06 Jun Probiotics: Bacteria That’s Good For You
By Stella Sarkisyan, Contributing Blogger
The history of probiotics is an old one that goes as far back as the Bible, which mentions sour milk. While the idea of eating live bacteria may seem strange, the use of probiotics for good health goes back in time. In the 1800’s Ukraine-born scientist Elie Metchnikoff observed the connection between yogurt consumption by Bulgarian peasants and improved health and longevity. Here’s a quick look into the world of probiotics so you can incorporate their age-old wisdom into your healthy lifestyle.
Probiotics & Prebiotics
Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms that live around us and inside our bodies. They can be found on our skin as well as in our ears and mouth, but are most prominent in our gut. There are many different types of bacteria in our bodies, some thought to be harmful and others beneficial to our health. Probiotics are strains of live bacteria that lead to health benefits when enough is eaten. Most probiotics familiar to us are found in fermented foods such as Greek yogurt and cheese (like feta and Gouda).
Gut bacteria survive by feeding on, or fermenting, fibers and plant parts. In our bodies, helpful probiotic bacteria ferment the sugar from these plants and turn them into acids. In the process, they grow in number and often produce gas (a cause of flatulence) as well as nutrients that we use for our benefit. Prebiotics are the preferred foods of these helpful probiotics. Prebiotics include fruit and vegetable fibers and other undigested plant parts that support the growth of good bacteria. The more good bacteria we have, the less room there is for the bad kind.
Probiotics and Health
The helpful bacteria in our gut are always competing with the harmful strains for food and space. While there is usually a balance between the two, sometimes the harmful bacteria can grow faster and cause a ‘dysbiosis,’ or unfavorable shift in the number of harmful bacteria. This shift has been linked to diarrhea and is suspected in colon cancer, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), heart disease, obesity, and allergic reactions in children. It has also been shown that the types of bacteria in the gut of people who are overweight, obese, or have type 2 diabetes are sometimes different from those that are healthier.
Bacterial groups in our gut can change over time as we age and as we change our lifestyle and eating habits. Probiotics help increase the number of bacteria that keep us healthy. These healthy bacteria help keep us regular, strengthen our immune system, and keep the gut cells strong, making it difficult for foreign invaders to slip into your body. They can even produce lactase, a compound that helps the lactose-intolerant digest dairy products!
Traditional sources include familiar fermented foods like yogurts, kefir, aged cheeses, and other dairy products. Probiotics are also found in pickles, sauerkraut, miso soup, kim-chi and kombucha tea. More surprising sources include micro algae and some dark chocolates! While these whole foods will supply all the probiotics you need, supplements are also available as powders, drinks, creams, suppositories, and chewable tablets. If you choose to turn to supplements, be sure to do your homework first.
You can also make your own probiotics by pickling! This hot new trend is a great way to incorporate your favorite vegetables into homemade probiotics. It’s recommended that you use a salt brine and avoid high heat and high-acidity vinegars to maximize probiotics. Here is helpful information to get you started.
Choosing the Right Probiotics
Some supplement drinks make probiotic claims, so check the label to ensure that it states ‘contains live active cultures.’ Common strains of probiotics you might find on a label include Bifidobaceria and Lactobacilli –these are some of the names of the good-for-you bacteria. If you’re looking to use probiotics for the treatment of specific conditions, like allergies, Crohn’s disease, or IBD, it’s best to seek the advice of a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) and your physician.
The effects of probiotics can be felt in as little as 3 – 4 days, or as long as 4 – 6 weeks. Keep in mind that the benefits of probiotics are short term, and they must be taken regularly to maintain benefits. While eating billions of tiny bacteria may seem risky, probiotic use is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, with most side effects limited to the possibility of mild gastrointestinal discomfort.