"This article was originally published in the uBiome website www.ubiome.com"
Your gut plays host to a wide variety of species of bacteria. There’s quite a lot of it down there too. Like most humans you probably have between 500 and 1,000 different species in your gastrointestinal tract but for the most part it’s definitely something to be relieved about rather than to lose sleep over.
You see, in today’s fussily-clean world there can sometimes be a popular tendency to believe that bacteria are bad for us. But although it’s true that a few species can be harmful, particularly in large amounts, the truth is that most bacteria are harmless and in fact quite a few are actually pretty crucial to life.
Right now, for example, your gut probably contains certain types of bacteria that are synthesizing vitamins, and others which are helping you digest some kinds of foods (fiber particularly) that your own body is not equipped to process.
With a good diet and the absence of ill-health,
your microbiome will tend to keep itself well balanced.
What happens however when conditions aren’t quite so perfect?
Perhaps your diet isn’t ideal, or for one reason or another you find yourself under a lot of stress. In cases such as these, you can end up with less of the good types of bacteria, and more of the bad, which is when some experts say it can help to consciously “top up” with healthy bacteria, using supplements we call probiotics.
So what are probiotics exactly?
Technically speaking, probiotics are preparations containing live bacteria which are taken orally to restore your body’s beneficial bacteria. In simpler terms they’re good bacteria you eat, drink, or swallow in order to have a healthier gut - or just to keep it in good order. The word probiotic means “for life”, and there are two main ways to get probiotics down into your gastrointestinal tract.
1. Eat foods which are naturally rich in healthy bacteria.
2. Swallow specially-prepared capsules that have been manufactured to contain the right sorts of concentrated bacteria.
One important consideration is that probiotics must consist of live microorganisms (in fact, this is how the World Health Organization defines them). Another is that the microbial content of probiotics need to be capable of surviving their lengthy journey through the stomach’s fiercely acidic conditions as well as other perils in order to reach the right place in the intestines.
Your stomach can be a hostile place for tiny, defenseless microbes. Gastric acid is about as strong as battery acid, so probiotics must either be naturally resilient, or helped to be so via the capsules they’re contained in (in the case of supplements). Are your probiotics working?
The benefits of probiotics
One useful indicator of how well-balanced your gut bacteria are is the regularity of your bowel movements. In fact, for many people a change in this respect is the first sign that taking probiotics might be a good idea, and research shows that probiotics can indeed be good for digestive health. Diarrhea or constipation may provide an indication that your body’s bacteria need rebalancing with probiotics, and there is also reasonable evidence that they may also help with other disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and possibly even Crohn’s disease.
In addition to improving digestive health, probiotics are also likely to boost your
immune system - the mechanism that defends your body from invading microbes.
One of the ways in which probiotics can make this happen is by raising your levels of something called “mucin”, proteins which help form the mucosal lining of your gut.
What does mucin do?
Well, it plays an important part in developing an environment in which bad bacteria can’t thrive, and also helps to protect your intestines from friction and erosion. While many people have naturally effective immune systems, immunity is often compromised as you age, or if you find yourself in stressful life situations.
Another way in which probiotics may contribute to better health is in helping to protect the lining of your gut. Your gastrointestinal tract contains bacteria which, while relatively harmless in your gut, would cause significant health issues were they to escape into your bloodstream. As we’ve already seen, the inside of your gut should be covered with mucosa, and probiotics can help in the production of this, keeping the bad guys out of your blood. Furthermore, the epithelial cells lining your colon (epithelial means the tissue which lines the services and cavities of your body’s organs and blood vessels) have something called adherence sites.
Adherence sites are locations where bacteria can attach themselves. Once healthy bacteria (via probiotics) have occupied these positions, the harmful bacteria are squeezed out, with no place for them to attach themselves. Finally, another of the benefits of probiotics is that they’re great overall at boosting general well-being and health, even for those who are already in good shape. A daily dose of probiotics, either as a supplement or in the form of food, is a good way to help you maintain a healthily balanced gut ready to defend itself against disease or stress.
