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NIFS Healthy Living Blog

Choosing and Using Probiotics for Gut Health

Screen Shot 2020-07-21 at 12.20.41 PM“Take a probiotic; it helps with your gut.” We have all heard it from friends, doctors, and Registered Dietitians. Is it really that simple, though? It is no secret that probiotics really do help with a variety of gastrointestinal (GI) issues. However, did you know that there are specific strains of probiotics that help with specific symptoms, and while one strain may help with one GI symptom, it may not help with another? Not all probiotics are created equal, and not all supplements labeled “probiotic” will yield health benefits.

What Are Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms (tiny living things), mainly bacteria and sometimes yeast, and are intended to have health benefits when ingested. They are similar to the helpful microorganisms naturally found in the gut. Probiotics are found in supplements and fermented foods, such as Greek yogurt with added Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, kombucha, tempeh, kefir, and sauerkraut.

Do not confuse these with prebiotics, which are the food source for the “good” bacteria in our GI tract. Prebiotics are “a selectively fermented ingredient that allows specific changes, both in the composition and/or activity in the gastrointestinal microflora that confers benefits upon the host’s well-being and health.” They are carbohydrate compounds, primarily oligosaccharides, that withstand digestion in the GI tract and reach the colon where they then are fermented by the gut microflora, helping the good bacteria to grow. In short, they fall under the categories of soluble fiber and fermentable fiber. This is important, because even if you are taking a probiotic or eating foods rich in probiotics, you may not be receiving the maximum amount of benefits if you are not eating enough prebiotics (soluble and fermentable fiber). Foods rich in prebiotics include green bananas, onion, garlic, asparagus, artichokes, and leeks.

How Do Probiotics Work?

The human GI tract is colonized by many microorganisms, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, archaea, and protozoa. The totality of these organisms is known as the gut microbiota, microbiome, or intestinal microflora and can affect the health and disease state of a human. Probiotics typically work in the GI tract to alter the intestinal microflora, adding good bacteria to the microbiome. The mechanism of action depends heavily on the species and strains because different species and strains have different effects. Some of the known mechanisms include the following:

  • Inhibit the growth of some pathogens (microorganisms causing disease or sickness).
  • Help with vitamin synthesis (B vitamins and vitamin K).
  • Increase absorption of protein.
  • Reinforce the gut barrier, keeping food and other GI contents from leaking into the bloodstream.
  • Neutralize toxins.
  • Lower the pH in the colon, which could help speed up stool for those who are constipated.
  • Replenish good bacteria after taking antibiotics, which may help resolve diarrhea from antibiotics.

Probiotics and Gut Health

The gut microbiota is the center of much current research. Researchers are suggesting that an imbalance in the gut microbiota could lead to several health issues including immune dysfunction, infection, obesity, and GI problems. The imbalance can come from medical conditions, stress, and antibiotic usage (which destroys bad and good bacteria).

Using a probiotic to restore balance has been shown to alleviate symptom persistence in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) by 21% using both single-strain and multiple-strain supplements, with the mixtures being most effective. Studies also found symptom relief in ulcerative colitis, reduction in acute diarrhea duration and frequency, and lower risk of diarrhea from antibiotic use by 51% or clostridium difficile infection.

A healthy gut with plenty of good bacteria has also been shown to improve the immune system, combat inflammation, and potentially reduce bad cholesterol (total and LDL cholesterol).

Picking Probiotic Supplements

Remember, not all probiotic strains and species are created equal. Trying to figure out exactly what strain, species, and genus of probiotic will work for you and your needs can be tedious, because there are thousands upon thousands of variations. It may take some trial and error to finally find a probiotic that meets your needs.

The good news is that both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the most studied probiotic genera. There are several studies of strains from these two genera that have produced positive results. Below is a list of conditions with the genus and strain of probiotic that has shown promise in helping with the condition.

