Unlike most health fads, probiotics have been a part of the healthy living conversation for at least a decade now. But what are they and are probiotics healthy for you? The word “probiotic” derives from the Greek phrase which means “for life”. In recent times, probiotic has come to refer to any organism or substance which can contribute to the balance of the natural microbial make up of your digestive system- especially your intestines.
At this point you’re probably wondering why we even have microbes that live in our digestive systems in the first place. Knowing this is the key to understanding what probiotics are and how they can be beneficial to you.
Even though scientists knew we had all kinds of living microbes in our intestines for a long time, it had been hard to define exactly what their function is. More recently however, researchers have provided several reasons why having microbes in your intestines is necessary for you.
Why you need your microbiome (and how probiotics help)
The microbes that live in your digestive system are collectively called the microbiome. Probiotics can boost the activities of your microbiome providing you with amazing health benefits.
- The immune cells in your intestines are able to tell the difference between good bacteria and bad bacteria. In the presence of good bacteria, the immune cells in your intestines produce chemicals that allow your entire digestive system to remain healthy or to maintain what is known as homeostasis. When homeostasis is disrupted, it can lead to many painful conditions including Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis.
- Bacteria in your intestines produce chemicals that help with the breakdown of certain foods. If for some reason those bacteria are no longer there, it becomes challenging to digest those foods.
- The microbiome composition in newborns has also been suggested to predict which children will become allergic to specific food allergens and vice versa.
- There is now evidence that the microbiome may help to limit cancer growth. Probiotics can boost this function.
- The presence of the microbiome primes your body to fight effectively against “bad bacteria”.
- There is currently a procedure called fecal transplant. In one of the first studies describing this procedure, patients who had recurring infection with Clostridium difficile, a very stubborn bacterial infection of the intestine, saw a reversal of the infection once they had received a fecal transplant. A fecal transplant involves taking the stool from a healthy donor and placed into the intestines of the person struggling with the recurring infection. The idea behind this is that the healthy microbes from the donor stool will repopulate the recipients intestines, restoring balance and therefore preventing another infection. Fecal transplants are now a routine treatment at various hospitals.
- Certain bacteria in your intestines can break down bile which in turn reduces cholesterol levels. In a paper published by the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, an analysis of six separate studies showed that eating yogurt which contained probiotics for 4-8 weeks produced a 4% decrease in cholesterol and a 5% decrease in LDLs (bad fats).
Are Probiotics healthy for you?
Based on what we’ve uncovered above, it goes without saying that probiotics are healthy for you. Thus for a healthy person who has no underlying digestive tract problems, a dose of probiotics each day can do wonders for your digestive system. It also helps to prevent some of the conditions we listed above.
For people that have an imbalance in their microbiome, probiotics have been shown to:
- Relieve constipation
- Treat diarrhea
- Relieve inflammation
- Reduce the effects of bacterial infection
- Restore a healthy intestine that helps fight bad bacteria off as in the case of Clostridium difficile.
Foods that contain probiotics include:
- Pickled foods
- Dark chocolates
There are also probiotic supplements that you can take by mouth.
Probiotics are healthy for you.
However, if you have a pre-existing condition with your digestive tract, speak with your doctor to make sure taking probiotics is the right step for you. Probiotics are still bacteria. You should therefore take care if you plan on taking it and have an underlying health condition. And be sure to report your diet in your Health Risk Assessment.
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