What Are Probiotics?

probioticsThe word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning "promoting" and biotic, meaning "life" and this essentially tells you everything you need to know about what probiotics are. They help with a diverse variety of health problems, ranging from fighting or preventing colds right through to constipation to diarrhoea. You can find probiotics in food and drinks and health supplements; they are live bacteria that naturally occur in certain foods. But do they work?

Probiotics can be defined as "live microorganisms" which essentially means bacteria. Most people assume that we need to kill bacteria in our systems, but actually the body requires a balance between "good" bacteria and "bad" bacteria in order to maintain optimal health. We house microflora or microbiota in our gut, with the majority found in the colon. These intestinal bacteria aid in digestion, synthesize vitamins and nutrients, metabolize some medications, support the development and functioning of the gut, and enhance the immune system. Certain medications, your diet, diseases, and the environment can upset that balance in your body, which is why you may decide to opt for probiotics.

How Can Probiotics Improve Health?

A healthy gut filters out and eliminates anything that might damage it, such as harmful bacteria, toxins, chemicals, and other waste products. It also absorbs the things that our body needs (nutrients from food and water) and delivers them to the cells where they are needed. Probiotics ensure that this happens by not killing off all of the bad bacteria. Imbalance leads to diarrhoea, urinary tract infections, muscle pain, and fatigue.

Probiotics also impact on our immune system, which is vital to protect us from germs. When the immune system doesn't function properly, we will suffer from allergic reactions, autoimmune disorders (for example, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and rheumatoid arthritis), and infections.

Certain studies have linked probiotics to a decrease in high blood pressure, a decrease in cholesterol levels and an improvement in dental hygiene. The probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri for example, kills the bacteria that causes tooth decay and lessens the harmful effects of gingivitis. Using probiotics can also reduce any diarrhoea episodes you may suffer with, prevent colds and respiratory illnesses and reduce the risk of developing eczema.

Probiotics are also known to combat the effects of antibiotics or birth control pills, pregnancy or diabetes within the delicate vaginal area. Women prone to yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or urinary tract infections (UTIs), should consider using probiotics.

What Are the Different Types of Probiotics?

There are a number of probiotics which you may have heard of on television commercials etc. These include:

1. Lactobacillus

There are 50 plus species of lactobacilli that can be found in the digestive, urinary, and genital systems. Foods that are fermented, like yogurt, and dietary supplements also contain these bacteria. Lactobacillus can treat and prevent a wide variety of diseases and conditions, including yeast infections, skin disorders and eczema and acne.

2. Bifidobacteria

There are approximately 30 species of bifidobacteria and they make up approximately 90% of the healthy bacteria in the colon. They appear in the intestinal tract within days of birth, especially in breastfed infants. Bifidobacteria can help with IBS, dental decay, improved blood lipids, and glucose tolerance.

3. Saccharomyces boulardii

The only yeast probiotic, Saccharomyces boulardii is effective in preventing and treating diarrhoea associated with the use of antibiotics and traveller's diarrhoea.

4. Streptococcus thermophilus

Streptococcus thermophilus produces large amounts of the enzyme lactase, which makes it effective in the deterrence of lactose intolerance.

Which Foods Contain Probiotics?

Probiotics are found in fermented dairy products along with certain types of cereal, juice, frozen yogurt, granola and health bars. They can be found in fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut or kimchi, miso and pickles, and live-cultured yogurt. They're also added to some high-end dark chocolate and are available as supplements. However, there is no guarantee that they contain them in the amount or in the form that is necessary to get the health benefits you may be looking for to supplement your diet.

What Are the Side Effects and Risks of Probiotics?

Health supplements are rarely monitored in the same way that drugs or food are so no one can be sure of the safety or content of the probiotic supplements available. Some studies have shown many health benefits of probiotics, but more research still needs to be undertaken to ensure that probiotics are safe and effective. This is especially true for children, pregnant women, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems. In fact, those who have suppressed immune systems due to disease or treatment for a disease (such as cancer chemotherapy) may find that taking probiotics can increase the chances of getting sick. If you are in any doubt, always consult your doctor in the first instance.

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