  • Acute diarrhea: Lactobacillus paracasei or Lactobacillus rhamnosus or Saccharomyces boulardii
  • Antibiotic-associated diarrhea: Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus
  • Overall symptoms of IBS: Bifidobacterium bifidum, Escherichia coli
  • Abdominal pain: Bacillus coagulans, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactobacillus plantarum
  • Bloating/distention: Bifidobacterium animalis, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactobacillus reuteri
  • Constipation: Bacillus coagulans, Bifidobacterium animalis, Oligofructose (prebiotics)
  • Lactose maldigestion: yogurt with Lactobacillus delbruecki susp bulgaricus and Strepococcus thermophilus
  • High Cholesterol and LDL: Lactobacillus acidophilus, a mixture of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis, Lactobacillus plantarum (more research is needed here)

If you are struggling with GI symptoms and considering a probiotic supplement, it is important to talk this over with your Registered Dietitian (RD) and primary care provider. They can help to identify the correct genus, strain, species, and dose you need.

Feed Your Gut

For those healthy individuals, you most likely do not need a probiotic supplement. If you really want to help your gut, follow these tips:

  • Eat foods rich in probiotics. When seeking foods with probiotics, the product must have active and live bacterial culture and indicate that on the label. A good rule of thumb is at least 1 billion colony-forming units or 1 billion CFUs, containing the genus Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, or Saccharomyces boulardii. Probiotic-rich examples include Greek yogurt, kombucha, tempeh, kefir, and sauerkraut. Be sure to check the label for the specific genus of probiotics(s) in the products, as they will differ. Also note that the starter cultures in Greek yogurt are Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus, but these are often destroyed by our stomach acid and offer no benefits. Get the Greek yogurt brands that add extra bacteria to the starter cultures (check the label).
  • Feed your probiotics with prebiotics to help the probiotics multiply in your microbiome.
  • Sleep at least 7–8 hours each night.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and body fat percentage.
  • Manage stress.
  • Balance your diet, keeping it loaded with fruits, veggies, lean proteins, fiber, and whole grains.

As always, reach out to the NIFS Registered Dietitian for nutrition help, including nutrition management of gut-related issues. We are here for you.

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This blog was written by Sabrina Goshen, NIFS Registered Dietitian. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: nutrition digestion gut health supplements dietitian probiotics dietary supplements

Gut Check: Digestive Health Boosts Your Immune System

GettyImages-997808980Fall is here and winter is nearly upon us, and that means that cold and flu season have also arrived. Have you noticed that some people just don’t get sick no matter what? Or maybe you have wondered why after being exposed to the same virus, one person gets sick while the other doesn’t.

The answer to that lies in your immune system and how strong it is. When you are exposed to bad bacteria or viruses, it’s up to your immune system to protect you from being infected. If your immune system is strong, your body will fight off the threat of sickness. If you have a weak or compromised immune system, you may end up sick. What you might be surprised to learn is this: The strength of your immune system is highly dependent on the condition of your digestive system.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Let’s Talk Microbes

Microbes live inside your digestive system. They are living organisms that affect your overall health. The protection that some of these organisms provide is beneficial to your immune system. The good bacteria recognize when illness-producing intruders enter your body; the organisms attack the intruders so that you don’t get sick. If you don’t have enough of the good bacteria in your gut, you will be more susceptible to viruses like colds and stomach viruses. You also may be at more risk for autoimmune diseases such as colitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease.

Although there is a large supply of these good microbes living in your gut, they can easily become diminished. If you have recently taken antibiotics, you have not only wiped out the bad bacteria, but also the good bacteria. Antibiotics are not selective in their destruction.

With that being said, antibiotics are not the only way that good bacteria becomes exhausted in your digestive system. For example, the chlorine in your drinking water can destroy them, as can the pesticide residue on the food that you eat.

Once the supply of helpful microbes in your intestines dwindles, bad microbes such as yeast, fungi, and disease-causing bacteria begin to take over. Immune systems become compromised when the bad takes over the good.

