How do good bacteria impact gut health?

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The benefits of probiotics

You’ve probably heard of probiotics if you’ve ever seen a yogurt commercial. But what are they, and how are they beneficial to your health?

Our bodies are home to trillions of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. While we typically associate these critters with illness, some microorganisms are our friends.

Take bacteria. Some of the nastiest bacterial infections include E. coli, salmonella, meningitis, and strep throat. When these “bad” or harmful bacteria overrun the “good” bacteria in our systems, infections take hold. With strength in numbers, good or beneficial bacteria can help fend off infections and keep us healthy.

Probiotics defined

As defined by the Mayo Clinic, probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the “good” bacteria (normal microflora) in the body. These beneficial bacteria, which live primarily in the gut or large intestine, help eliminate harmful bacteria during infection and return a healthy balance to the system.

Discovering probiotics

In the early 1900s, Nobel-prize-winning scientist Elie Metchnikoff discovered that an extraordinary number of Bulgarian peasants lived to be centenarians, past the age of 100. He researched links between their age and lifestyle and noted that they were drinking a daily fermented yogurt. The bacteria in the drink seemingly improved their health and extended their lifespan.

The benefits of probiotics

Today, the health-conscious look to probiotics for similar health benefits. And the science is backing it up. Evidence suggests that some illnesses can be treated or prevented with foods and supplements containing certain live bacteria. According to Harvard Medical School, potential benefits of probiotics have been seen in the treatment or prevention of:

  • Diarrhea
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • H. pylori (the cause of ulcers)
  • Vaginal infections
  • Urinary tract infections
  • Recurrence of bladder cancer
  • Infection of the digestive tract caused by Clostridium difficile
  • Pouchitis (a possible side effect of surgery that removes the colon)
  • Eczema in children

Other studies have shown that probiotics may reduce depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions; improve heart health by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure; strengthen immune response, and play a role in cancer prevention.

How probiotics work

When we introduce probiotics to our bodies, beneficial bacteria make their way to our microbiome. There, they interact with other bacteria, encouraging the growth of even more beneficial bacteria and inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria. They also interact with the intestine directly, reducing inflammation and helping to heal any damage to the intestinal walls. Last, probiotics may also boost our immune systems by crowding out harmful bacteria and promoting the production of antibodies.

Sources of probiotics

Food sources

  • Yogurt – made from fermented milk
  • Kefir – fermented probiotic milk drink
  • Sauerkraut – fermented shredded cabbage
  • Tempeh – a fermented soybean product
  • Kimchi – a fermented, spicy Korean side dish
  • Miso – a Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with salt, and koji
  • Kombucha – a fermented black or green tea drink
  • Pickles
  • Traditional buttermilk – a fermented dairy drink (note that cultured buttermilk is not a good source of probiotics)
  • Natto – a fermented soybean product similar to tempeh and miso
  • Some cheeses – Gouda, mozzarella, cheddar, and cottage cheese

When looking for sources of quality probiotics, be sure to check the labels for the words “live cultures” or “active cultures.”

Supplements

As with any dietary supplement, it’s important to remember that most probiotic supplements are not regulated by the FDA and do not undergo the same testing or approval process that drugs do.

There are many strains of probiotics, so to ensure the maximum benefit, talk to a provider familiar with probiotics to discuss your options.

Risks of probiotics

While some may experience temporary symptoms including gas, bloating, and abdominal discomfort, probiotic foods and supplements are generally considered safe, particularly as they exist naturally in the body. However, the elderly and the very young who have less robust immune systems and others who have compromised immune systems may wish to avoid probiotics.

Probiotics are just one way to improve the health of your microbiome. Learn more by reading, 9 Ways to Improve Your Gut Bacteria, Based on Science.