The health benefits of probiotics include an increase in nutrient intake, boosting the immune system, weight loss, improving mood, relieving a number of gastrointestinal issues, and preventing serious illnesses like cancer and Crohn’s disease. They help to maintain the vital balance of good and bad bacteria in our digestive tract while alleviating muscle pain and fatigue.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are actually defined as “any microorganism that stimulates behavior in another microorganism”, but in practical applications today, they can be thought of as any microorganism that positively benefits our intestinal microbial balance. They are living organisms that can significantly benefit their host. Most commonly, they are bacteria that are naturally occurring and are already present in our bodies. Many people have a negative connotation with the term “bacteria”, but it is important to understand that there are good bacteria as well as bad bacteria. However, both of them are necessary. For the gastrointestinal system to function properly, the two types of bacteria must be in balance. The addition of probiotics to a diet can maintain this healthy balance by building up positive forms of bacteria to counteract the negative effects of certain dietary choices.
These bacteria are first conferred upon us as infants during the passage through the birth canal, transferred from our mothers. This is the reason why babies delivered by Cesarean section have significantly lower levels of beneficial bacteria and some have slightly weaker immune systems and a susceptibility to allergies.
The first official use of the word in its present definition was approximately 50 years ago, but the full range and application potential for these beneficent bacteria wasn’t fully understood until the 1980’s.
Types of Probiotics
There are a number of different probiotic types or “strains” that are specifically chosen for their unique properties, depending on what gastrointestinal symptom the user would like to alleviate or eliminate. The most commonly used types of probiotics are:
Bacilli and various types of yeast like Saccharomyces boulardii also function as probiotics.
Sources of Probiotics
Probiotics can be ingested through:
- Fermented dairy products like yogurt
- Goat’s cheese, kefir, and buttermilk
- Kombucha, a fermented tea
- Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, miso, and pickle
- Dietary supplements
- Certain leafy greens also contain probiotics, but in lower concentrations
The health benefits of probiotics include the following:
Increased Nutrient Intake
Probiotics can positively impact bio-availability, which means that the body is more capable of extracting beneficial nutrients from the food we eat so none of it goes to waste. Improving the body’s ability to extract important vitamins and minerals like iron, copper, calcium, and zinc, as well as all of the B vitamins is one of the most important roles that probiotics can play in a person’s intestinal system. Higher levels of these nutrients can positively affect the body in countless ways, including increased bone health and blood oxygenation, improved memory, and many others.
Boosted Immune System
By consuming probiotics and actively working to maintain the balance of good and bad bacteria within your gastrointestinal system, you can actually improve the strength and efficiency of your immune system. Probiotic bacteria can inhibit the reproduction and survival of harmful pathogens in the gut, and they can also regulate the amount of antibodies present in the intestines. This, in turn, leads to a stronger immune system that is better suited and prepared to fight off disease and illness. Autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s Disease, and ulcerative colitis are more common when the levels of good and bad bacteria are imbalanced, so probiotics can help regulate intestinal homeostasis, and even save your life.
This point is closely related to the higher rate of weak immune systems in newborns delivered via Cesarean section. This condition occurs because they don’t have the immediate presence of probiotic-type bacteria to establish a healthy immune system against the pathogens to which they are exposed at an early age.
Probiotics can be very helpful for people suffering from the effects of lactose intolerance. This inability of the body to process lactose (due to a lack of the enzyme lactase) can cause serious digestive problems, but some studies have shown probiotics to lessen the effects of lactose intolerance when lactose is ingested. This is due to a strain of probiotics called Acidophilus, as well as other similar types of bacteria, which produce similar effects as lactase and are able to break down and promote the digestion of lactose. Using probiotics does not eliminate the condition of lactose intolerance in individuals, but it can alleviate certain irritating and painful symptoms.
