When you hear the word “bacteria”, I’m sure you think of colds, disease, germs…whatever it is, I doubt it’s very pleasant or something you think you want more of. It may come as a surprise, then, for you to learn that the bacteria in your body outnumbers all the cells in your body 10 to 1, and to be clear, there are over 30 TRILLION cells in your body. The majority of this bacteria resides in your intestinal tract, and is often referred to as the “gut flora”.

Good or bad? Well, that depends. In our culture, with our processed foods, diet often lacking in fiber, and lack of traditionally fermented foods, not to mention our propensity to throw an antibiotic at just about anything and everything, the bad bacteria are often able to get a strong hold on our gut flora. In the ideal situation, the good bacteria is able to keep this bad bacteria in check. But, because we often lack the good bacteria or don’t feed it well to support its health, bad bacteria and an out of balance gut flora is pretty standard for the average American. Who cares, right? What does this bacteria have to do with anything?

Well, not only does healthy gut flora improve digestion, but it also has been shown to reduce the symptoms and flare-ups in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis), and keep H. Pylori bacteria in check, a bad bacteria known to promote ulcers and stomach cancer. Additionally, studies have found that some strains of the good bacteria aid in weight loss, reduce overall inflammation in the body, reduce depression and anxiety, and even lower total and LDL cholesterol, as well as assist in the management of eczema and dermatitis flare-ups. Finally, a healthy, balanced gut flora assists with a healthy immune system and immune response, keeping you healthier overall. Finally, the good bacteria have been found to reduce diarrhea and aid in the proper synthesis of some B vitamins and vitamin K, all produced in the large intestine. Whew! So where do I sign up for this good bacteria?!

Probiotics, which derive their name from the Greek work meaning “for life”, are actual live, good bacteria. The healthy gut has had over 400 different species of bacteria identified, making probiotics as diverse as our bodies’ guts. While there are certainly supplemental forms of probiotics (powders, capsules), there are a variety of food sources, as well. In general, I’m always and advocate of getting your nutrition from actual food rather than supplements. But, if you’re struggling to get the food sources in or have recently used antibiotics which kill off all bacteria, a supplement can be a good way to repopulate your gut with the good guys before the bad guys can dig in their claws. Probiotic foods are those that have undergone some sort of fermentation. In other words, the good bacteria has been allowed to grow and populate. While pasteurization kills off these beneficial bacteria, most manufacturers add back in the beneficial probiotics to the typical food sources, like yogurt and kefir. Other sources include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kefir water, kombucha, and traditionally pickled pickles/veggies (not pickled through the addition of vinegar).

So, moral of the story? You’ve got a ton of bacteria. Whether it works for good or for evil is very much a product of which type of bacteria you decide to cultivate. A probiotic supplement like the one Garden of Life or Florajen makes, can help repopulate your imbalanced gut, but making fermented, probiotic foods a regular part of your daily diet is the best way to support good gut health and reap the benefits of these mini microbes.

Aubrey Phelps, MS, RDN