There are 400 to 600 bacterial strains in the human intestine. These bacteria support many important functions in the body. Unfortunately, modern day life exposes us to external factors that damage the gut microbiome, such as:
- A diet full of sugar and refined foods
- Taking antibiotics
- Chemicals found in food and water
All these factors kill the good bacteria living in our gut, and make space for potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi to grow.
Fermented foods and drinks, such as yogurt and kombucha, are one way to get additional beneficial bacteria into the gut in order to rebuild and maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria. They have become popular over the past few years for health benefits such as improving digestion and supporting a healthy immune system. However, regularly eating fermented foods and drinks does not compare to taking a high-quality probiotic supplement.
In this blog post, we will discuss the health benefits of fermented foods and drinks and probiotic supplements. We will also discuss why taking a supplement is more effective than fermented foods in supporting a healthy gut flora.
Health Benefits of Fermented Foods and Probiotics
Yogurt and Kombucha are two of the most popular examples of fermented foods. However, the category of fermented foods and beverages goes well beyond yogurt and Kombucha.
Fermented foods are foods and beverages that have gone through controlled growth of bacteria or yeast via a fermentation process.During fermentation, microbial species such as bacteria or yeasts break down food particles like sugars into other products such as organic gasses or alcohol. When you eat yogurt or drink Kombucha, you also consume the live bacteria that led to the fermentation process.
Examples of fermented foods:
- Yogurt and dairy-free yogurt alternatives
Examples of fermented beverages:
It usually takes about two weeks to start seeing the results from probiotic bacteria. Benefits of taking foods with probiotics or a probiotic supplement can include:
- Better Digestive Health – One of the first positive effects of a high-quality probiotic is improved digestion. You notice this by a reduction in symptoms such as bloating, gas and stomach aches.
- More Regular Bowel Movements – Restoring the balance of beneficial bacteria in your gut helps regulate bowel movements. When the healthy balance of your gut bacteria is interrupted, this can easily lead to diarrhea or constipation.
- Improved Immune Function – 80% of your immune system resides in the gut. As a result, a healthy balance of gut bacteria plays a critical role in immune support.
- Increased Energy – Your body gets its energy from the nutrients in food. Probiotics help restore a healthy balance of good bacteria in your gut to support proper nutrient absorption.
- Better Mood – The gut produces some of the same neurotransmitters as the brain, including the happiness hormone serotonin [https://www.caltech.edu/about/news/microbes-help-produce-serotonin-gut-46495]. An imbalance in your gut bacteria and inflammation in your gut can reduce the amount of serotonin produced, thus negatively impacting your mood.
- Potential Weight Loss – Your gut bacteria influence your metabolism. They can also influence food cravings. Restoring a healthy balance of gut bacteria reduces cravings, regulates metabolism and improves nutrient absorption.
- Improved Mental Health – Gut bacteria produce many hormones and neurotransmitters that affect your mood. Changes in the composition of your gut bacteria can affect how these neurotransmitters are produced and sent to the brain. Low levels of serotonin and dopamine are associated with anxiety and depression.
Different Types of Probiotics
There are about 30,000 named species of bacteria. Only 400 to 600 of these species naturally occur in the human intestine.
Different probiotic sources contain different strains of these bacteria. Some of which are human strains, while others are not. An effective supplement should contain only human strains. Fermented foods on the other hand often don’t contain human strains.
The most common bacterial strains used in the fermentation process of yogurt are bacterial strains found in cow’s milk. These strains work well in yogurt, but they can’t settle down in the gut. Instead, they are temporary guests until your next bowel movement. This means that they cannot achieve the same health benefits as human bacterial strains.
Human strains, however, can settle down in the intestine where they can get to work to support your health. Some of the most well-known human bacteria species include Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus.
What is Kombucha?
Kombucha is fermented, slightly alcoholic tea. To make Kombucha, you start out with sugary tea, usually green tea or black tea. Then you add a scoby (“symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast”) to start the fermentation process. The tea and scoby are sealed in an airtight container and sit at room temperature to ferment for 7 to 10 days.
Some of the bacteria and yeasts from the scoby stay in the finished Kombucha, which is why it’s considered a probiotic food.
Advocates praise Kombucha for many health benefits, including improved digestion, immune system support, weight loss, reducing high blood pressure, and preventing cancer. However, very limited scientific evidence exists to support these health benefits.
Let’s consider some of the most well-known benefits of Kombucha:
1. Improved digestion: During the fermentation process, some bacteria and yeasts from the scoby remain in the Kombucha. The challenge, however, is that it is often difficult to know exactly how many bacteria and yeasts are in the Kombucha, and what species.
2. Kombucha can kill bacteria and yeasts: It is rich in polyphenols which are substances known to reduce the growth of undesirable bacteria and yeasts, such as Candida. However, Kombucha usually has high sugar content. Undesirable bacteria and yeasts love sugar, so drinking a high sugar beverage may actually do the opposite and feed these pathogens.
