Live strains of healthy bacteria, or probiotics, help support digestion, gut health, immune function, and even mood.* Given all they do for us, it's only fair that these gut-friendly bugs are a bit high maintenance. While a serving of pickled veggies and bubbly kombucha can be good for you, just getting your probiotics from one or two sources won't quite do the trick for long-term gut health.
To find out the best ways to nurture the gut microbiome through diet, mbg spoke with registered dietitians and gut health experts. Here are a few of the probiotic sources they recommend and why diversity matters.
The best sources of probiotics.
When other lifestyle factors, like diet and stress levels, are not managed properly, or someone is in need of specific probiotic strains, registered dietitian Ella Davar, R.D., CDN, recommends taking a probiotic supplement.
Supplements can be especially helpful after recent changes in dietary habits or travel she says. Since these changes in lifestyle and routine can often lead to dysbiosis (an imbalance of gut bacteria), probiotic supplements can help even it back out.*
"If you're looking to elevate and diversity your gut microbiome, a targeted probiotic rooted in science is not only prudent, it's indicated," adds mbg director of scientific affairs Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN.
"I generally like to recommend foods like fermented vegetables, such as Japanese miso, olives, beets, carrots, pickles (made without sugar), sauerkraut, kimchi, and tofu," Davar says. Other foods like apple cider vinegar, kombucha, kefir, and plain yogurt with live cultures can also benefit the gut.
"In addition to the probiotic advantage of these unique fermented foods, you also glean their macro-, micro-, and phytonutrient benefits," explains Ferira.
What about prebiotics?
Prebiotics are nondigestible dietary fibers that help provide nourishment for probiotics. In fact, gut health expert Vincent Pedre, M.D., calls prebiotics just as important as probiotics for gut health.*
Prebiotics help the probiotics flourish by feeding them, and the two work together synergistically, Davar explains. "In other words, prebiotics are breakfast, lunch, and dinner for probiotics, which restores them and can improve GI health."*
Prebiotic foods include bananas, berries, onions, garlic, leeks, celery, asparagus, artichokes, beans, inulin, and whole-grain foods, to name a few.
"Fiber is a major nutrient gap in the U.S., so prebiotic fiber from food and high-quality supplements like flaxseed, inulin, and others not only helps nourish the gut but addresses a widespread inadequacy at the same time,"* adds Ferira.
Why is it important to get a wide variety of probiotics?
Specific probiotic strains can serve different functions, which is why it's important to diversify probiotic sources through nutrition and multistrain probiotic supplements to see the greatest effects.* To further support the gut in these instances, Davar says, "Most of us benefit from a reasonably dosed probiotic product (1 to 30 billion CFU) consisting of a mixture of well-studied probiotic strains."*
The gut microbiome is a high-maintenance system. Because bacteria in our GI tract serve so many functions for human health, they require regular support to function properly.
Lifestyle factors, like managing stress, exercising, eating a nutrient-dense diet of pre- and probiotics, and incorporating supplements are just some of the ways to optimize gut health for the long term.*
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.