What are Probiotics

With the start of 2016, the popularity and awareness of probiotics increased like never before. From drinks and foods, to hygiene products and digestive medicines, there are new products everyday containing probiotics. But what are probiotics? And is it necessary to buy special supplements labeled as "probiotic" to introduce these wonderful microbes into your health routine? 


All life has come from microbes, and all life on this planet needs microbes. Humans, as well as other animals, have something called a microbiome. This is the population of microbes that naturally lives on you and inside of you.

If you were to count cell for cell... the cells making up your body are only 10% human cells. The other 90% are microbial cells you carry around everyday.  When scientists were trying to sequence the human genome by collecting samples from the bodies of people all over the world, they found something unexpected. To sequence all of the DNA of the human body, the DNA had to be collected. So they started pulling DNA from saliva samples, stool samples, skin samples, mucus samples etc. from many different humans in many different places. Weird thing is... 90% of the DNA that they were collecting out of the samples wasn't human. It was microbial! Amazing right? On your body right now, gene for gene, you are only about 10% human. The rest of the DNA on your body is from lovely microbes. 

 The human microbiome has a natural healthy balance, and many factors influence the composition of an individual's microbiome. Everything from diet and exercise, to the soap you use, to how much time you spend enjoying the outdoors, influences what microbes are populating your body. Unfortunately, the makeup of your microbiome can easily be thrown off balance resulting in a not so healthy population of microbes. A bout of the stomach flu, the use of antibiotics, bathing with harsh soaps, eating processed food and not going outdoors enough can take a negative toll on the delicate microbial population you carry around. This is where probiotics come in handy. 

A probiotic is defined as a microbe, usually a species found in a healthy person's microbiome, that is introduced into the body for its beneficial qualities. When the good microbes of your body suffer as collateral damage from a course of antibiotics or a bout of the stomach flu, probiotics can help to restore them! Even if your good microbes haven't suffered mass casualties, probiotics are wonderful addition to a healthy diet and exercise. Having a high number of good bacteria in you and on you can even help keep bad microbes away! Think of it like this: if most of the room in and on your body is already occupied by good guys, then there will be no room for the bad guys to set up camp. 

There are plenty of sources of probiotics! Playing outside in the garden, eating fermented foods, driving with the windows down, or just visiting the farmers market are great ways to introduce some pretty awesome bacteria to your body. Probiotic supplements are also a wonderful way to get some more good bacteria in your life if you feel like you aren't naturally exposed to probiotics enough. Just be sure to look for a supplement that contains a variety of species. The more species rich a probiotic source is, the better. 

The most popular marketed probiotics are species in the genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. They are Gram positive, rod shaped  bacteria found in the gastrointestinal tract, vagina and mouths of healthy humans. Both species aid in digestion, can combat diarrhea, and promote a healthy immune system.  These species also play important roles in the fermentation of foods such as kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut and water kefir.

Eating a variety of wild fermented vegetables is the best way to introduce a rich population of probiotic species to your body. Fermented vegetables not only contain essential vitamins and nutrients that are crucial to health, but they contain the most natural form of probiotics, microbes that come from the soil in which the vegetables are grown.  Most importantly, the probiotic microbes in wild fermented vegetables are also acid tolerant, which makes them more adapt to survive the digestive journey... so they actually make it to the gut microbiome to become a part of it. 


Peace, Love & Microbes,

Kaitlynn Fenley