When we think of probiotics, which work to restore the body's microbial balance, we usually think about yogurt.
Truth is, there plenty of other foods you can eat to stay healthy.
"Probiotics are 'good' bacteria that we all contain in our digestive tract, and prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as food for probiotics, helping them to grow," says Dr. Roshini Raj, a gastroenterologist in New York City. "Probiotics and prebiotics help maintain a healthy digestive system by controlling the growth of harmful bacteria and aiding in digestion. Thanks to their ability to reduce the harmful bacteria, probiotics and prebiotics can prevent infections in the digestive tract and reduce inflammation."
Choosing the right probiotic foods
So what should we add to our diets to keep our guts healthy? There are a number of fermented foods (dairy and non-dairy) that provide probiotics as well as prebiotics. Let's start with the top probiotic foods:
Kombuchais an ancient Chinese drink made of sweetened tea that’s been fermented using a colony of bacteria and yeast. It’s said to help prevent arthritis and other diseases.
Kefiris a dairy-based yogurt-like drink that has its origins in the mountainous Caucasus region of Russia. Millennia ago, pastoralists discovered the process of fermentation and the practice spread widely throughout the Mediterranean as a way to preserve grapes and dairy products beyond the growing season.
Sauerkrautis a finely diced sour cabbage dish that has been fermented by a wide variety of bacteria.
Kimchi is a Korean dish that’s a spicy, pickled or fermented blend of cabbage, onions and sometimes fish. It can be seasoned with garlic, horseradish, red peppers and ginger.
Miso soup originated in Japan and is typically made from fermented soybeans. It can contain up to 160 bacteria strains.
Kvassis a traditional Eastern European fermented beverage that’s made using black or regular rye bread. It’s often flavored with strawberries or mint.
Tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soybeans with a mold. It tends to be firm and chewy and has a slightly earthy taste.
Aged cheeses are generally cheeses that have been cured for longer than six months. These cheeses tend to have a full, sharper flavor.
These foods tend to be more popular outside the United States, but the trend has caught on in a big way, says Madeline Given, a certified holistic nutritionist in Santa Barbara, California.
"You can also add cultured dairy, such as creme fraiche or even raw and cultured sour creams and butters," Given says. "All are a great source of this good bacteria."
In addition to probiotic foods are prebiotic foods, which include whole grains, asparagus, leeks, onions, garlic, soybeans, dandelion root or Jerusalem artichoke, Raj adds.
What about supplements?
"Both diet and supplements are a good way to increase your daily intake of probiotics and prebiotics," Raj says. "However, if you want to add a supplement, it's always best to check with your doctor regarding the dosage and brands she recommends."
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) has a useful resource file on probiotic supplements that explains the pros, cons and unknowns.
A host of other benefits
And there are more reasons than your gut to reach for probiotic foods.
"Truly, a variety of differing good bacteria in the gut is great for one's immunity,” says Susan Schenck, a licensed acupuncturist and author of "The Live Food Factor: The Comprehensive Guide to the Ultimate Diet for Body, Mind, Spirit & Planet."
They're good for your brain, too.
"After all, 90 percent of the 'feel-good' serotonin originates in our gut," Schenck says.
In fact, we have 100 billion brain cells in our gut, says Lori Shemek, Ph.D., a fat cell researcher. "This is why our gut is considered our 'second brain,'" she says. "Our weight is directly linked to specific types of gut bacteria."
To get what you need, consider eating at least one prebiotic- or probiotic-containing food daily. "It doesn’t take much,” Shemek says. "Just one tablespoon of sauerkraut every day is all that is needed. Also, it only takes a couple of days to change gut health from unhealthy to healthy. Additionally, I recommend one daily probiotic, 15 billion and multi-strained."