HOW DO PROBIOTICS HELP?
Most people view bacteria, or “germs”, as harmful and capable of causing disease and ill-health – either directly through infection or by producing toxic substances that contribute to inflammation and other health conditions.
However, there are certain types of bacteria that are actually good for us and which help to keep us healthy. These occur naturally in our bodies and can also be taken in supplement, food or beverage form, if required.
In fact, inside us there are 20 times more bacteria than living cells! They are essential for our well-being and involved in a wide range of biological processes, including healthy digestion, immunity and more.
Over the years, and as their notoriety has increased, these beneficial bacteria have come to be known colloquially as “good bacteria” or “friendly bacteria”. Technically, they are called probiotics.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria or yeasts, which support good health. They do this, primarily, by helping to keep harmful bacteria and other pathogens under control. For example, by competing with them for food and space and therefore outnumbering them and crowding them out.
Most probiotics are bacteria similar to those found naturally in the gut, especially in those of breastfed infants (who have natural protection against many diseases).
These “good guys” principally fall into two main families of bacteria, namely Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, but you do get other types of probiotics. For instance, Saccharomyces boulardii, which is a yeast probiotic.
As mentioned above, probiotics both occur naturally in the body and can be topped up through external sources. In fact, what you eat and supplement, along with your lifestyle, can have a huge impact on the delicate balance of good and bad bacteria inside you – and consequently your health.
For example, the amount of friendly bacteria in the gut decreases with age. The same is true during periods of heightened stress, illness or vulnerability (such as pregnancy or following surgery). Certain infections (such as Candida), medical conditions (such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and other digestive disorders) and medications (such as antibiotics) can also directly affect our levels of good bacteria.
There is therefore a good case for recommending probiotics, not only in these specific circumstances, but generally to support good health.
Where to find probiotics?
Many cultures across the world have long observed the health-promoting effects of fermented foods (so-called probiotic foods) and have therefore included them in their traditional diets. For example:
-Sauerkraut, a chopped cabbage that is salted and then fermented in its own juice. This probiotic food has long been associated with German communities in the United States, but was actually eaten as standard fare by Chinese labourers building the Great Wall of China, as far back as 2,000 years ago.
-Kefir, a fermented drink, traditionally made using cow’s or goat’s milk. This probiotic drink has its origins in the north Caucasus Mountains.
-Miso, a paste made from fermented soya beans and barley or rice malt. The precise origins of this probiotic food are not entirely clear. However, grain and fish misos have been made in Japan since the Neolithic era (Jomon period (14,000–300 BC)), but early fish and soy-based sauces were produced throughout East Asia and this miso predecessor originated in China during the 3rd century BC or earlier.
There are also many other different probiotic foods and drinks available, including yoghurt (perhaps most commonly associated with probiotics in the West), cottage cheese, pickles (from vegetables), tofu, tempeh, tamari, shoyu and sourdough bread (from wheat or rye).
However, while beneficial and healthy, many of these foods don’t contain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria that can colonise (take up residence in) the digestive tract. Instead, they contain friendly bacteria strains that hang around for just a short period, doing their good work.
What this means in practice is that, while including these foods in your diet is a good way to promote healthy intestinal flora, it is not necessarily as effective as supplementing with the strains of bacteria that can easily colonise the digestive tract (particularly enteric-coated or micro-encapsulated probiotic supplements, which are designed to survive stomach acid).
So-called resident strains include: L. acidophilus, L. salivarus, B. infantis, B. bifidum, B. brevis, and B. longum.
The advantage of resident strains over transient strains is that, because they take up residence in the gut, they are always there to do their good work and help keep harmful micro-organisms at bay. Some bacteria and yeasts, such as E. coli and Candida albicans, are often present in the gut in small amounts, just waiting for a period of vulnerability or other opportunity to flourish and spread. If you are relying on transient probiotics, you have to hope that they are there to do their work at the right time!
Keeping the good guys topped up!
Our bodies are very good at maintaining their own balance, and this includes the delicate balance between good and bad bacteria. In most cases, they are more than capable of fending off infection.
Similarly, the idea of choosing individual food ingredients to include in our daily diet with the specific aim of treating them like medicine to cure a particular illness, is both impractical and ill-advised.
However, every time you choose to eat a combination of fresh, living foods (such as fruit, vegetables and leafy greens), along with fermented foods (as described above), you are giving your body access to a broad spectrum of essential vitamins, minerals, enzymes, antioxidants, phyto-chemicals, Omega oils and probiotics – all of which will work together to support overall immunity, health and vitality.
Having said that, in this modern age, it is easy for our bodies (and particularly our digestive systems) to come under strain and, of course, we can all benefit from a little help from time to time. It is in this way that probiotic supplements can provide invaluable support in topping up and maintaining our levels of healthy gut flora.