Probiotics: What you need to know
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body. They can be found in yogurt and other fermented foods, dietary supplements, and beauty products.
Although people often think of bacteria and other microorganisms as harmful germs, many are actually helpful. Some bacteria help digest food, destroy disease-causing cells, or produce vitamins. Many of the microorganisms in probiotic products are the same as or similar to microorganisms that naturally live in our bodies.
According to Dr Shanique Hibbert, medical doctor, probiotics are made of good live bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live in your body. “You constantly have both good and bad bacteria in your body. When you get an infection, there is more bad bacteria, knocking your system out of balance. Good bacteria helps to eliminate extra bad bacteria, returning the balance. Probiotic-supplements are a way to add good bacteria to your body,” Dr Hibbert said.
Probiotics may contain a variety of microorganisms. The most common are bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifido bacterium. Other bacteria may also be used as probiotics, and so may yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii.
Different types of probiotics may have different effects. For example, if a specific kind of Lactobacillus helps prevent an illness, that does not necessarily mean that another kind of Lactobacillus or any of the Bifidobacterium probiotics would do the same thing.
There are several health benefits of probiotics, whether by way of food or supplements. Probiotics may help reduce diarrhoea caused by things like antibiotic use, cancer therapy, and hospital infections.
The digestive tract is protected by a thin but strong wall of cells called the gut barrier. This wall allows beneficial particles like electrolytes and water to pass from the intestines to the bloodstream while keeping partially digested food or disease-causing particles from slipping through.
When the gut barrier is damaged or inflamed, proteins and other bacteria may leak through the barrier. This is known as increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut syndrome.
Evidence shows that the integrity of the gut barrier can be affected by genetics, stress, alcohol use and may be disrupted by poor diet and certain medications.
“The good news is that probiotics seem to help with digestion. Studies show that the probiotics used to make products such as yogurt release lactase, which takes over the body’s usual responsibility of digestion. Some studies suggest probiotics can help relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive issues,” Dr Hibbert said.
Probiotics in general seem to influence an entire immunological network in the body, and tend to have the biggest potential early in life. If a mother consumes probiotic-rich food while pregnant, for example, she may reduce the child’s risk of allergy symptoms, such as skin rashes, nasal congestion, and watery eyes.
Certain strains she said may also decrease the incidence of chronic digestive disorders like celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
Probiotics may also help prevent food allergies, though more research is needed. One review suggested probiotics may help prevent eczema, a risk factor for food allergies in children, when used by pregnant or breastfeeding mothers or when given to infants.
“Fermented dairy products are high in probiotics but are also one of the major food allergens. That means some of the very foods that help prevent this food allergy are off-limits for those who already have the issue. The good news is if you have a food allergy, you can choose probiotic sources that are dairy-free or non-dairy fermented foods,” Dr Hibbert said.
Gut health is about more than just digestion. Scientific evidence shows that the gut and the brain stand in constant communication with each other. You may have noticed this connection when your stomach drops or you have a gut feeling. This gut-brain axis influences many mental health conditions.
“The bacteria in the gut produce neurotransmitters that are your body’s messengers. Neurotransmitters help with sleep, mood, as well as controlling your bladder and heart function. Stress is known to disturb the gut bacteria, which may affect the quantity and function of neurotransmitters. Probiotic can help repopulate the gut bacteria during and after periods of stress and have been shown to improve mood, sleep, and cognitive function,” Dr Hibbert said.
Up to 70 per cent of the body’s immune cells are found in the gut. Keeping the gut healthy is key to keeping the immune system functioning normally.
“Specific probiotics have been shown to improve the immune response. For example, the probiotic strain Bifidobacteria infantis has been shown to increase T regulatory cells. These cells help prevent autoimmune diseases and can help limit chronic inflammation diseases,” Dr Hibbert said.
During illness, the bacteria in the gut are often unbalanced, especially when you suffer from a stomach virus, food poisoning, or have had to take antibiotics. Probiotics replenish your gut flora with good bacteria and can help to balance the immune system.
“The gut microbiota plays an important role in how the body extracts energy or calories from food, so the gut may be an essential factor for weight loss. Some research shows that probiotic supplementation can result in weight loss,” Dr Hibbert said.
Probiotics are generally safe to take. Many available probiotics use strains of bacteria that are already found in a healthy digestive system or have been shown to be safe in foods so they are unlikely to cause harm.
However, probiotics often contain many strains of probiotic bacteria, each of which can cause different effects in the body. This is why choosing a formulation that addresses your health needs is the best way to go.
You also want to make sure that the product you are choosing is backed by substantial research, as well as scientific and clinical testing. As with most supplements, it is best to consult your doctor or healthcare provider before you introduce something new to your wellness routine.