3. When Kombucha is made from green tea, it may aid in weight loss. There are several studies that linked green tea extract to weight loss. Once again, however, consider the high sugar content in many Kombucha brands on the market. The high sugar intake may be counterproductive to the potential weight loss benefits of Kombucha.
4. Kombucha contains antioxidants, which protect your cells from damage.
What is Yogurt?
Yogurt is produced when milk – or a non-dairy milk alternative – is fermented. This fermentation happens with the help of bacteria. In cow’s milk yogurt, the bacteria strains used for the fermentation are usually “milk specific” bacteria (i.e., bacteria that are viable, active and abundant in the milk).
Yogurt is often praised for its high amount of calcium and protein, as well as its positive impact on digestive health due to the probiotic bacteria in the yogurt.
However, traditional cow’s milk yogurt also contains lactose. Approximately 65% of the world’s adult population is lactose intolerant. Eating dairy might result in gas, bloating and diarrhea.
Beware of the added sugars and artificial sweeteners in many yogurts. Sugars and artificial sweeteners disrupt the healthy balance of gut bacteria and even feed the growth of potentially harmful bacteria and yeasts in your gut.
Comparing Kombucha and Yogurt
Food vs. beverage: The most obvious difference is that yogurt is a food, whereas Kombucha is a beverage. Depending on your preferences, one might work better for you than another.
Vegan and lactose-free: Kombucha is vegan and lactose free, whereas cow’s milk yogurt is not. Fortunately, lactose free and vegan yogurt-alternatives are becoming more popular.
Sugars and additives: Yogurt, especially flavored yogurts, often contain added sugars, additives and flavoring. If you have a sensitive gut, leaky gut or a chronic illness, these added sugars and flavorings may not work well for your gut and overall well being. Certain food additives are known to have a negative impact on your gut barrier, often contributing to leaky gut.
Calories: Kombucha often contains fewer calories than yogurt, especially if the yogurt contains added sugars.
Protein and nutrients: Yogurt from dairy alternatives (e.g. coconut milk yogurt) is a great alternative to animal protein. Kombucha, on the other hand, does not contain protein. Yogurt is also high in Calcium, which is important for healthy bones and teeth.
Why Taking a Probiotic is Better
A probiotic supplement allows you to be more targeted. Each probiotic bacterial strain performs different tasks in the human body. Specific strains also work best in teams. Taking in a random selection of bacterial strains contained in fermented foods does not allow you to address targeted health goals.
This is especially important if you are dealing with digestive issues or other health issues. A targeted, carefully combined probiotic can help address your personal challenges much more effectively.
You know what you get. The bacterial strains are carefully combined in a laboratory environment. When you buy the product, you know exactly what strains it contains, and the total amount of bacteria, also referred to as “Colony Forming Units”.
A high-quality probiotic typically contains multiple bacterial strains and species. This allows for more bacterial diversity in your intestines. Considering that there are hundreds of different probiotic bacterial strains in the human body and you need them all for your body to function properly, it is clear that it’s best to take in a diverse array of probiotics. Many fermented foods and drinks only contain one or two bacterial strains.
A high-quality probiotic supplement is also free of potential allergens (such as lactose in dairy products) and sugars. Some probiotics supplements are even vegan. This is beneficial if you have food intolerances, are watching your sugar intake, are trying to lose weight and/or have Type 2 diabetes. Sugar also feeds potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi that might be living in your gut. Too much sugar means these pathogens can grow and potentially make you sick.
For probiotic bacteria to have a positive impact on your health, they need to be alive when you ingest them. The bacteria in fermented foods and drinks may not be alive and able to perform their desired tasks anymore by the time the product gets to you.
Probiotics are living bacteria that are sensitive to temperature, light and moisture, and they require food to survive. This can be a challenge: the product sits on the shelf for weeks before you get it, the cooling chain might be interrupted, or the bacteria might run out of food.
Fortunately, there are newer technologies such as “freeze-drying” the bacteria that help preserve them over long periods of time without any need of refrigeration.
The probiotic bacteria need to survive the passage from your mouth into your intestine. In a probiotic food or drink the bacteria have been alive for quite a while and become weakened. This puts their survival rate at risk while passing through the harsh environment of the stomach. A majority of the probiotic bacteria get destroyed before they even reach the intestine, where they will be most effective. And the small amount that does survive may not be strong enough to truly improve your gut flora. A good probiotic should have improved technology to ensure a safer passage through the stomach. A freeze-dried powder including prebiotics is best to ensure a safer passage through the stomach and better effectiveness.
If you are considering adding yogurt, kombucha and other fermented foods into your diet, go for it! It’s always a good idea to increase the range of foods you are eating. Fermented foods also contain probiotic bacteria, which may improve digestion.
At the same time, fermented foods are no alternative to taking a high-quality probiotic supplement. Probiotic supplements are more targeted and effective. There’s also a lot more scientific evidence for the health benefits of probiotics. Choose a high-quality, multistrain and multispecies probiotic for optimal results.