Constipation & Diarrhea Treatment
Another common reason for the use of probiotics is as a treatment for constipation and diarrhea. Constipation is often caused by an inadequate intake of water or fiber, hypothyroidism, or as a side effect of a medication. Poor regulation of fecal enzyme activity in the gut can also be to blame. Probiotics can balance the enzyme activity and help to speed up the process of digestion and excretion, thereby eliminating the uncomfortable condition of constipation that afflicts many people in varying levels of severity.
Diarrhea is on the other extreme of digestive issues, and studies show that probiotics can also help regulate the intestinal processes to decrease diarrhea. This uncomfortable affliction can be labeled as antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD), acute infectious diarrhea, or Clostridium difficile disease (CDD), a condition also related to the use of antibiotics. As explained earlier, antibiotics can be very damaging to your intestinal processes, frequently resulting in AAD or CDD.
Research studies suggest that probiotics may help in decreasing gastrointestinal symptoms in children suffering from atopic dermatitis. Probiotics such as Bifidobacteria and Streptococcus thermophilus help in preventing diarrhea in infants (rotaviral diarrhea) and traveler’s diarrhea.
By replenishing the good bacteria eliminated by the antibiotics with probiotics in your diet, it is possible to decrease or eliminate chronic or individual episodes of diarrhea.
Gastroenteritis is one of the main causes of acute diarrhea. It is the inflammation of the mucous membrane of the intestine. Research studies indicate preventative effects of probiotics on gastroenteritis and diarrhea.
Studies indicate that probiotics may improve or prevent the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome in a significant number of test subjects. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is not the result of a known organic factor, and is characterized by abdominal pain, unpredictable bowel movements, and bloating. A number of different causes have been cited, including environmental, physical, and mental stress, but as there is no organic cause, there is also no cure. Adding them to a health regimen or diet is shown to decrease the severity and frequency of IBS, particularly the strain called Bifidobacterium Infantis which appears to be the most successful in trials to this point.
Reduction of Yeast Infections
The consistent use of probiotics has also been effective in the treatment of yeast infections in women. Previous modes of treatment did not approach the problem with an oral or intestinal solution, but various Lactobacilli strains of probiotics can be ingested orally and the beneficial effects will treat symptoms in the reproductive system. Studies have also reflected that these types of probiotics can help to treat urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis, as well as the more common yeast vaginitis.
Studies show that probiotics may help in weight loss and tackle belly fat and that obese people have 70% or less gut flora than people who are at a healthy weight. Further research also showed that eating yogurt, which is a natural source of probiotic bacteria, prevented age-associated weight gain. Certain gut bacteria may also change insulin sensitivity in people, helping maintain stable sugar levels and burning fat which the body would have otherwise stored.
Adding probiotics to your diet can also help reduce chronic fatigue. The body is a strange machine, and our systems are often interconnected in unexpected ways. Recent studies have shown a link between intestinal bacteria imbalance, the immune system, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Although CFS is not fully understood, the symptoms can be reduced or eliminated by the use of probiotics to re-establish the balance of bacteria in your intestinal systems.
Side Effects of Probiotics
The use of probiotics has many health benefits, but they may also have certain health risks:
The use of probiotics may increase the risk of sepsis in adults and children.
Although they are often used to treat or prevent serious intestinal conditions, the addition of billions of new bacteria to the gut can often cause an increase in less serious symptoms like bloating or gas due to the high levels of daily probiotics some people add to their diet.
For some people who have already had intense physical stress on their intestinal systems, such as ulcerative colitis or bowel perforations, caution should be taken before adding huge numbers of microbes to your intestinal system. If the gut is already compromised, it could also be damaged further. Negative effects of this type are quite rare but must be noted. Consult your doctor if you’ve had this type of condition in the past and are considering adding probiotics to your health regimen.
Immune System Vulnerability
Probiotics can occasionally have negative effects on an already compromised immune system. Balance is important in all things, and an excess of microbial growth in the stomach, even of beneficial bacteria, can cause the immune system to weaken or malfunction, opening the door for a host of dangerous pathogens and diseases. If you have a chronically weak immune system, be cautious before using probiotics and consult with your doctor before moving forward in your dietary change.