bacteria multiply. Eventually the bad bacteria rule the roost, weakening stomach acid, which slows nutrient absorption, and concentrating bile, which prevents the necessary excretion of toxins and hormones (like estrogen). This, in turn, increases your risk of nutrient deficiencies and hormone-related cancers.

like reading subscription ad

Catherine Guthrie is a health journalist living in Somerville, Mass., and a contributing editor to Experience Life.

Web Extra

Lesser-Known Probiotic-Rich Foods

Looking to expand your food options for probiotics beyond yogurt, buttermilk and traditional sourdough breads? Here we introduce six lesser-known probiotic-rich foods that you can buy or make at home.

  • Lassi


    Lassi is a traditional probiotic yogurt-based drink that’s made with water and often flavored with spices, fruit, buttermilk, sugar and salt.
    Where to Buy: Natural grocery stores and online. We’re fans of this one from Dahlicious.
    Make Your Own: Visit Epicurious.com for a simple Sweet Mango Lassi recipe.

  • Sauerruben


    Sauerruben is a fermented dish of grated turnips and sometimes rutabagas, similar to sauerkraut. It’s difficult to find in stores, but can be made at home.
    Make Your Own: Try this recipe fromTheSlowCook.com.

  • Brine Pickles

    Brine Pickles

    Most commercial brands use vinegar to pickle cucumbers, but brine pickles are naturally fermented in a brine of salt and water.
    Where to Buy: Some brands of naturally fermented pickles can be found in grocery stores, but are generally more expensive.
    Make Your Own: Try this recipe from Mark’s Daily Apple.

  • Natto


    Natto is a strong-smelling Japanese dish made from fermented soybeans that’s often served over rice. It contains vitamin K and nattokinase, a natural blood thinner that can prevent blood clots.
    Where to Buy: Natto is sold frozen in Asian markets and online.
    Make Your Own: Try this recipe from CulturesforHealth.com.

  • Kombucha


    Kombucha is a fermented tea drink made with bacteria, sugar, yeast and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of acetic acid bacteria and yeast).
    Where to Buy: Varying forms can be found at natural food markets, Target and online.
    Make Your Own: Try this recipe from CulturesforHealth.com.

  • Kefir


    Kefir, thicker than regular milk, is a probiotic health drink made by mixing kefir grains into sheep’s, goat’s or cow’s milk and allowing it to ferment for a day. Non-dairy versions are also available.
    Where to Buy: Natural food stores or online. We’re fans of this one from Tula’s.
    Make Your Own: Try this recipe from CulturesforHealth.com.

For a more complete list of both probiotic-rich and prebiotic-rich foods, see "Wanted: Good Bacteria."

Related Content



Good Bacteria Welcome

Find out why some internal bacteria are our friends - and why providing a happy, well-balance…continued



Fiber: Why It Matters More Than You Think

It’s famous for improving regularity and helping lower cholesterol. But dietary fiber also…continued



Functional Wellness, Part 3: Digestive Health

A well-functioning digestive system is the cornerstone of good health. Find out how the…continued


Gut Check

There's a whole universe of bacteria and fungi inside your body, particularly in your…continued

9 Comment to Probiotics at Work

  • Maria Perez says:

    What kind of probiotic would be better for me? I am lactose Intolerant and I have IBS, both. I am 62 years old.

  • Ken Walker says:

    Be careful of just buying yogurt, sour cream, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, Kombucha and other probiotic containing products without reading the labels. So many of these things have a lot of sugar in them to entice us to eat more because most of these products in their ‘home-made’ state have a definite sour taste (which can be an acquired taste). Manufacturers have figured out that it takes about 12 grams of some form of sugar to trip our craving triggers so we will be inclined to purchase more of their product. This could be said of an extreme amount of most canned, boxed, bottled products. Anyway, the best (personal opinion from all my research), cheapest and tastiest way of getting all the LIVE probiotics that you need is to make your own home-made (start with sauerkraut as it is probably the easiest and cheapest to make and 1/2 cup will have more live probiotics in it than a whole bottle of most over-the-counter probiotics). Google these to find out how to make them. It really isn’t that hard to do and you won’t have any of the junk that is put in some of these products to make them have better color, longer shelf life, sugar, etc.
    A word of CAUTION. If you are not used to consuming probiotics, whether in a liquid, solid or semi-solid food form go slow and easy when you first start to consume them as you could have some pretty severe gastrointestinal discomfort (called the Herxheimer Effect), especially if you make your own. What happens is your gut gets an over-load of all the good yeast/bacteria (that basically is what probiotics are)and they tackle all of the bad yeast/bacteria so fast that your body can have a problem of getting rid of all of the bad stuff, and could give you flu-like symptoms.
    Also, I rarely take antibiotics, but when I have to I eat/drink more probiotics than usual just to get my gut flora back to a healthy level. Antibiotics kills off most of the beneficial yeast/bacteria that was in my gut and unfortunately the bad-for-me yeast/bacteria is very opportunistic and will get a big jump start on their reproduction before the good yeast/bacteria does.
    Hope this was helpful

  • Asif Raza says:

    High intake of Junk food also effect the growth of friendly bacteria similarly use of Antibiotic regimen .

    Nice Article Indeed .

    Asif Raza

  • Wee Peng Ho says:

    Excellent information on probiotics and foods that contained them. I’m glad that you mentioned the importance of fiber to gut health. Not only are fibers a source of food for the bacteria, they also promote bowel regularity. While many people know that they need probiotics, either through fermented food and/or probiotic supplements, fiber nearly always don’t get the attention it deserves when it comes to supporting a healthy gut. Thanks!

  • Maragaret Hammargren says:

    Some strains of L. acidophilus have been studied extensively for health effects. Some L. acidophilus strains may be able to survive gastrointenstinal transit, being resistant to bile, low pH, and digestive enzymes. They may then be able to adhere to human epithelial cell lines and human intestinal mucus.’-..-

    Till next time

  • Yvonne Keeny says:

    What a great article! Thank you! I didn’t realize what an important role probiotics played in my recovery from fibromyalgia/CFS until years later. (I’ve been well for over 15 years.) I started a nonprofit to let other FM/CFS sufferers know that there is hope of getting their life back. See http://www.fibrocoalition.org for more information.

  • Great article and thanks for writing it, and interviewing me for it, Catherine!
    I’m very excited about using probiotics for health and healing because, they work [I can personally attest to this]

    I’m also excited to announce that my latest book was released today: FERMENTED FOODS FOR HEALTH: Use the Power of Probiotic Foods to Improve Your Digestion, Strengthen Your Immunity, and Prevent Illness

    Learn more about the healing power of fermented foods and my new book here: http://tinyurl.com/dywtkck

    Deirdre Rawlings, PhD, ND.

  • Cynthia says:

    Where does Yakult rank on the list of dairy sources?

  • This is a great article. I am a Holistic Health Consultant and Probiotics have been part of my diet for over 35 years. I am starting a new site http://www.probioticliving.con where I will be promoting a line of Probiotic Cleaning products for people, animals and pets. The technology is new in the US and well established in Europe.

    I have known that probiotic a good for the inside now we have products to keep the environment germ and allergen free.

    Cynthia Mittelsteadt
    (503) 303-5059

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

City and state are only displayed in our print magazine if your comment is chosen for publication.

Experience Life welcomes your comments and suggestions. We simply ask that they be on topic and respectful of the conversation. Here's our full comment policy.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>