If you have ever come across a health magazine or yogurt commercial recently, then surely you must have noticed a great emphasis being put on the notion of ‘probiotics’. From better digestion, slimmer waists, and better moods, these small, yet highly efficient bacteria promise to completely revolutionize your life from within.
Even so, why are probiotics a breakthrough in overall health? It’s true, we all know that eating properly can benefit your entire organism, but to what extent? Can something as ‘simple’ as a disruption in the intestinal system actually affect your whole body or is it just another commercial hoax?
Well, if we were to look at recent medical studies and the nutritional hype of the past decades, then the conclusion to be drawn is that you really are – or, rather, become – what you eat. As it turns out, intestinal health does greatly reflect on a person’s general wellbeing, not only in terms of digestion and nutritional assimilation, but also in which concerns immunity, mental stability, and long-term self-care.
This occurs in light of the fact that the majority of favourable or damaging substances have to first pass through the stomach and intestines before being properly incorporated into the body. Not surprisingly, probiotics play an important part in this system, being the foundation towards achieving a better quality of life.
What are probiotics?
In plain terms, probiotics are beneficial microorganisms that exist naturally at the level of the intestinal, urinary, and vaginal systems. In which concerns the digestive tract, they are crucial in maintaining the microflora balance and, thus, facilitating digestion, alongside ensuring adequate nutrient absorption and protection against diseases. As a result, probiotics are often referred to as ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria.
The significance of the word ‘probiotic’ traces back its etymological roots to a Latin and Greek compound that translates to ‘for life’. Paradoxically, although they are anaerobes – meaning that they can thrive in an environment which completely lacks oxygen – probiotics greatly improve both human and animal life by keeping the gastrointestinal system working optimally when present at this level in normal numbers.
These types of ‘friendly’ bacteria were discovered at the end of the 19th century by Élie Metchnikoff, a Ukrainian zoologist and Nobel Prize winner famous for his pioneering studies concerning the immune system. Through his research, he discovered that probiotics are vital in internal food processing and, at the same time, a way for the body to regulate its own response towards microbes and other harmful pathogens that might threaten health in general.
How do probiotics work?
Even though it might come as a surprise to some, the gut is, in truth, house to between 500 and 2 000 different types of microorganisms, both ‘good’ (such as probiotics) and ‘bad’ (parasites, pathogens, fungi, etc.). The ideal balance between them would situate probiotics at an advantageous side of the 80/20 ratio, but, understandably, this relationship is rarely as ‘perfect’ as might otherwise be desired. This is where foods that contain probiotics and dietary supplements come in, to try and regulate these dynamics from the ‘outside’. But how do probiotics actually work?
As previously pointed out, probiotics are a normal part of the gastrointestinal tract, where they can be found actively supporting the digestive processes. By producing substances such as enzymes, these ‘friendly’ bacteria facilitate food decomposition and intestinal motility (bowel movement). The subsequent nutritional intake is majorly aided and simplified by these live elements, hence ensuring that beneficial substances are properly integrated into the organism.
In addition, probiotics are also responsible for weight management and fat shedding. Consider this: since your body is receiving all the nutrients it needs through improved digestion patterns, why would it need to store any additional weight? As a result, regular bowel activity and adequate food processing thus guarantee a better figure, alongside better health in general.
Moreover, since approximately 60-80% of the immune system is located at the level of the gut, probiotics are essential in promoting screening against the effects of microbes and other noxious organisms. Unlike probiotics, other harmful elements are not anaerobes, making them more vulnerable to the shielding ability of ‘good’ bacteria. This, in turn, leads to far fewer chances of abdominal discomfort, infections, inflammations, toxic accumulations, and even cancer.
And not to mention the fact that gut bacteria is in charge with approximately 95% of serotonin production (also known as the ‘happiness’ regulator), with probiotics promoting stabilized moods, better self-confidence, and reduced likelihood of mental illnesses in an organic and sustained fashion.
What are the main advantages of probiotics?
- improved digestion and enhanced nutrient absorption at the level of the gut
- regularized bowel movement
- active protection against pathogens and harmful microorganisms
- reduced changes of urinary and vaginal infections
- ameliorated symptoms at the intestinal level (bloating, gas, abdominal pain, heartburn, etc.)
- better resistance in which concerns allergies
- considerably less gastrointestinal issues (including diarrhea and constipation, for example)
- improved defence against vaginal infections for women (particularly of the yeast and fungal type)
- detoxification of the entire body
- heightened liver functions
- strengthened immunity response
- the development of better lactose tolerance
- better calcium assimilation (preventing osteoporosis and other bone illnesses)
- prevention of negative dietary habits such as ‘stress’ or ‘emotional’ eating
- less cholesterol and plaque deposits on arteries
- ensuring active intestinal rebalancing after prolonged usage of antibiotics
- stabilized levels of acid, pH, and hormones
- overall better moods and lowered risk of developing mental problems (like depression and anxiety, even Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s as we progress in age)
- greater energy levels throughout the day
- increased focus, concentration, mental stability, and clarity
- inhibiting the future formation of tumours or various types of cancer
- considerably reduced changes of developing skin problems, etc.
What types of probiotics are the most efficient?
