“Probiotics” (meaning “for life”) is the name given to microorganisms that live in our bodies—primarily in the intestines—keeping balance, cleaning the liver, and fighting infection.
The digestive system is not to be trifled with; everyone knows what it feels like when things down there don’t go well. “Gut health” is a term often used to describe how well your digestive system is operating. Optimizing gut health is crucial to living and feeling well.
Unfortunately, as is evident with the proliferation of disorders involving the digestive system (irritable bowel syndrome, gastroesophageal [acid] reflux, Chron’s disease, and cancers to name a few), our lifestyle and diet have proven detrimental to its regular workings.
The good news is that returning to a healthful diet can reverse or impede negative effects and damage. Probiotics have been successful in correcting inflammatory bowel disease, diarrhea, and food allergies; in addition, encouraging research into their prohibitive effects on colorectal cancer is ongoing.
In an effort to maintain digestive health, probiotic supplements have emerged and become very popular. The probiotics you buy in a bottle are bacteria cultured in a laboratory.
Most of them contain additives to preserve the bacteria or make them easier to pour or measure from the bottle.
Be wary of store-bought supplements: some contain additives like maltodextrin from genetically-modified corn and manufacturers are not required to list fillers on the labels.
If you supplement, look specifically for organic cultures. Adding pill or powdered supplements of any kind poses questions of efficacy and dosage.
Natural Source of Probiotics
The preferred source of any nutrient—of which probiotic bacteria are no exception—is organic, natural food. You can readily find probiotic yogurt and milk.
Dairy, however, is not a preferred source as digestive woes are often the result of its ingestion. Many people can still enjoy dairy without adverse effects and it can be a healthful part of your diet.
What you may not know is that fermented foods like sauerkraut contain exponentially more probiotics than milk products (100 million parts per 100 grams in yogurt vs. 10 trillion parts per 100 grams in sauerkraut!) or any supplement.
Note: The probiotic count of store-bought, shelf stable sauerkraut does not compare to home-brewed sauerkraut. You can easily make it at home with just cabbage, salt, and water.
How to Make Sauerkraut (Homemade)
Other Health Benefits of Sauerkraut
In addition to inherent probiotics created by the fermentation process, sauerkraut contains essential vitamins B1, B6, B9 (folic acid), C, and K; minerals calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and potassium; antioxidants; and indole-3-carbinol, a natural compound that is created when the cabbage is fermented, which has been shown to inhibit cancer.
Before modern refrigeration, foods were fermented to keep them from spoiling. Fermentation occurs under natural conditions and the process wasn’t lost on humans—we wouldn’t have beer or wine without it.
Fermentation breaks down the molecules of a food into a more basic form: bacteria convert carbohydrates to lactic acid and yeast turn sugar into alcohol.
With cabbage, salt draws water out of the vegetable and the lactic acid inherent in the cabbage is broken down into sugars, releasing other probiotic bacteria. Once all sugar has been processed by the bacteria, the fermentation process is complete and you’re left with a very healthy and tasty food to add to salads, soups, and meats.
If you have a dehydrator, you can press sauerkraut (mixed with whatever spices you like) into thin patties and dehydrate them, making delicious (and addicting!) crackers.
Your digestive system will thank you.