To understand probiotics, it’s important to first understand what’s in your gut.
Your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a vast community of microorganisms known as “gut flora,” “microbiome,” or just “gut bacteria.” In humans, there are a larger number of bacteria in the gut microbiome than anywhere else in the body.
The gut flora is established not long after we’re born, and changes as we grow and develop. The health of our gut flora is hugely dependent on our diet, as well as a number of other factors such as lifestyle, genetics, medications, health conditions, and even psychological factors.
The average human body contains around 3.5 pounds of these probiotic bacteria.
What Are Probiotics?
We often think of bacteria as bad, but that’s not the case with probiotics. The word ‘probiotic’ comes from the Greek word pro, meaning “promoting,” while biotic means “life.” The scientific definition of probiotic is “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” In a nutshell, that just means probiotics are good for you.
Your gut is lined with hundreds of trillions of “good” bacteria that work to keep you and your body healthy. Of course, with the good there’s always bad, which means bad bacteria live in your gut as well. It’s the job of the good bacteria to keep the bad bacteria under control. That’s where probiotics come in.
Probiotics are special types of bacteria and yeast that support the other good bacteria. They do this in a number of ways.
What Do Probiotics Do?
Maintain a Healthy Balance
Our health comes down to the balance of good and bad bacteria in our gut. Dysbiosis is the term used to refer to an imbalance of this bacteria–that is, more bad bacteria than good. Dysbiosis can happen because of illness, poor diet, certain health conditions, or even age and genetics.
Supplementing with probiotics or eating fermented foods has been shown to reduce the numbers of bad bacteria in the gut. Not only that, probiotics support the growth and proliferation of beneficial bacteria, helping to return the gut to a healthy balance.
Probiotics help the body to break down the food you eat. They do this using a special process called fermentation. When food passes through the small intestine and into the colon, probiotics work with digestive enzymes in the intestine to help your body break down the food matter and absorb the nutrients within it. Without this help, digestion can be slowed or impaired, which results in food passing through the body without providing you the benefits your body requires from it.
Support the Immune System
Did you know that about 70 percent of your immune tissue is in the gut? It’s the good bacteria in your gut that fight off invading pathogens and other harmful invaders and then allow for them to be eliminated. Infections, diseases, and even autoimmune conditions are all linked to the bacteria in the gut being unable to do their job properly.
Maintain the Integrity of the Gut
The lining of the gut is naturally permeable, as this is how nutrients pass from food into the bloodstream. The bacteria lining the wall of the gut act as a barrier to prevent harmful substances such as antigens, toxins, and other invaders entering the bloodstream. They also act as a filter to aid the uptake of nutrients, electrolytes, water, and other beneficial substances from the intestines.
When Should You Take Probiotics?
When gut bacteria are out of balance, you’ll experience a number of unpleasant symptoms of dysbiosis, such as:
- Gas, bloating, indigestion
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Frequent infections
- Feeling tired or lethargic
- Aching joints
- Food allergies or intolerances
- Low mood, irritability or depression
- Constant food cravings
Where Can You Get Probiotics?
The best way to get probiotics into your diet is through food or supplementation.
When fermented by lactobacillus bacteria, vegetables become a source of beneficial bacteria and enzymes. The culturing process produces beneficial microbes that help to balance intestinal flora and, therefore, overall immunity. This helps with the production of serotonin, which is essential for healthy mood. Sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, and kombucha are all foods that have been cultured or fermented to allow rich probiotic bacteria to grow within them.
These are often the easiest way to get a high-dose quantity of probiotics. Supplements include freeze-dried bacteria in powder, capsule, or tablet form. Choose a probiotic with a high number of guaranteed ‘live’ bacteria in order to have a therapeutic effect. Your best options are ones that contain at least 10 million+ bacteria and have multiple strains of bacteria species. Also, look for a brand that uses time-release tablets to get those bacteria safely past your stomach acid.
Balance With Probiotics, Maintain With Prebiotics
Your whole body is dependent on the health of your gut–so it makes sense to keep it in balance. Nourish your gut bacteria with probiotics and you’ll reap the benefits of better digestion, a stronger immune system, and a clearer mind.
Keeping those probiotic bacteria thriving requires some food. Prebiotics are compounds in food that feed these beneficial microorganisms. Chicory root, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, barley, oats, and apples are foods rich in prebiotics, so eat up.
Lisa Richards is a nutritionist and the creator of the Candida Diet. She has been featured on Today, Women’s Health magazine, Reader’s Digest, and Shape, among others. Through her website, theCandidaDiet.com, she explains the benefits of a low-sugar, anti-inflammatory diet.