Our intestines are full of bacteria, both friendly “good” bacteria and not friendly (disease-causing) “bad” bacteria. In order to maintain good health and digestion, we need a ratio of 80% “good” bacteria and 20% “bad” bacteria.
When we consume a diet full of nutrient-depleted, processed, and sugary foods, we feed the “bad” bacteria and lose the “good” bacteria. Eventually, an imbalance can develop which results in a variety of different health problems and medical conditions. This is where probiotics (the micro-warriors) come in.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are thought to be beneficial in preventing several health conditions. They are usually consumed as supplements or yogurts and are also referred to as “good bacteria.”
According to the 2001 definition by the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotics are “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Research supports the role of a healthy intestinal environment (microflora) in disease protection and prevention. Probiotics affect intestinal bacteria by increasing the numbers of beneficial bacteria and decreasing the population of “bad” bacteria. They help to restore the natural balance of good bacteria in the intestinal tract.
Because your gut flora is fed and nourished by the foods you consume, you don’t necessarily need to take probiotics if you are in good health and are consuming a healthy (plant-based) diet. Eating a diet rich in organic vegetables, fruits, and beans naturally balances intestinal flora. The factors that appear to decrease an individual’s immunity or ability to resist the effects of “bad bacteria” include a diet high in animal proteins and fat, a low-fiber diet, antibiotic use, age, stress, inflammatory conditions, malnutrition, digestion problems and immune status.
Probiotics are most often used to promote digestive health. Many people think that probiotics are only good for gastrointestinal issues, but they have other benefits as well.
Research has suggested that probiotic bacteria can:
Improve digestive function.
Help with side effects of antibiotic therapy.
Help reduce the risk of certain acute common infectious diseases.
Improve tolerance to lactose.
Enhance immune function.
Promoting oral health.
Preventing and treating certain skin conditions like eczema.
Promoting health in the urinary tract and vagina.
Because there are different kinds of probiotics, it is important to find the right one for the specific health benefit you seek.
Who Should Take Probiotics?
Probiotics can be of value in the treatment of a variety of health concerns. These include diarrhea associated with antibiotic intake, acute infectious diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Prebiotics vs. Probiotics: What’s the Difference?
Prebiotics differ from probiotics. They are non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. They are found naturally in a variety of foods including onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, artichokes, oats, and bananas.
Where are Probiotics Found?
In addition to yogurts and fermented drinks, probiotics are also found in dietary supplements, such as tablets and powders, as well as suppositories and creams.
Are Probiotics Safe?
Probiotics are generally considered safe because they are already present in a normal digestive system. But, there is a theoretical risk for people with severely impaired immune function and/or serious illnesses (HIV/AIDS, pancreatitis, etc).
Keep in mind that probiotics are considered dietary supplements and are not FDA-regulated like drugs. They are not standardized, meaning they are made in different ways by different companies and have different additives. Be sure the ingredients are clearly marked on the label and familiar to you or your health provider.
The best advice is to choose products from well-known companies, especially those that have been tested in clinical research studies.
Remember every time you eat or drink you are either feeding disease or fighting it.
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Hempel, S, et al. Probiotics for the Prevention and Treatment of Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis. JAMA. May 2012. JAMA. 2012;307(18):1959-1969.
Sanders M. How do we know when something called “Probiotic” is really a Probiotic? A guideline for Consumers and Health Care Professionals. Functional Food Reviews. 2009;1:3-12.