February 11th, 2017

When I see a person, I see not just one living organism but one giant ecosystem composed of billions of different species most of the time co-existing together, but sometimes an “evil” one takes over and wreaks havoc.  Doesn’t this sound like science fiction rather than medicine?  More and more we are learning the bacteria in our intestines, skin, stomach and even arachnids (mites which are relatives to spiders) that live in our eyebrows can influence our health.

Not surprisingly, the pharmaceutical industry is creating and selling an increasing number of products that are meant to restore or maintain the populations of beneficial bacteria in our body.  Scientists are not completely sure if this is the correct approach and the topic is debated hotly at conferences.  On one hand, many people who suffer from IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) have noticed dramatic improvement with taking probiotics.  However, many of the bacteria found in commercial probiotics are not actually common in humans.  Acidophilus is one of the most common species of bacteria in probiotics, but it is more ubiquitous in yogurt not the human colon.  So should we be populating our bodies with yogurt making bacteria?  Perhaps, if this bacteria prevents “evil” bacteria such as C. dificile (which is notorious for causing a life-threatening diarrheal disease after any antibiotic use), I could see the probiotic as being beneficial.  Ultimately, we don’t have a real answer.

Interestingly enough, if you look at foods around the world almost every single culture has a “probiotic” food.  I believe this is no simple coincidence.  When people eat foods that make them feel better, or anecdotally prevent or cure illness the knowledge gets passed along.  Ultimately, this knowledge becomes tradition.  Here are some probiotic foods from around the world.  I recommend eating them regularly, as they are also usually quite delicious!

  • Greek Yogurt (Greece and Middle East)- great source of calcium and full of lactobacillus/acidophilus
  • Kefir (Middle East)- a yogurt drink made from cow milk and grains, similar in probiotic profile to yogurt
  • Miso Soup/Paste (Japan)- fermented soy beans create this umami-rich paste that is commonly made into a soup
  • Sauerkraut (Germany)- fermented cabbage, great source of fiber as well
  • Kim Chi (Korea)- spicy, preserved bok choy which can also inhibit growth of bad bacteria
  • Dark Chocolate (South America)- while this may not actually contain bacteria, the good bacteria in our intestines thrive on dark chocolate and multiply faster.
  • Kombucha (Japan)- this fermented tea is filled with Saccharomyces bacteria
  • Gochujang (Korea)- a spicy condiment made from fermented chilis, rice and soybeans
  • Natto (Japan)- fermented strongly flavored sticky soybeans, a very acquired taste!
  • Cheese (Europe)- some cheeses are more probiotic than others, typically the more pungent ones such as gouda, parmesan, and blue cheese contain more beneficial bacteria.
  • Fruit Chutney (India)- a staple condiment with most Indian dishes, chutneys add a touch of sweetness to your meal and many bacteria to your gut.
  • Harissa (Africa)- a seasoning paste of mildly fermented chilis.
  • Tempeh (Indonesia)- fermented soy product that is often used in place of meat, sometimes called “mock meat”, also rich in protein and fiber.
  • Pickles (Europe/USA/Asia)- this picnic favorite should be a regular addition to your diet.  It has no fat, no carbs, can be stored for a long time in the fridge and tastes great.
  • Sourdough Bread (USA)- the “yeasty” flavor is a sign that it contains plenty of healthy bacteria.
  • Dosa (India)- a giant crepe-like pancake made from fermented rice and lentils often served with savory ingredients.
  • Pickled Herring/Fish (Scandinavia)- an easy way to get protein, probiotics, healthy fish oils and vitamin D!
  • Lassi (India)- a fermented dairy drink often incorporated into fruit shakes (e.g. mango lassi).
  • Poi (Polynesia)- a purple root vegetable that is often pounded into a paste and allowed to ferment before eating
  • Fish Sauce/Nuoc Mam (Asia)- made from fermented anchovies, adds a very distinct pungent flavor to any dish.