Probiotics are the healthy bacteria found in your intestinal tract. They're critical for a number of healthy digestive and immune functions and vital to a healthy gut lining. It's important to include probiotic foods in your diet as often as possible. Ideally, you'd be eating some sort of fermented food product every day to help maintain a healthy gut.
Sometimes, especially after an acute issue like food poisoning or a stomach bug, you might need a more potent probiotic supplement to get your microbiome back into balance. The issue is that most probiotic supplements are made using fermented dairy products. This poses a problem if you're lactose intolerant or vegan, but there are some great non-dairy, vegan probiotic supplement options on the market.
Vegan probiotics are perfect for anyone with a milk allergy or dietary restrictions that require abstinence from dairy products. Let's take a look at what probiotics are, their health benefits, how you can get them from the foods you eat, and the best way to pick a vegan probiotic supplement.
What Are Probiotics?
You may have read the assertion that there are thousands more non-human cells on your body than human ones. This statement is in reference to the microbiome: the microscopic ecology of the human body. Every individual person is host to a unique ecosystem of bacteria, yeasts, protozoa, viruses, and sometimes parasites that live in and on the human body.
While it's true that there are billions of microbes living in and on your body, human cells aren't really outnumbered by the huge margin that many claim. A 2016 article seeking to debunk this theory stated that the ratio of microbes to human cells is likely a lot closer to 1.3:1(1).
The vast majority of these bacteria make up the gut microbiota, all the non-human cells in your colon. Still, it's interesting to ponder the human-microbe relationship. It's a symbiotic one. For example, the human digestive system cannot process or absorb dietary fiber without the help of beneficial bacteria. The bacteria digest the fiber for you so you can assimilate the parts you need and discard the rest.
You could even say that the fiber you eat is the food for those bacteria. You feed them — they help you. There are thousands of different strains of microbial life that could inhabit your colon, some helpful, some harmful. What's important is achieving a balance between the two so that the harmful strains don't take over and wreak havoc on your health. That's where a healthy diet and probiotic supplements come into play.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
Probiotics are loosely considered the "good bacteria" residing in our gut and on our skin. They're dubbed the good guys because of the beneficial functions they perform for every human being. But it turns out that it's not just bacteria that are helping out. There's a special yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii that has been studied for decades for its potent protective qualities against deadly bad bacteria like Clostridium difficile (2).
So in this case, it's a "good yeast," not a good bacteria, saving lives. And it's not the only beneficial yeast cohabitating in the gut microbiome. It's just the most studied one. The human immune system could not protect the body nearly as well without the billions of bugs living in the digestive tract. Loads of research has been done to better understand the effects of probiotics on immunity. But there's still a lot more to be done to understand how probiotic therapies could help boost immune health.
The microbiome can be hard to study because every single individual human has a different combination of bugs living with them. This challenge highlights the need for personalized medicine, an idea growing in popularity among health professionals worldwide. So far, we know that probiotics help maintain homeostasis in the human digestive system and immune system (which are often one and the same).
They can help modulate the immune response when it comes to intestinal diseases like "infectious diarrhea, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, atopic diseases, necrotizing enterocolitis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome, and extraintestinal diseases, such as allergy," according to researchers (3).
Allergies are the most common health issue affecting Americans, with 50 million people experiencing some form of allergy annually. Whether it's a skin allergy, a food allergy, an airborne or seasonal allergy, or an allergy to medication, grasses, bugs, latex, or something else, supporting your immune system with a healthy diet and probiotics could play a major role in improving daily well-being.
That's due, in part, to the protective effects probiotics have on digestive health and the integrity of the gut lining (4). On first glance, skin conditions like eczema might seem unrelated to gut bacteria, but the relationship between skin health and gut health is widely recognized. In fact, the gut-brian-skin axis was first clinically discovered over 70 years ago by two pioneering doctors named Stokes and Pillsbury.
Based on Stokes and Pillsbury's research and decades of subsequent follow-up research, you can all but assume you have an imbalance in your gut (likely leaky gut) if you have skin issues like acne, eczema, psoriasis, or rosacea or if you have mental health issues like depression, anxiety, autism, or a number of others (5).
