Probing the Health Benefits of Probiotics
It’s likely you’ve sauntered down a supermarket aisle chock-full of probiotic products and wondered what the hype is all about. Probiotics are everywhere — in yogurts, cereals, energy bars, drinks and even dark chocolate.
A great deal of confusion surrounds probiotics, making it difficult for consumers to understand how probiotics work and what they’re good for.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
We equate bacteria with infection and disease so the idea of consuming billions of them to boost health seems counterintuitive. But recent research suggests some illnesses can be prevented and treated with foods and supplements containing probiotics.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics (derived from pro and biota, meaning “for life”) are live bacteria that benefit our health — particularly, the digestive system. Probiotics are known as “good” or “helpful” bacteria because they have a protective effect on the gut.
The human body is full of bacteria — bacteria that exceeds the total number of human cells. Research is continually highlighting the link between gut bacteria and health, and suggests the more gut-dwelling bacteria you have, the more resilient your immune system will be.
How do Probiotics Work?
The probiotics we consume most commonly contain bacteria from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera. When you take probiotic supplements or eat fermented foods containing live bacteria cultures, the bacteria make their way to your gut and maintain the balance between good and bad bacteria, allowing your body to function as it should.
Probiotics are particularly beneficial after undergoing antibiotic treatment that clears out your entire gut microflora, which then needs to be replenished. Healthy bacteria in the intestine keep pathogens under control, improve digestion and nutrient absorption, and boost functioning of the immune system.
Probiotics have been used most successfully in the treatment of diarrhea. Studies suggest the bacteria Lactobacillus GG can treat diarrhea in infants and children. Probiotic therapy has also been used in the treatment of Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome.
The benefits of probiotics don’t end with the digestive system. They can also be used in maintaining and improving urogenital health.
The vagina, as with the gut, has a delicately maintained microbiome. Healthy bacteria strains make it hard for pathogens to survive by creating an environment that’s too acidic. But antibiotics, spermicides and birth control pills can disturb this balance and allow pathogens to thrive. Probiotic therapy can restore healthy bacteria and help treat urinary tract and yeast infections.
Are Probiotics Healthy?
So we’ve established that probiotics are beneficial, but does that mean you should go out of your way to consume them every day to improve your overall health?
Researchers are still exploring how probiotics benefit the body and the best way to use them. But it’s safe to assume probiotics can prove useful for some diseases. The challenge lies in knowing which probiotic to use for a specific condition.
Not all probiotics are created equal so there’s no such thing as a standard probiotic. What we do have are several types of bacteria that function differently for different diseases or conditions.
Probiotics are delicate — stomach acid can destroy them, leaving them ineffective before they’re digested. So even if the bacteria are alive and thriving in your probiotic drink, it may not make it to your gut alive.
For instance, yogurt contains two strains of bacteria—Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophiles. These bacteria are killed by stomach acids and pancreatic enzymes before they even get to the gut. Some varieties of yogurt are now fortified with other strains of live bacteria that manage to make it to the colon alive. Strains of live Bifidobacteria are proven to be beneficial and found in probiotic products like Yakult and Activia.
Most probiotics are sold as supplements and not required to undergo the same testing and approval process other medications do. The responsibility lies with the manufacture to ensure the product is safe and any assertions about its benefits on the label are accurate.
It is indefinite that the strains of bacteria you’re ingesting are effective for the condition you’re trying to target. The health benefits of probiotics are strain-specific, which means not all types of bacteria strains are necessarily beneficial. The best way to get around this problem is to discuss your options with a doctor who is has a deep knowledge of probiotics.
Another important thing to remember is that a probiotic is not a substitute for medication, even though it is a natural treatment that has typically been studied in combination with medications. It is not recommended to take probiotics instead of your medication without consulting your doctor first.
But if you have a well-functioning immune system and don’t have a serious illness, using a probiotic in addition to an existing treatment or as a preventive measure may be worth a shot.
Difference Between Prebiotics and Probiotics
Although probiotics are popular, prebiotics are relatively unheard of. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that act as nourishment for probiotics in the colon. While probiotics offer a dose of healthy bacteria to the gut, prebiotics act as food for the good bacteria that’s already present.
When a product contains both probiotics and prebiotics it is known as a synbiotic. Yogurt and kefir, for instance, contain probiotic bacteria as well as the fuel they need to survive.
Probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt and cheese, whereas prebiotics are present in raw garlic, onion, leeks, bananas, honey and acacia gum. They are also added to some foods and dietary supplements.
Natural Sources of Probiotics
Eating fermented foods is a tradition in some diets around the world. Northern Europeans in particular consume a diet rich in probiotics. Unfortunately, the modern American diet is deficient in foods that nourish and replenish gut bacteria since many foods are pasteurized and heavily processed.
But natural foods containing probiotics are not hard to find, so you don’t need to rely on supplements or probiotic-enriched foods.
These healthy foods naturally contain health-boosting probiotics:
Commonly eaten as a side or in hot dogs, sauerkraut is originally from Eastern European and Germanic cuisines. It is made from fermented cabbage and contains a healthy dose of probiotics. Avoid store-bought sauerkraut and make your own because pasteurization destroys the probiotics in it.
Miso is a traditional Japanese condiment produced by fermenting soybeans with brown rice. The result is a fermented paste which is a rich source of Lactobacillus acidophilus.
Kefir is a fermented milky beverage from Russia and Turkey that is produced by fermenting goat, sheep or cow’s milk with kefir “grains” made of bacteria and yeast. Containing up to 20 varieties of healthy bacteria, kefir is considered to be an even better source of probiotics than yogurt.
The fermented, sweetened black or green tea drink delivers a punch of probiotics and has other restorative qualities as well. The sugar-tea solution is fermented using bacteria and yeast.
Salty and sour pickles are also a rich source of probiotics – unless they are brined in vinegar. Vinegar destroys their probiotic content, so pick pickles brined in water and sea salt.
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