Awareness about probiotics seems to be growing, and the topic of probiotics seems to pop up in nutritional literature everywhere these days. What’s it all about? Is it a fad? Are probiotics the latest health miracle? Are they really beneficial for our health, or is it much ado about nothing? As a Health Coach, these are questions I have been pondering. So I did some research to get a few answers…
First, let’s talk about bacteria and our gut
There are many types of bacteria that are always present in our body, both healthy (good) and unhealthy (bad) bacteria. A large number of these bacteria, approximately 400 types, reside within our digestive tract (often referred to as the gut). The bacteria help to break down food, so we can obtain the nutrients from it. In order for us to be healthy, our digestive system requires a balance between good and bad bacteria. Such things as poor diet, illness, medication, stress, lack of sleep, and environmental toxins can cause an imbalance in bacteria. Many people, including some in the medical field, believe that a healthy immune system starts with a healthy balance of bacteria in our gut.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are healthy (good) live microorganisms. Probiotics are considered to be beneficial to our health when consumed in the right quantity. They are supportive to the body’s digestive processes within the gastrointestinal tract by helping to provide a healthy balance between the good and bad bacteria. There are many different strains or types of probiotics, each with their own unique qualities. Lactic acid bacteria, including the well-known lactobacillus acidophilus bacteria, constitute the largest group of probiotics that are found in the intestine.
What are the health benefits of probiotics?
It seems there are few definite answers when it comes to ironclad proof of the benefits of probiotics. The reason? Research is ongoing about the various strains of probiotic microorganisms and exactly how each of them could be beneficial for us. It is not easy to pin down the actual benefits a person derives from probiotics because it depends on the type or strain of probiotics, the quantity consumed, and the individual person. Some of the benefits could include:
- Improvement in the symptoms of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome).
- Improvement in inflammation and the symptoms of ulcerative colitis, a form of IBD (Inflammatory Bowel Disease).
- Relief of bowel irritation, such as diarrhea, from taking antibiotics. Bowel irritation occurs when antibiotics kill good bacteria in the digestive tract along with the bad bacteria that has caused the initial illness being treated by antibiotics.
- Possibly helping with lactose intolerance. This is definitely an area of current research.
- Prevention of digestive tract infections.
- Boosting the immune system, starting with a healthy bacteria balance in the gut.
- Helpful in treatment of urinary tract infections and vaginal infections.
- Helpful in treatment of skin conditions in children, particularly eczema.
What foods contain probiotics?
The two most common probiotics, lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium are added to yogurt and some cheeses. Acidophilus milk and buttermilk also contain lactic acid probiotic bacteria.
Probiotics are found naturally in fermented foods, such as:
- Unpasteurized sauerkraut: contains the probiotics leuconostoc, pediococcus, and lactobacillus, as well as vitamins and minerals. The heating process of pasteurized sauerkraut kills the beneficial probiotics.
- Kimchi, a spicy Korean food: contains probiotics, vitamins and minerals similar to sauerkraut.
- Tempeh, an Indonesian food made from fermented soybeans: contains probiotics and is also high in protein.
- Kefir, a cultured or fermented beverage: contains probiotics. Interestingly, kefir can be made using water, coconut water, milk or coconut milk.
- Miso, a Japanese fermented soybean paste: contains probiotics as well as vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Miso is commonly consumed as a soup.
- Sourdough culture that is used to make sourdough bread: contains probiotics that are thought to aid digestion.
Are probiotics safe for everyone?
Probiotics are generally considered safe, but there are still some considerations such as:
- People who are lactose intolerant would need to avoid probiotic sources that are milk or dairy based. Non-dairy probiotic sources such as sauerkraut and water kefir would be better choices.
- Anyone that has a weak or compromised immune system should use caution when taking probiotics. In this case it is best to seek advice from a medical professional.
Is there a correct amount of probiotics to take?
The amount of probiotics a person should consume is a matter of debate, and very individual. There are no guidelines. If a person feels that probiotics would be beneficial, a good course of action may be to start taking a small amount, either in supplement form or from fermented foods, and gradually build up. It is totally up to an individual’s own judgment. If in doubt – ask your health care professional for advice.
Are probiotics and prebiotics the same thing?
No, they are different. Prebiotics are also important, and they have a different function. They are non-digestible carbohydrates that ‘feed’ the probiotics, helping them to multiply. Prebiotics are found naturally in bananas, artichokes, asparagus, oatmeal, legumes and onions.
‘Probiotics – are they a new health miracle?’
There is no proof of this. Research is ongoing to find out what the health benefits of the various strains of probiotics are. So far, the general consensus seems to be that probiotics are helpful for maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract, and could be helpful for various digestive disorders as well. It is important to note that good health and good digestive health starts with a healthy balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle. This includes plenty of nutritious whole foods, very little processed and refined (junk) foods, drinking lots of pure water and getting enough daily exercise.
Are you interested in using the power of nutrition to increase your health? Are you ready to take your healthy lifestyle to the next level? Contact me, and let’s talk about it!
© 2014 Cathy Ormon Health Coach. All rights reserved.