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What, (in the world) are Probiotics?

Wednesday, 12 June 2019 00:37



Probiotics have received a lot of attention in recent years. They play an important role in nutrition and bodily function. However, much as "probiotics" is a trendy buzzword, it's not a new thing. Probiotics are living microorganisms and they are (and always have been) found in the human intestines or "gut."


There are two main groups of probiotics: yeasts and bacteria. Initially, it might sound strange that yeasts and bacteria not only live and thrive within the human body, but that they are actually beneficial.


Wait… isn’t yeast a fungus? Yeast are indeed part of the fungi kingdom, the same one where you’ll find the yeasts that help bread to rise and beer to ferment. However, the yeast in your gut aren’t the same species as those kinds of yeast. In fact, there are approximately 1500 identified species of yeast, some of which are found in the human “gut” (the part of the digestive system that includes the intestines and colon).


As for bacteria, people often think of those as organisms that make you sick. It is true that certain kinds of bacteria are responsible for various illnesses (some potentially fatal). However, there are also bacteria that are beneficial to the body, such as the kind that populate the gut. It is estimated that there may be trillions of species of bacteria, a majority of which haven’t even been discovered yet. About 500 to 1000 different ones live in the human gut alone.


What Do Probiotics do for the Body?


Probiotic microorganisms are essential in the process of breaking down the food that you eat, moving it through your digestive system, and helping to eliminate any resulting waste. Without those “gut flora,” as they are sometimes referred to, your digestive system wouldn’t function properly.


Essentially, your digestive system is its own little ecosystem. Everything in it depends on everything else, just like in any ecosystem. And, just like other ecosystems, if the organisms in it get out of balance, it can upset the entire system.


For the most part, most of the time, your gut regulates itself, as long as you eat a healthy, balanced diet rich in produce. However, certain circumstances can throw it off-balance. Some medical conditions, like Crohn’s disease, colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, can disrupt the balance of gut flora. Sometimes the simple process of aging can mess with your digestive system.


Another problem that can occur happens when you take antibiotics. Antibiotics are often prescribed for bacterial infections, like strep throat. Antibiotics wipe out the bacteria that cause the infection, helping you to get well faster. However, antibiotics don’t discriminate, and they kill off helpful bacteria, too. This can disrupt the balance of probiotics in your gut.


Should I Take A Probiotic Supplement?


Probiotics are available in supplement form, often in capsules or tablets, but also in powder form (to be added to liquids and drunk). Probiotic supplements are currently very trendy, but some professionals say that they haven’t been studied enough yet to determine whether they are beneficial to an already healthy, balanced diet.


However, they can be useful if you happen to suffer from bowel conditions like those already mentioned. They can also help to replenish good bacteria in your gut after a bout of antibiotics. And, of course, it’s easy to to be inconsistent with eating a healthy diet, so probiotic supplements may help to offset this somewhat.


The best way, professionals agree, to ensure adequate intake of probiotics and to maintain a balance of healthy gut flora, is to eat foods that naturally contain probiotics. Foods like yogurt, kefir (a fermented milk product, similar to yogurt) and any foods that are fermented, like sauerkraut, kimchi and pickled vegetables, are rife with probiotics. Because they are contained within the foods themselves, your body will be better able to process and utilize them than if you took probiotics in supplement form.


Additionally, there has been product testing of probiotic supplements that suggests that many supplements don’t contain as many strains or as great of numbers of probiotics as they advertise. The problem is that probiotic organisms are delicate and only thrive in very specific conditions (such as inside your gut). When put into supplement form, it has been discovered that many probiotics simply die in transit from factory to store shelves.


Probiotic supplements probably won’t hurt, and may even be helpful. However, it’s best not to rely on them solely to keep your gut healthy. Rather, strive to regularly incorporate yogurt and other probiotic-rich foods into your daily diet and use probiotic supplements as they are intended (and as their name suggests), as supplementsto an already healthy diet.