Probiotics: What are they, and how do they help?
Improve Your Health – Adding Probiotics to Your Health
Under normal circumstances, your body maintains a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria. Trouble can arise when the bad bacteria overpower good bacteria, potentially compromising digestion and your immune system. You know the feeling: occasional bloating, poor digestion, irregularity, occasional diarrhea. That’s when the power of probiotics can actually be beneficial. Probiotics may sound new to the food and supplement industry, but they have been with us from our first breath. During a delivery through the birth canal, a newborn picks up bacteria from his/her mother. These good bacteria are not transmitted when a Cesarean section is performed and have been shown to be the reason why some infants born by Cesarean section have allergies, less than optimal immune systems, and lower levels of gut microflora.
What are probiotics anyway?
The root of the word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning “promoting” and biotic, meaning “life.” There is some debate about how to define probiotics. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. Most people think of antibiotics and antibacterial products when you mention bacteria. Both of those kill bacteria so why would you want to consume anything that has live bacteria in it? It’s all about balance. Our digestive system normally has what we would call “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria. Maintaining the correct balance between the “good” bacteria and the “bad” bacteria is necessary for optimal health. Things like medications, diet, diseases, emotional stress, lack of sleep, antibiotic overuse, other drugs, and environmental influences can all shift the balance in favor of the bad bacteria and can upset that balance and kill off the good bacteria in your gut.
How do probiotics work?
Probiotics are believed to protect us in two ways. The first is the role that they play in our digestive system. When the digestive tract is healthy, it filters out and eliminates things that can damage it, such as harmful bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and other waste products. On the flip side, it takes in the things that our body needs (nutrients from food and water) and absorbs and helps deliver them to the cells where they are needed. The other way that probiotics help is the impact that they have on our immune system. Some believe that this role is the most important. Our immune system is our protection against germs. When it doesn’t function properly, we can suffer from allergic reactions, autoimmune disorders (for example, ulcerative colitis), and infections (for example vaginal infections). By maintaining the correct balance from birth, the hope would be to prevent these ailments. Our immune system can benefit anytime that balanced is restored.
What foods can probiotics be found in?
Fermented dairy products have been advertised as containing “beneficial cultures.” These cultures are what would now be considered probiotics. Other foods currently claiming to provide probiotics are cereal, juice, frozen yogurt, and granola. Some studies have shown some benefits linked to Lactobacillus and treating and/or preventing yeast infections, urinary tract infection, irritable bowel syndrome, antibiotic-related diarrhea, traveler’s diarrhea, diarrhea resulting from Clostridium difficile, treating lactose intolerance, Another probiotic known as S. boulardii is the only yeast probiotic. Some studies have shown that it is effective in preventing and treating diarrhea associated with the use of antibiotics and traveler’s diarrhea. As with all probiotics, more research is needed to prove a definitive benefit, but studies have shown that bifidobacteria can help with IBS, dental cavities, improved blood lipids, and glucose tolerance.
As always, be sure to ask your doctor if probiotics are right for you.
Here’s to a happy and healthy start to your New and Improved YOU in 2014!!
Elizabeth Salada, MD –Internal Medicine and Wellness