Probiotics By Kirsten Braun
Probiotics are a hot topic at the moment. We explain what they are and why they are good for you.
What are probiotics?
Our digestive system contains both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria, which ideally are in balance. However, a range of factors can upset this balance, including medications like antibiotics and steroids, stress, poor diet and different diseases. Probiotics are essentially live microorganisms or the ‘good bacteria’ that occur naturally in our digestive system. Most probiotics are bacteria but there is also a yeast variety as well. Probiotics come in a range of foods –see ‘How can you include probiotics in your diet’ section.
What are prebiotics?
Prebiotics are found in non-digestible food fibres and they move through the digestive system feeding the ‘good bacteria’ (probiotics). Prebiotics can be found in chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, leeks, onions, asparagus, beans, bananas, and whole grains like wheat, rye, barley and oats.
What are the known health benefits of probiotics?
Like many food fads, the health claims for probiotics are extensive but not all of them can be substantiated with scientific evidence. What we do know is that probiotics are good for:
- Reducing diarrhoea from antibiotics – Taking a course of antibiotics can often upset the balance of good and bad bacteria leading to diarrhoea. Taking probiotics in conjunction with antibiotics can reduce the risk of diarrhoea occurring.
- Treating diarrhoea from infection – Probiotics can reduce the length of time that people are sick for.
- Relieve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – People with IBS experience a range of symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, constipation and diarrhoea. Numerous studies have found that probiotics can reduce the symptoms of IBS, particularly abdominal pain.
What else might probiotics be useful for?
It appears that the benefits of probiotics are not just limited to our digestive system. It appears that probiotics can also play an important role in boosting our immune system. While more studies are needed, probiotics may be helpful for a wide range of conditions including thrush, urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, mastitis and allergies. There is also a growing body of research that suggests there is a connection between the health of our digestive system and our mental health.
Are probiotics for everyone?
People who have a compromised immune system (AIDS, chemotherapy patients) should discuss with their doctor as to whether probiotics are suitable.
How can you include probiotics in your diet?
Probiotics are of course not new, having existed in diets all over the world for thousands of years. There is a long list of foods that contain probiotics, although some of these products may not be readily available in all regions of Australia. For those living in areas with less variety of food shopping, learning to make some foods at home might be an option. People who want to take probiotics to help with a particular health condition, such as IBS, can discuss it with their doctor as there are particular strains of bacteria that are more effective for different conditions.
Probably the easiest way to incorporate probiotics into your diet is yoghurt. Yoghurt contains different strains of live bacteria including lactobacilli and bifidobacterium. Look for yoghurts that are specifically labelled ‘probiotic’. In Australia, yoghurts that claim to be probiotic must have a minimum of one million live bacteria per gram.
Popular in Germany and Eastern European countries, sauerkraut is becoming increasingly popular in Australia as a probiotic. It is made from layering cabbage with salt and leaving it to naturally ferment. Like yoghurt, the active bacteria is lactobacilli. The sauerkraut available at the supermarket is heat-treated and so does not contain any live bacteria. Sauerkraut with probiotics is available from some health food stores, delis and farmers markets. As the process is relatively simple, it can also be made at home (see our recipe).
A traditional Korean dish, kimchi is made from fermented vegetables, predominantly cabbage, but also sometimes radish and cucumber. It is mixed with chilli, garlic, ginger, fish sauce or other flavourings and has a sweet and sour taste. Like sauerkraut, it is available from health food stores, Asian grocers and farmers markets but can also be made at home. There are many recipes available online.
There are several drinks of this type with the best known being Yakult. In Australia, fermented milk beverages that claim to be probiotic must have a minimum of one million live bacteria per gram.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink made with kefir ‘grains’, a starter mix of bacteria and yeasts. It has the consistency of runny yoghurt and can be bought in health food shops. Like yoghurt, there are also kits available for those who would like to make their own.
Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans and other grains and comes in different varieties. The pastes that have been fermented longer are generally a richer source of probiotics. These pastes tend to be darker in colour and more concentrated in flavour. The miso you can buy on the supermarket shelf has been pasteurised and so won’t contain any probiotics as the heating in this process kills the live bacteria. Unpasteurised miso can be bought in health food shops and Asian grocers. When cooking with miso, it should be added just at the end as high temperatures kill the bacteria.
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and is traditionally Indonesian. It is sold in blocks or slices and can be used in a similar way to firm tofu. Tempeh is often thought of as being healthier to some other soy-based products as it undergoes less processing. It is also a good non-dairy source of calcium. Tempeh is available in the refrigerated section of some supermarkets and Asian grocers.
There are a wide range of probiotic supplements available in pills, powders or even liquid shots. Supplements promise to provide many more live bacteria than what a food can provide. Some supplements have to be stored in the fridge but others are shelf stable. Different conditions such as heat, light and moisture can reduce the numbers of bacteria present in a supplement.
Be careful of the sodium (salt) content
Salt is used in many probiotic-rich foods to aid in the fermentation process, which can mean they have a high sodium content. People who need to watch their salt intake need to be careful which probiotic foods they choose.
Our Finance Officer, Kaja Holzheimer shares her recipe for homemade sauerkraut.
1 large drumhead cabbage
4 x dessert spoons salt
Seaweed flakes (optional)
3 or 4 large lidded jars that fit upright in your fridge
Smaller jars which fit inside the mouth of the large jars
Clean pebbles/ceramic weights
Food processor or sharp knife and cutting board
- Boil some water and pour into the large jars to sterilise them.Pour boiling water over the outside of the smaller jars.
- Cut cabbage into quarters and remove the core.
- Finely chop ¼ of the cabbage, or put it through a food processor.
- Into the bowl, place the ¼ chopped cabbage and 1 slightly mounded dessert spoon of salt. Add seaweed flakes, if using.
- Knead the salt and cabbage together in the bowl for 2 to 4 minutes. The cabbage will begin to wilt and fluid will collect in the bottom of the bowl.
- Leave the cabbage and salt mixture to sit while you chop or whizz a second ¼ of the cabbage.
- Begin to pack the cabbage and salt mixture from the bowl into a large sterilised jar. Use a spoon or a fork to press the cabbage in tightly. The cabbage will lose more fluid as you press and pack. This is a good thing! Eventually, a layer of salty fluid will appear above the cabbage.
- When the large jar is about 4/5 packed with cabbage, insert a smaller jar into the neck of the large jar. Fill this smaller jar with pebbles/ceramic weights. It will press the cabbage beneath the layer of salty fluid. This allows the cabbage to ferment rather than go off. You can add salty fluid from the bowl if the cabbage is not completely submerged. Save any remaining salty fluid.
- Repeat the above process for the remaining cabbage quarters.
- Sit your completed jars at the back of your kitchen benchtop to ferment. The hotter the weather, the quicker your cabbage will ferment.
- Store any leftover salty fluid in a jar in the fridge.
- Everyday press the smaller jar down. Air bubbles from the cabbage will rise. If your salty fluid is evaporating (can be a problem in summer), top it up with the spare salty fluid you’ve saved in the fridge, or add additional salt water. The cabbage must stay completely submerged.
- After a day or two of fermentation, taste-test the cabbage with a clean fork. Once it tastes more like sauerkraut than like cabbage, remove the small weighted jar, pop on a sterilised lid and store the sauerkraut in the fridge. It will continue to ferment very slowly in the fridge.
- Use and enjoy!
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PO Box 195 Fortitude Valley Q 4006
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