Best probiotic yogurt (and other probiotics)
Yogurt is an excellent way to get bacteria into your digestive system as it is produced by bacterial fermentation of milk. Our ancient ancestors fermented milk in this way starting a very long time ago, so were in some ways early adopters of probiotics. When the Bible waxed lyrical about “the land of milk and honey” for instance, the “milk” was actually a fermented yogurt.
And Marco Polo wrote about kefir, a fermented milk drink (more details below) in his 13th century travel journals, alluding to what he called their “magical properties”. By definition all yogurt is produced by bacteria. But does that mean all yogurt contains bacteria?
Two types of bacteria, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus (thankfully usually abbreviated to L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus) are used to turn milk into yogurt via fermentation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they end up in the products you purchase in the store. You see some manufacturers heat-treat their yogurt after the fermentation process to give it a longer shelf-life. In the process, however, the bacteria - both good and bad - get killed off. So the first thing to look for in yogurt is the wording “Live and Active Cultures”.
In addition, it’s best to avoid yogurts which have lots of additives in the form of sugar, flavors, and coloring. Generally, the shorter the ingredients list, the better the yogurt will be for you. L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus are both regarded to some degree as having probiotic qualities, although it’s not absolutely clear that they are able to survive the stomach before reaching your gut.
Some commercially available yogurts have other species of probiotic bacteria added to them in addition to L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus (which are automatically in all live yogurts sold in the U.S. It can’t be called yogurt if it doesn’t contain those two.). A few to look out for are B. animalis lactis (appears to lower inflammation), B. lactis (may help with Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and L. casei (possible improvements to the gut barrier system). Overall, for the best probiotic yogurt it’s probably advisable to choose unsweetened, unflavored products, adding your own sweetener (e.g. honey) or flavor (fruit for example).
Foods with probiotics
Since everybody eats, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the food you consumed also helped to top up your microbiome’s good bacteria? Wouldn’t it be great if foods with probiotics could form part of your routine daily diet? Well the good news is, they can.
Before there was refrigeration, foodstuffs could be made to last longer through the process of fermentation. Think about foods such as sauerkraut and yogurt, made respectively from fermented cabbage, and milk. Both keep for a long time.
Let’s run through a few of the most widely available foods with probiotics then, and we’ll start with dairy products.
In addition to dairy foods, probiotics can also be found in items which have been fermented, but just as with yogurt it’s important to steer clear of products that have been heat-treated as this kills off the bacteria.
Are there side effects to probiotics?
Although it seems clear that probiotics can offer many benefits, it’s also important of course to know whether or not there are probiotics side effects. According to the U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the safety of probiotics depends largely on your state of health. In general, probiotics have a good safety record in people who are largely healthy. If side effects occur at all, they usually only consist of mild digestive symptoms such as gas. However some reports suggest a link between probiotics and severe side effects in people who have some pre-existing serious medical conditions. These side effects may include the possibility of infections.
Four types of people are most at risk from the severe side effects of probiotics:
(1) Patients who are critically ill
(2) Patients who have recently had surgery
(3) Infants who are very sick
(4) People with weakened (compromised) immune systems
If you are generally in good health, probiotics should be completely safe to take, but if you have any doubts at all, it’s sensible to seek the advice of your healthcare provider. And that’s particularly so if you plan to make significant changes to your dietary regime.
Some probiotics have shown promise in research, but strong evidence supporting their use for specific health conditions is lacking. Probiotic products that are consumed as dietary supplements are manufactured and regulated as foods, rather than as drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has so far not approved any probiotics for treating or preventing any health problem. What’s more, some experts warn that the rapid growth in probiotics use (and their marketing) may be outpacing scientific research for many of their proposed benefits and uses.
Health Benefits of Probiotics - The British Journal of Nutrition
Probiotics | NCCIH
Clinical Research on Probiotics: The Interface between Science and Regulation - Clinical Infectious Diseases
The Intestines (Human Anatomy)
A Systematic Review of the Safety of Probiotics - Expert Opinion on Drug Safety
uBiome is the leading microbial genomics company. They are pioneering a new era of microbiome-based precision medicine, which allow doctors, patients, and citizen scientists to learn about the human microbiome with unprecedented accuracy and speed.
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I am a Portuguese writer with certifications on Small Animal Nutrition.