It’s likely that you’ve heard about probiotics, as they are a hot topic and trendy food item at the moment. Many health foods are promoted as containing beneficial probiotics, and sometimes, people buy them just because of their probiotic content.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics is the overarching term given to a variety of beneficial and naturally occurring bacteria and yeast. These live, and non-digestible organisms live naturally within your body. These “good” bacteria function to promote gastrointestinal health and may have a variety of other health benefits.
Probiotics play a role in our body’s naturally occurring system of micro-sized organisms, also known as the microbiome. The diverse array of organisms in the human microbiome work together to keep the body healthy. These organisms are commonly referred to as microbes.
Microbes consist of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, fungi, and yeast. The ratio and number of microbes present in the body are unique to the individual. Each person has their own personalized microbiome within their body.
Microbes are considered probiotics when they are able to be isolated from the human body, can survive within your intestinal tract after being eaten, and can be safely ingested while providing health benefits. Prebiotics may improve gastrointestinal health as well as potentially enhance calcium absorption. This good bacteria helps you in many ways, including fighting off bad bacteria when you have too much of it, helping you feel better.
How do Probiotics Work with the Body?
Probiotics function by supporting the immune system and reducing inflammation within the body. This is done by keeping the balance of good and bad bacteria at acceptable levels within the body’s microbiome. The more probiotics, or good bacteria, that are present, the easier it is for the body to fight off any infection.
Once in the digestive tract, probiotics support the digestion of food and protect the intestinal lining. They help stop infectious or harmful bacteria from passing through the digestive tract lining into the blood. Probiotics also aid in the formation of necessary vitamins, and break-down of medications.
While consuming probiotics can be helpful, your body naturally has an array of beneficial bacteria that are constantly working to keep your digestive system in balance. Eating a balanced, healthy diet is an easy way to support your natural microbiota.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
The current scientific evidence confirms that probiotics have a number of health benefits, especially related to digestive health. They are often recommended alongside antibiotics, as they can lessen the gastrointestinal side-effects of many medicines, including diarrhea. Probiotics have also been shown to ease the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Emerging research suggests that there may be far more benefits to consuming probiotics regularly. For example, aiding individuals with lactose intolerance to tolerate some lactose. Additionally, they may have the ability to ease the symptoms of other allergies, intolerances, and skin irritations, such as eczema.
Recent scientific studies have explored the possibility that probiotics may impact mental health, with some promising results. Researchers theorize that consuming probiotic-rich food or taking a daily supplement can lead to improved outcomes for subjects suffering from anxiety, depression, stress, and other mood disorders.
Certain strains of probiotics, such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus, may boost weight loss. This is achieved by way of blocking fat absorption in the intestines. Probiotics may also help increase satiety, meaning that they can help you feel more full, more quickly, and for longer. They may also increase the number of calories that your body burns, while also reducing the amount of fat that is stored. This is done by altering the levels of specific hormones, related to hunger cues, in your body.
In addition to the benefits and potential benefits listed above, probiotics have been demonstrated to lower bad cholesterol (LDL), as well as lowering blood pressure. More conclusive studies are needed, but after 8 weeks of consuming probiotics, favorable results were found. Probiotics help regulate cholesterol by breaking down the bile used to digest food in the body. This allows the cholesterol to be filtered out of the body, rather than being reabsorbed into the bloodstream.
Probiotics in Your Diet
Often, because of the added value and health benefits, commercially prepared food will have added probiotic bacteria to their foods. Often, the probiotics are added are Bifidobacterium and/or Lactobacillus. The most commonly probiotic-enriched foods are yogurt, cheese, and milk. Novel foods, such as juice, candy, and chocolate, may have probiotics added in to increase the health aura of the product. Typically, they are promoted on the package, and always listed in the ingredient list.
Incorporating probiotics into your diet is important for a balanced, healthy diet, and it can be achieved quite simply. Enjoying foods such as yogurt, aged cheeses, and kefir is an easy way to consume beneficial live bacteria cultures. Other foods, especially fermented products, also contain a significant dose of probiotics. Adding foods such as sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, and other cultured food products will increase your consumption of probiotics.
In general, probiotics are considered safe, and a healthy part of our diet. However, as with anything, it is important to remember that probiotics may not be right for everyone. Some individuals may only be able to tolerate small amounts of probiotic-containing food, while others will over-indulge in order to promote health benefits. If you have a medical condition, it may be advisable to speak with your healthcare professional before incorporating a probiotic regimen into your diet.
While food-based probiotics are considered safe for most, there are some risks associated with probiotic supplements. In individuals with weakened immune systems, probiotic supplementation may promote infection, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and potentially harmful side effects. Those with immune-related conditions, a life-threatening illness, or a recent injury or surgery should consult with a medical professional before consuming probiotic supplements.
Probiotics: The Bottom Line
When made part of a balanced, healthy diet, probiotics have many health benefits. This good bacterium can be found in common staple food items, and are easy to incorporate into any food plan. It is not necessary to take supplements or consume high volumes of probiotic-containing foods, as our bodies naturally contain a variety of good bacteria that keep us healthy.
About the Author
Elizabeth is a Registered Dietitian and Nutrition expert. She works to increase food security and food literacy in her community, and in her spare time, she can be found spending time in the garden.