Cue the Probiotics

If you think that your good microbes might be minimal, it is not difficult to remedy the problem. The solution is to take probiotics. These are the good microbes that you can consume in your diet. Once they have entered into your body, they settle in your digestive system and get to work protecting you from sickness and destroying the bad bacteria that might reside there.

The option of consuming probiotics in a capsule form is there, but you can also replenish the good microbes by eating yogurt. Check the label to be sure that the yogurt you buy says that it contains active cultures, which is the good bacteria that you need to eat.

It is important to act now and get a jump on this year’s cold and flu season. Improve your gut function and fight off illnesses by getting ahead of the game.

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This blog was written by Ashley Duncan, Weight Loss Coordinator. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: nutrition disease prevention immunity digestion gut health wellness viruses probiotics bacteria

Are You Eating Enough Fruits, Vegetables, and Other Whole Plant Foods?

GettyImages-1142790917“Aim to consume a diet that is high in fruits and vegetables.”

“Make half of your plate a fruit and vegetable.”

“Consume 5 to 6 servings of vegetables and fruits every day.”

This nutrition advice has been the standard from physicians, food and nutrition scientists, and even dietitians. However recent research is revealing that just as important as quantity may be the diversity of your diet. What fruits and vegetables do you pick up from the store on a weekly basis? Do you spend a significant amount of time in the produce section and fill your cart with plant foods? Or do you end up lingering for half an hour in the center aisles and packing your cart with processed food products?

The SAD Truth About the Standard American Diet

Check out these scary statistics… The standard American diet (termed the “SAD diet”) is often very high in animal protein, saturated fats, added sugar, and refined/processed foods. In fact, it is estimated that the average American consumes 32% of their calories from animal foods, 57% from processed foods, and only 11% from whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and nuts (Source: USDA). Three out of four Americans don’t eat a single piece of fruit in a given day, and nearly 9 out of 10 don’t reach the minimum recommended daily intake of vegetables (Source: National Cancer Institute)!

Promote Gut Health with Whole Plant Foods

To create a healthy gut microbiome (meaning the trillions of bacteria that live in your digestive tract), increase the variety of whole, plant foods in your diet. The American Gut Project found that individuals who ate 30 or more different types of plant foods every week had gut microbiomes that were more diverse than those who ate 10 or fewer types of plant foods every week. A healthful plant-based diet improves the health and diversity of your gut microbes and may help prevent conditions like obesity, heart disease, inflammation, and diabetes by turning the genes on and off that affect these conditions.

How to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

I often find myself picking out the same fruits and veggies every week, and this has made me stop and think about what’s in my shopping cart—if I bring it home, I will usually eat it! Freezing fruit and veggies is also a great way to make sure nothing goes to waste before it’s used. Below I offer some advice on how to add more plant foods into your weekly routine. I would also like to challenge you to see how many different fruits and vegetables you can eat this week—anything that is a whole plant food and that you eat a decent portion of counts. The goal is to not only increase plant foods in your diet, but also the diversity.

  • Aim to include a piece of fruit and one vegetable at every meal—including breakfast! Instead of a fried egg on a piece of bread, scramble the egg with spinach, mushrooms, or onions. For an even bigger impact, replace your egg with soy and make a tofu scramble.
  • Eat two meatless meals during the week. Replace your animal protein with beans or lentils, or try making your own veggie burger.
  • Make snack time a chance to shine. Skip the vending machine and bring carrot sticks with hummus, a piece of fruit, dehydrated fruit, or mixed nuts.
  • Try smoothies. Smoothies are a great way to disguise vegetables if you have trouble hitting your goals. Add spinach, kale, avocado, or celery to a smoothie. The strong flavor of the fruit hides most of the flavor of these greens and eliminates issues with texture many people face with avocado.
  • Ditch refined grain products like noodles, white bread, and white rice. Try spaghetti squash or zucchini noodles in place of spaghetti noodles, or try cauliflower “rice” in place of white rice. Instead of crackers or bread, use sliced cucumbers for crackers or Portobello mushrooms, peppers, apples, or lettuce for wraps/bread.

