Want to know which probiotic foods to eat to improve your health and wellbeing? As well as breaking down foods and absorbing nutrients, the gut has a massive impact on how well the body and mind works. Probiotics are live bacteria in either food or supplement form that can help the digestive system to function more efficiently by improving or restoring balance in the gut microbiome.
Research (opens in new tab) by King’s College London in the UK revealed that what we eat impacts our gut flora even more than genetics. The study pinpointed a group of 15 ‘good’ and 15 ‘bad’ gut microbes that are linked to better or worse health outcomes, including inflammation, blood sugar control and weight.
Gut health is clearly important, but how does it work and where do probiotic foods come in? The enteric nervous system (ENS) in our guts communicates with the brain, and they work closely together to keep the body healthy and fight disease. This complex relationship is known as the gut-brain axis. One of the simplest things we can do to optimize this connection is eating a diet rich in probiotic foods, or taking probiotic supplements.
“Probiotics in food form are also known as ‘functional foods’ and they increase the diversity of gut flora in the large intestine,” says functional medicine practitioner Danny Ly. “When ingested, the live bacteria ‘compete’ against potentially disease-causing microbes in the gastrointestinal tract to try and inhibit their harmful effects."
Having a wide and varied number of ‘good bugs’ in the gut, he says, has also been shown to dampen allergies and sensitivities, support the immune system, decrease inflammation, enhance nutrient absorption and much more. So here are the best probiotics foods you can eat today to improve your gut health, or our guide to the best probiotics has a list of supplements.
Related: What are prebiotic foods?
Sauerkraut is fermented cabbage, loaded with healthy gut bacteria that can optimize and balance our gut flora.
“Sauerkraut contains high levels of glucosinolates, ascorbic acid and ascorbigen, which have all been shown to help decrease DNA damage, and could help cancer patients by reducing cell mutation rates,” says Ly. “Glucosinolates also play an important role in our liver detoxification processes.”
“Kefir is a powerhouse of probiotic rich foods,” says Ly. “It’s rich in the bacteria that helps to produce our B-vitamins in the large intestine, which are needed for an optimal nervous system and are the building blocks for key neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine – the happy hormones that promote positive feelings like pleasure, happiness and even love.”
Studies also suggest that kefir has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties.
There is growing evidence to suggest that kimchi – a Korean condiment made from fermented cabbage and spices – could boost levels of good bacteria in the gut, and as a result improve intestinal health.
“Kimchi is a delicious and traditional Korean staple that has been shown to help alleviate constipation and help with lowering cholesterol,” says Ly. “I would recommend consuming kimchi with wholegrain toast for extra fiber, and eggs for protein, for a wholesome, gut-friendly breakfast.”
The relationship between the gut microbiome and the liver is still not well understood but poor gut health has been linked to the development of fatty liver disease, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Hepatology.
“Miso, a fermented soybean paste from Japan, has been shown to have liver fat-reducing properties when combined with exercise, therefore reducing the risk of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease – the term for a range of conditions caused by build up of fat in the liver,” explains Ly.
Miso fermentation helps to improve the body’s ability to digest and absorb foods and contains gut-boosting probiotics.
Another probiotic food to try for better gut health is kombucha, a fermented tea product rich in antioxidants.
“The fermentation process produces acetic acid, a short chain fatty acid which has been shown to play an important role in regulating body weight and improving insulin sensitivity,” says Ly. “Kombucha also helps to increase gut acidity. Consume it carefully if you suffer from acid-reflux. However, kombucha helps to protect the digestive system from pathogenic microbes. Many Kombucha drinks available at the supermarket contain a lot of added sugars so please look at the label before drinking so you’re not consuming too much.”
Studies have shown that eating yogurt regularly can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, improve weight maintenance and improve cardiovascular health due to the calcium content.
“The lactobacillus and bifidobacterium species typically found in yogurt protects our immune system and supports a healthy metabolism by increasing fullness signals to our brain,” says Ly. “Strained Greek natural yogurt naturally sweetened with your choice of fiber-rich fruit like kiwis or mangos makes a great gut-friendly, high protein snack.”
Related: The Mediterranean diet: everything you need to know.