The powerful health benefits of probiotics include improving gut health, increasing nutrient intake, boosting the immune system, weight loss, improving mood, treating diarrhea, 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 live bacteria that, when consumed through foods or supplements, are beneficial to our digestive system. They are also called good, healthy or friendly bacteria. Our digestive or gastrointestinal tract usually has trillions of gut bacteria and yeast, collectively known as ‘gut flora’. For the gastrointestinal system to function properly, the gut flora must be in balance. This helps counteract the negative effects of certain dietary choices, illnesses or medications.
When a person contracts a bacterial infection, antibiotics are often turned to as the immediate solution, but antibiotics kill bacteria arbitrarily, wiping out both good and bad bacteria in the intestinal tract. By eliminating the beneficial bacteria, the body is vulnerable to various digestive issues. Rapid replacement of these beneficial bacteria is very important, and introducing probiotics to a health regimen is an increasingly popular method to do just that.
Probiotics contain important strains of bacteria like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria which maintain and strengthen the gastrointestinal tract and helps overall health.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
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. Adding probiotics to a health regimen or diet is shown to decrease the severity and frequency of IBS. Particularly, the strain called Bifidobacterium Infantis appears to be the most successful in trials to this point.
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. Antibiotics can be very damaging to your intestinal processes, frequently resulting in AAD or CDD. 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.
Another common reason for the use of probiotics is as a treatment for constipation. 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.
Gastroenteritis is one of the main causes of acute diarrhea. It is the inflammation of the mucous membrane of the intestine. 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.
Probiotics contain bacteria that are effective in lowering total and LDL (bad) cholesterol. Probiotic bacteria absorb fiber from the intestines and as a result, they generate propionic acid. This particular acid has the ability to reduce the production of cholesterol by the liver.
Mental Health Conditions
Research shows that they play a major role in improving mood because there is a strong connection between the gut and the brain. People who were suffering from sadness were given probiotics and they showed signs of improvement and a reduction in negative thoughts. Studies are being undertaken to test if probiotics can help alleviate depression.
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 number 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.
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.
The consistent use of probiotics has also been effective in the treatment of yeast infections in women. 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. 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.
Gut health is linked to skin health. When the gut flora is in balance, the body is able to absorb nutrients and eliminate toxins. This helps prevent chronic inflammation, which causes acne and other skin problems.
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. Higher levels of these nutrients can positively affect the body in countless ways, including increased bone health and blood oxygenation, and improved memory.
Adding probiotics to your diet can also help reduce chronic fatigue. 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.
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.
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 are:
- Various types of yeast like Saccharomyces boulardii
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 use of probiotics has many health benefits, but they may also have certain health risks:
- Probiotic Sepsis: Excessive consumption may increase the risk of sepsis in adults and children.
- Intestinal Distress: 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.
- Intestinal Damage: 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: It 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.