What I’m Eating

Here’s peek at my list of plant foods consumed over the course of three days. You’ll notice a lot of repetition, so by midweek I am still only at about 15 different types of plant foods. I have 15 more to go by the end of the week!

Sunday

  • Breakfast: Apple
  • Lunch: Lettuce, veggie sushi (asparagus, cucumber, avocado rolls)
  • Dinner: N/A (no veggies! Even dietitians sometimes eat just a bowl of cereal—oops!)

Monday

  • Breakfast: Rolled oats, banana, ground flax
  • Lunch: Roasted asparagus, grapes, avocado (on toast), roasted chickpeas
  • Dinner: Kale, red bell pepper, cherry tomato, carrots, roasted chickpeas (all combined as salad and topped with olive oil and lemon juice)

Tuesday

  • Breakfast: Rolled oats, strawberries, ground flaxseed
  • Lunch: Apple, kale, red bell pepper, cherry tomato, carrots
  • Dinner: Roasted asparagus, grapes

Stay tuned for updates on the “30 Plant Foods Challenge” here at NIFS—can we find a member who eats more than 30 plant foods weekly? Do you think you can do it?

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This blog was written by Lindsey Hehman, MA, RD, CD. To learn more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: nutrition gut health whole foods fruits and vegetables plant-based

Choose Foods That Naturally Detox for Healthy Eating

I’m sure you have seen or read about celebrities doing detox diets and cleanses before awards shows. Maybe you have thought about trying one of these crazy and wacky things yourself. Most of these diets are very low-calorie and can be dangerous if followed for an extended period of time.

Some foods that you probably already have at home, however, can help to naturally detox your body. These foods, along with a balanced-nutrition diet and exercise, can help you feel energized and refreshed again!

Lemon water: Lemons are high in vitamin C, which helps the body detox and burn fat. Also, citrus fruits are rich in the antioxidant d-limonene, a powerful compound found in the peel that stimulates liver enzymes to help flush toxins from the body and gives sluggish bowels a kickstart.

Cruciferous veggies like cabbage and Brussels sprouts: Due to the high amounts of fiber in these veggies, they help with gut health, kidney health, and liver health by keeping the body regular and removing toxins and waste. These foods also contain the phytochemical sulforaphane, which studies suggest may keep pre-carcinogenic cells from negatively affecting other cells in the body, so it supports healthy functions of all of your organs.

Artichokes: These green guys are high in inulin, which is a prebiotic that helps to form the probiotics (good bacteria) in your gut. This allows more nutrients to be metabolized and takes some of the work off of the liver. They are also high in cynarin, an acid that helps the liver to break down fatty foods.

Beets: This red root veggie is full of betacyanin, which has cancer-fighting properties, along with magnesium, iron, zinc, and calcium to help flush out toxins. This antioxidant also helps the liver and gallbladder eliminate bile from the body.

Ginger: Ginger is great for the liver because it helps to get rid of free radicals that have built up in the body. It also has been found to spike your metabolism and keeps your appetite in check.   

Green tea: Drinking liquids is always a wonderful and natural detox, and adding green tea to your water is extra helpful. It is high in catechin, a flavonoid, which speeds up liver activity and increases the production of detoxification enzymes.

Whole grains such as oats: Anytime you choose whole grains over refined grains you are certain to increase your amount of fiber, and oats are loaded with soluble fiber, which slows the rate of food absorption. This helps to promote healthy gut functioning and stimulates bile excretion by the liver. Also, the insoluble fiber helps to keep you regular, and which can then help you avoid bloating or constipation.

Skip the starvation detox diets and try some of these options the next time you feel like your body needs a cleanse!

What did you eat today? Don’t underestimate the role that proper nutrition plays in your health and fitness. Contact Lindsey Hehman lhehman@nifs.org or Judy Porter at  jporter@nifs.org for a nutrition coaching session.

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This blog was written by Angie Mitchell, RD, Wellness Coordinator. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.

Topics: nutrition healthy eating digestion clean eating fiber gut health