Again, there are still years of study left to do in the way of understanding therapeutic benefits for serious conditions like depression and autism due to the personalized nature of the problems, but the research is promising. And the benefits of eating probiotic foods and supplementing your diet shouldn't be understated.
Food Sources of Probiotics
Fermented foods are the best food sources of probiotics. There are a number of dairy options. Most famously, yogurt is an excellent source of Lactobacillus acidophilus, but another creamy dairy option is kefir. Kefir is almost like a liquid yogurt, but it's made using kefir grains and only requires a 24 hour ferment. If you've ever had a mango lassi at an Indian restaurant, it's kind of like that. (Lassis are fermented dairy too, by the way.)
But if you're limited to a dairy-free or vegan diet, you still have tons of options. In fact, some of the vegan probiotic food options can offer greater benefit. That's because they not only offer probiotics, but prebiotics. Prebiotics are what we hinted at earlier: the foods that feed the probiotics, primarily sources of fiber. So for example, kimchi and raw sauerkraut are both vegan probiotic foods that also happen to be made out of cabbage, which is prebiotic. Make sense?
Vegan Probiotic-Rich FoodsNext time you're at the grocery store, pick up these vegan options to try out. Any one of them could be a great way to add probiotics to your diet.
- Kimchi: A Korean-style, spicy fermented cabbage or other crunchy vegetables, this food is traditionally eaten with every meal to aid in digestion.
- Sauerkraut: If you're looking for the probiotic benefits of sauerkraut, make sure the jar says "raw," or "unpasteurized." Otherwise, it might be overly processed and all the good bacteria could have been killed off.
- Tempeh: Tempeh is a fermented soy product that's pressed into a patty and can be grilled or eaten as a vegan protein source.
- Raw pickles: The same rules apply to these as to sauerkraut. They need to say "raw," or you can make them yourself at home.
- Coconut kefir (also called water kefir): A Turkish drink made the same way as dairy kefir, this version uses coconut water instead of milk.
- Kombucha tea: This effervescent fermented tea (usually black, but sometimes green) is often flavored in a second ferment adding fruits or ginger to make it interesting.
- Kvass: A less common drink in the US, this is a Russian or Slavic fermented drink that's effervescent like kombucha but made with rye bread.
- Miso: Also a fermented soy product, miso is a paste used in soups, salad dressings, and marinades.
If you’re feeling like you need an extra boost beyond what these foods can give you, you might consider supplementing. Supplements can also give you a wider variety and quantity of probiotics per serving, and you might be more likely to stick to a daily pill rather than a food or drink, depending on your daily routine.
Vegan Probiotic Supplements
The FDA doesn't regulate supplements, so it's important that you know as much as possible about the company you buy from. You want to make sure they follow Truth in Labeling practices and that they are a reputable company. Not all probiotics are vegan.
Many are made using dairy as the base. The best vegan probiotics (and non-vegan ones for that matter) also contain some prebiotic material. Whether it's inulin fiber from artichokes or pectic from apples or pears, it helps to know that there's a bit of food for the bugs in each capsule. Ideally, you should buy from a store or online retailer that you know has used proper refrigeration methods to help keep the bacteria alive.
It never hurts to ask. While there's still more research to be done to best understand which strains of probiotics may be beneficial for certain areas of health, variety and volume are both really important (3). When you're looking at a supplement label, after you've confirmed that there are no dairy ingredients, look for the total number of live bacteria (it should be in the billions) and the number and variety of strains.
You want to make sure there are at least a few lactobacilli and a few bifidobacterium. These are the two main genera of beneficial gut bacteria, each with thousands of species.
Supporting Gut Health on a Vegan Diet
The best way to support your gut health on a vegan diet is to eat a nutrient-rich diet. This means eating pre- and probiotic foods, and sometimes supplementing with a vegan probiotic supplement.
The health of the human immune system and digestive system is highly dependent on the ratio of good to bad bugs in the gut, and by eating foods that feed the good bugs and adding more to the group with fermented foods, you're doing well to keep a healthy balance.