Sustained medical research has revealed that the most efficient strains of probiotics are the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genus, which occur both in the body on their own and in certain commercialized products. Between these ‘good’ bacteria, their numerous subtypes, and positive effects we can include:
- Bifidobacterium bifidum – is among the most widespread subgenres of probiotics and can be found in humans and animals not only within the intestinal tract, but also in the vaginal system and even breast milk of women. Its benefits include protection against yeast infections, E coli, and diarrhea, as well as better immunity in time.
- Lactobacillus acidophilus – is a ‘friendly’ bacterium which transforms sugars from dairy products into lactic acid. Hence, this probiotic has the potential to be a ‘best friend’ for those who suffer from lactose intolerance, particularly since it can withstand high levels of stomach acid. In addition, it has been known to fight off yeast infections.
- Bifidobacterium longum – with a great resistance to intestinal acids, this ‘good’ bacterium can be found all along the gastrointestinal tract. It facilitates digestion, wards off yeast infections, and normalizes cholesterol readings. Some medical studies have additionally shown that the Bifidobacterium longum probiotic may also contribute to allergy prevention and eliminate cancer installation.
- Lactobacillus casei – represents a probiotic which can be found in green olives and many dairy products currently available on the market. By producing an enzyme named amylase, Lactobacillus casei strengthens your intestines and colon, protects you against intestinal problems, and, obviously, greatly improves digestion of even the most ‘problematic’ foods.
- Streptococcus thermophilus – though not of the Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium type, this oddly sounding probiotic presents a variety of positive contributions towards both digestive health and immunity protection. Thus, Streptococcus thermophilus actively participates in improving lactose tolerance (by breaking down the sugars in milk products), shortening the period of diarrhea episodes (especially after antibiotics administration), and alleviates lower intestine inflammation.
- Bifidobacterium animalis – this probiotic is utilized widely in the production of natural yogurts not only for its fermentative properties, but also for its nutritive and health value. Consequently, it aids with iron and B-complex vitamins absorption, diarrhea episodes management, alleviation of intestinal inflammation, and E colitis management.
- Lactobacillus salivarius – as the name suggests, this ‘friendly’ bacterium is most commonly found both in the oral cavity and along the intestinal system. One of its many attributes is combating harmful microorganisms and thus maintaining immunity levels at optimal functionality. What is more, Lactobacillus salivarius can manage all kinds of abdominal issues (from bloating to gas formation) and meliorate inflammation.
What foods contain the most probiotics?
While probiotics are an organic part of every intestinal system, the variations that inevitably occur due to factors such as dietary changes or diseases, for instance, often disturb this balance. This requires for probiotic ‘backup’, in the form of various foods and supplements:
- Yogurt – probably the most famous probiotic food, yogurt is renowned for its capacity to alleviate digestion and improve bowel movement. It can also significantly boost your calcium, magnesium, and B-complex vitamins levels, as well as regulate cholesterol.
- Sauerkraut – fermented cabbage might not be everyone’s first choice for a side dish, but it should be: with over 13 types of probiotics in its composition, sauerkraut actively improves food processing and protects immunity. What is more, it shows a very low caloric count, in addition to being a very good antioxidant.
- Sourdough bread – gets this name and distinct sour taste from the yeast used in its production. The fermentation process then generates a variety of Lactobacillus probiotics (amongst which we can enumerate Lactobacillus fermentum and Lactobacillus reuteri), which greatly promote digestive and immune health.
- Kefir – is a type of sour drink created from the fermentation process of milk. Kefir is rich in vitamins, minerals, and amino acids, not to mention probiotics. With over 30 types in its makeup, this dairy product contains a unique ‘good’ bacterium called Lactobacillus kefiri that protects the body against illnesses such as E coli and salmonella.
- Miso soup – is a staple of Japanese cuisine and a delicious way of maintaining gastrointestinal health. Made from Miso paste (fermented soy beans), dashi (a rich fish stock), vegetables, and algae, this dish becomes both rich in probiotics and other nutritional elements (for example, vitamin B12).
- Cheese – soft cheeses such as Cheddar, Mozzarella, Parmesan, etc. are preferred in this case, since they maintain their probiotic numbers intact (they have not been treated with heat). Hence, they employ their probiotic count towards better food digestion, enhanced protein assimilation, providing a good calcium boost, and better lactose tolerance.
- Pickles – choose pickles fermented in brine (a highly concentrated mixture of salt and water) over those preserved in vinegar so as to maintain the probiotic levels at an all time high. As a result, you will be able to enjoy facilitated bowel movements, increased immune protection, and better nutrient absorption within the gut.
- Dietary supplements – are ideal for those who suffer from various allergies or simply cannot include the above foods into their routine diet. Recent pharmaceutical developments have lead to the fact that greater amounts of probiotics can be maintained active for longer periods of time within such pills and powders, for instance, making dietary supplements a reliable source of probiotics.
Why are probiotics important for overall health?
As can be seen, probiotics constitute a highly important part of any healthy and properly functioning digestive system. As small and apparently insignificant as they might seem, these beneficial microorganisms are actually in charge of not only of our intestinal wellbeing, but equally with our immune response and general mental status.
From less stomach pains and chances of getting sick to better looking skin and a slimmer figure, probiotics seem to be a literal ‘fountain of youth’ for overall human health. Another advantage is that they already exist in our bodies and only need a ‘push’ from time to time, which can be easily acquired through fermented foods, dairy products, supplements, etc.
In conclusion, you should really have probiotics in mind when planning your next meal, since they can make a clear difference in your health, disease resistance, and even happiness. So remember: feeling good on the inside will ultimately show on the outside!