Bacteria has long been mislabeled the enemy—villainous invaders that should be avoided at all costs, only to cause you to get sick if encountered. But, as science has evolved, we’ve realized that not all bacteria are bad; some are actually beneficial for you. There are trillions of bacteria living in the human digestive tract. Some modern science claims there are more bacteria in our gut than cells in our entire body. These bacteria help to digest and extract nutrients from everything we consume and can even help to crowd out the harmful bacteria we interact with.
Probiotics are defined as living microorganisms or bacteria that are intended to have positive health benefits when consumed. The most common are bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Different types of probiotics may have different effects on the body. For example, if a specific kind of Lactobacillus helps prevent an illness, that doesn’t necessarily mean that another kind of Lactobacillus or any of the Bifidobacterium probiotics would do the same thing.
Every single human has a different, unique gut microbiome (the community of living bacteria in our intestinal tracts). The gut microbiome is constantly changing and evolving based on lifestyle (what we eat and drink), environment, medications like antibiotics, and even how we were born or fed as a baby. It’s important to realize we’re learning more and more about how this community of bacteria can affect our health (in a positive or negative way), immune system, and even our moods. Pretty amazing and fascinating science that’s still evolving as we research and learn more.
How your diet can include probiotics
What we eat and drink can directly affect our gut microbes, particularly foods and supplements that we categorize as probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotic foods are often in the form of fermented products, as well as dietary supplements. Prebiotics are food components that microbes break down and use as energy; they also provide beneficial compounds like short-chain fatty acids for our bodies to use.
When walking down the aisle at your local grocery store or pharmacy, there are tons of options when it comes to a probiotic supplement. However, it’s hard to truly find out what your specific gut needs since all of us have highly individualized, unique gut microbiomes. The best way is to test your own gut microbiome through DNA sequencing. Companies that are leading the way, like Flore by Sun Genomics, now make it easy to test, evaluate, and prescribe precision probiotics that are going to benefit your unique microbiome the best. If you aren’t ready for all of that just yet, there are foods that may have some probiotic benefits. When looking for probiotic foods, try to choose unpasteurized or raw products as the pasteurization will eliminate most of the living beneficial bacteria.
1. Nancy’s Organic 100% Grass-Fed Yogurt
Probiotic yogurt is associated with a number of health benefits including digestion, constipation, and bloating. Make sure to choose yogurt that has active or live cultures. Nancy’s Organic Grass-Fed yogurt provides over 41 billion live probiotics in every serving. Other good-bacteria-filled options include Greek yogurt and oatmilk with non-dairy probiotic cultures.
[$5.49; nancysyogurt.com]Get it
2. Kefir Lab Kefir
Kefir is a fermented milk drink similar to a thin yogurt, making it drinkable. It’s packed with a specific type of symbiotic culture, making it full of live cultures that have probiotic benefits. Kefir Lab takes a biomedical approach. Its probiotic shots contain 52 different probiotic strings. Additionally, its kefir provides 24 different probiotic strains, each providing trillions of live probiotics in every serving.
[$8; kefirlab.com]Get it
3. Wildbrine Raw Organic Sauerkraut
Sauerkraut is a type of fermented cabbage with some great health benefits. Aside from probiotics, it also contains enzymes that help your body absorb nutrients more easily. Sauerkraut contains more lactobacillus than yogurt, making it a superior source of this probiotic. Wildbrine makes its sauerkraut in a traditional way, fermenting organic green cabbage with salt instead of vinegar to preserve the living probiotics.
[$7.99; wildbrine.com]Get it
4. Cleveland Kitchen Classic Kimchi
Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish made with salted and fermented vegetables like napa cabbage and Korean radish. Cleveland Kitchen Classic Kimchi is a completely vegan kimchi full of flavor. It’s bold with just a little heat. Made traditionally, this fermented kimchi is also packed with beneficial probiotics, primarily Lactobacillus as well as Leuconostoc.
[$5.99; clevelandkitchen.com]Get it
5. Health-Ade Kombucha
Kombucha may be the most trendy food on this list. The claims for kombucha are that it may improve digestion, boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, and prevent leaky gut syndrome. Numerous health benefits stem from compounds derived from kombucha’s fermentation process and its tea base, including a couple that factor into gut health such as antimicrobial effects. By all means, look for raw or unpasteurized kombucha for the most probiotic benefits. We like Health-Ade Kombucha; it’s certified organic, raw, non-GMO, vegan, and gluten-free. They have a relatively low-sugar content as well (around 12 g per bottle).
[$42.46; health-ade.com]Get it
6. Olive My Pickle Pickles & Pickle Juice
Most people are familiar that pickles are just pickled cucumbers. When buying pickles for their probiotic benefits, pick brands with no vinegar and no added sugar. Pickles made with vinegar appear to have little to no probiotic benefit for your gut. Olive My Pickles are fermented with a saltwater brine, so they contain naturally occurring probiotics. In fact, all of the brand’s pickled products say right on the label, “Lab Verified Probiotic,” as they use an independent lab to test products. It also sells pickle juice or brine by itself. In addition to being loaded with electrolytes, LiveBrine is one of the most concentrated ways of ingesting whole-food, plant-based probiotics. There are more than 14 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) per serving.
[$9.99; olivemypickle.com]Get it
7. Small Town Cultures Raw Fermented Vegetables
The process of fermenting any type of vegetable will result in a variety of beneficial probiotics. The amount and species depends on the vegetable, the fermentation process, as well as the preservation process. Including a variety of fermented foods will help you reap the diverse benefits of probiotics.
Good for you and your gut, Small Town Cultures’ plant-based probiotics are handmade in small batches. They’re chock-full of micronutrients, enzymes, and probiotic fiber. Raw, fermented foods include sliced jalapeños, cardamom beets, turmeric kimchi, spicy radish, Meyer lemon, and more to support your gut microbiome.
[$9.99; smalltowncultures.com]Get it
8. Transformation Factory Sea Moss Gel
Sea Moss has many reported benefits to your health, most notably providing your body with all the essential minerals. Sea Moss also delivers 92 of the body’s 102 essential minerals. This marine superfood surpasses other algae, helping with inflammation, healthy mucus membrane support, and digestive health. Although it doesn’t provide probiotics, sea moss may have prebiotic effects which could play a role in improving the health of the microbiome.
Transformation Factory has a variety of high-quality sea moss gels. You can easily include this prebiotic powerhouse in your daily routine. Mix it in juices, smoothies, sauces, or consume straight from the jar.
[$35.99; seamosstransformation.com]Get it
Jordan Mazur, M.S., R.D., is the Director of Nutrition for the San Francisco 49ers.
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