Body & Soul: Gut Reaction

Fermented foods and probiotics can aid in digestion and support your immune system.

Erika Grace photography

Kate O’Neal has been drinking kombucha for years. The tea, made by fermenting a colony of bacteria and yeast, isn’t the tastiest beverage, she acknowledges.

“If you’re expecting Southern sweet tea, you’re going to be disappointed,” says the Valencia College professor. “But I expect it to be tart and really good for me.”

O’Neal brews her own, but other kombucha aficionados can buy sweeter versions in grocery and health food stores. In addition to her daily kombucha, O’Neal also consumes a little fermented food—such as sauerkraut, kimchi or miso—every day.

Encouraged by stories about the importance of probiotics, or good bacteria, O’Neal decided “anything I could do to improve my gut health would be a positive step.”

Similar thinking is why the North American probiotics market, led by the U.S., is expected to grow from $75 million in 2015 to $6.5 billion by 2023, according to Global Market Insights, a research and marketing firm.

Evidence-based reviews indicate that certain strains of probiotics contribute to the microbial balance of the gut—supporting the immune system and reducing inflammation in the gut,” says Lauren Popeck, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health. “Conditions that may benefit from probiotics include diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and cancer. There is also research associating gut health with certain probiotic strains that may benefit obesity and allergies.”

Some experts caution against overdoing probiotics, especially if you’re healthy.

“Everyone feels they need to participate or they’re missing out,” says Dr. Maryam Kashi, a gastroenterologist with Florida Hospital Medical Group. “But the reality is that most people don’t find a particular benefit from it.”

However, probiotic foods are helpful for individuals who have Clostridium difficile or C. diff, a colon infection that can develop while patients are taking antibiotics.

“When you take antibiotics, you’re killing off all the bacteria in the gut,” Kashi says—both the good and the bad bacteria. “It’s helpful to populate the gut with good, helpful bacteria. We do encourage our patients on antibiotics to eat yogurt and fermented foods.”

Various studies have suggested links between gut health and certain neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.

“There’s a ton of research related to microbiota [the microorganisms that live in the digestive tract] and the gut,” Kashi says. “[The microbiota] seem to have a significant effect on many different disease processes, or at least it’s been hypothesized.”

Her advice for those experiencing a particular symptom is to try probiotic foods (such as sauerkraut) for two to three weeks. If the symptom has improved or disappeared, “sauerkraut is your new best friend,” she says. If not, try a different approach.

O’Neal did have a symptom, though it wasn’t gut-related.

“My joints were beginning to bother me,” she says. “I was starting to really worry, like, is this how it’s going to be now for the rest of my life? But I’ve noticed it’s gotten better. My joints are a little less achy. It’s probably a combination of the fermented foods and the kombucha.”

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