Although people have consumed probiotics for thousands of years, scientists are just now beginning to fully understand how they affect our bodies. What are probiotics? Probiotics are bacteria or yeast that, when consumed, is thought to improve the function of the immune and digestive systems.
The human body needs the right balance of good and bad bacteria to function properly. Just as we take antibiotics to fight bad bacteria that make us sick, consuming probiotics encourages the growth of good bacteria that our body needs to digest food and ward off illness. Adding the right amount of probiotics to your diet may improve your health in many ways.
Here are 3 things you should know about probiotics:
Yes, our digestive system is teeming with millions of bacterium – and that’s a good thing. An improper balance of “gut flora” can lead to a number of digestive issues including gassiness, constipation, chronic halitosis (bad breath), bladder infections etc.
Lactobacillus is one of the most common kinds of bacteria in our intestines. Although lactobacilli occur naturally in humans’ urinary, digestive, and reproductive systems, they are also found in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, sourdough bread, as well as in over-the-counter supplements.
Bifidobacteria are found in the intestines and comprise the majority of the healthy bacteria in the colon. Breast milk contains many different species of bifidobacteria. As a result, this bacterium appears in the intestinal tracts of breastfed infants in the days immediately following birth. The amount of bifidobacteria in our gut decreases once we are weaned, but this probiotic can also be found in supplements and in yogurt, soy products, and certain soft cheeses.
Other species of probiotics include: S. boulardii, the only probiotic that is yeast; streptococcus thermophiles, a bacteria commonly used in dairy products; enterococcus faecium, found in the intestines of humans and animals; and leuconostoc, which has been used for hundreds of years to ferment foods such as cabbage and cucumbers.
Recent studies have indicated that probiotics can prevent or treat a number of conditions. Lactobacillus, for example, has been shown to improve digestive function by preventing diarrhea, urinary tract infections, irritable bowel syndrome, and lactose intolerance. It may also help prevent or treat respiratory infections and skin conditions such as acne and eczema.
Bifidobacteria have been shown to improve digestion in infants and children, prevent diarrhea, protect against dental cavities, regulate glucose tolerance and lipids in the blood stream. Research has indicated that S. boulardii may help prevent or treat many of the same conditions, in addition to fighting off Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium associated with stomach ulcers.
For most people, probiotics are safe for consumption. However, for people with comprised immune systems, eating probiotics may actually increase their chances of becoming ill or, if they’re already unwell, can make them even sicker.
Additionally, vitamins and supplements are not regulated by the FDA. It is a self-regulated industry in which manufacturers are responsible for providing a safe product that contains exactly what it is said to contain on the bottle. Manufacturers are only investigated by the FDA once their product has been shown to be unsafe.
So you cannot be completely sure of what a vitamin or supplement contains unless it has been tested by an unbiased third party, such as ConsumerLab. Products that have been tested and found to be safe for consumption and properly labeled are often marked with some sort of seal of approval.
Amidst an endless march of trendy diets, exercise fads, and fast food commercials, many people have gone in the opposite direction, opting instead to produce their own food and/or pay more money to eat fresh produce and meat free of pesticides and growth hormones. Probiotics are another step in that same direction – a necessary component to a healthy, well-rounded diet.
Proper nutrition becomes increasingly important as we age. It’s never too early or too late to start eating well. If you don’t know where to start, consider the help of a nutritionist or a health retreat where you’ll have the support of trained staff to answer any questions and transition you in a healthy fashion.
If you have any questions or concerns about consuming probiotics, consult your physician for more information.
Hayley Irvin is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. When she’s not creating awesome content for Marketing Zen, she’s writing about basketball, learning about space, and thwarting her cats’ plans to take over the world. Catch up with her on Twitter @HayleyNIrvin.