Probiotics: Got Yogurt?

By:  Dr. Michelle Zarrillo

It is a wild concept that you should willingly swallow billions of bacteria each day and that this might be good for your health. It may be even harder to believe that doing so can prevent allergies, eliminate irritable bowel syndrome, reduce bloating, treat female infections, prevent colds, enhance our immune system and eliminate diarrhea. As difficult as this is to believe, there is a growing body of scientific evidence stating just that. It is being touted as a new wonder for your health, but when you look around the world, cultures have always used natural-occurring bacteria in their food to promote health. I am speaking of probiotics.

The word probiotic is thrown around these days with abandon. It is promoted as a miracle cure, a new discovery and added to everything from cereal to soups. Let’s begin with the basics. A probiotic is a life-promoting bacteria that administers health benefits. Our bodies are full of bacteria, some “good” (normal flora) and some “bad” (pathogenic). Our digestive tract contains over 400 species of bacteria. The bacteria aid in digestion, immunity, vitamin absorption and support digestive functions. We are given our first “dose” of these good bacteria during the birthing process. There is a direct link between probiotic-rich foods and overall health.

Unfortunately, many traditional methods of preparing foods have fallen by the wayside. As a result of modernization and mass production of our foods, the amount of probiotics in the typical diet has decreased. Raw milk has been replaced by pasteurized. Homemade yogurt has been replaced by pasteurized yogurt, with some probiotics added back. Pickles and sauerkraut now are made with vinegar, instead of lacto-fermentation. Even grains that were soaked, sprouted and fermented are now mass-produced with a mere trace of the health benefit that they once had.

Fermenting foods is very inexpensive. Being a big chicken, I take my probiotics in a pill, but there are a few recipes I am experimenting with and some that are just not going to happen. Yogurt is the one everyone thinks of first, but pasteurized yogurt will not have live bacteria. You can test the yogurt to see if it is “live” by mixing a tablespoonful with a cup of milk. Leave it overnight in a warm place and if the mixture thickens, you have live bacteria. 🙂 Kefir is a fermented milk. Aged cheese, but not processed cheese, can be made from goat, sheep or cow’s milk. Soy products like miso and brewed soy sauce are fermented. Sauerkraut is popular in Eastern Europe and was eaten through the ages, even by Genghis Khan and Captain Cook. Capers, olives and pickles can be fermented, but modern pickled foods do not contain the good bacteria. If you soak beans, grains or seeds in water, the outer hull is broken down by probiotics. You can even soak whole oats overnight before cooking oatmeal in the morning. Thai fish sauce is made technically with anchovies, but often with fermenting anything that comes up in the net. Many products claim to have probiotics in them, but there is no guarantee that they are in the amount or form that is needed to get health benefits. Traditional recipes containing a fermented dish can be found in almost every culture around the world. Our modern methods of quick preparation and flavorless genetically-modified food do little to promote health, but merely maintain a minimum standard of existence.

Probiotics can safely be included in every diet and a noticeable difference in digestion will be  observed. Since we have  probiotics naturally occurring in a normal digestive tract, they are considered safe. In theory, there may be a risk for someone with an impaired immune system, but it would have to an extreme case.  You may also want to use caution if you struggle with chronic yeast, since fermented foods contain some yeast; it is not supposed to be the same strain, but some cannot tolerate it.

Many health researchers claim that much of our health can be linked to a healthy gut. It might be worth your effort to put some care into yours.


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