The health benefits of probiotics are nothing new to science and medicine. The use of fermented foods for nutritional and therapeutic purposes dates back thousands of years. Although knowledge of beneficial microorganisms developed within the last century, people have enjoyed the benefits of these friendly flora for much longer.
The word probiotic comes from pro and biota, meaning “for life”. Indeed, probiotics are most definitely pro-life organisms. These bacteria support nearly every body system and promote health and wellness.
Digestive System Support
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of probiotic supplementation is protection of the gut. In the gut, probiotics assist in the maintenance of normal mucosal homeostasis. They also protect mucosa from injurious factors such as toxins, allergens and pathogens.
The beneficial effect of probiotics is mediated by multiple mechanisms, including cytoprotection, cell proliferation, cell migration, resistance to apoptosis, synthesis of proteins, and gene expression. One of the important cytoprotective effects of probiotics is to strengthen the epithelial tight junctions and preserve mucosal barrier function. Thus, they not only repair damage, they protect the GI tract from pathogens and other intruders that damage the digestive system. To read more about tight junctions and how they operate in your digestive system, check out this post.
Probiotics are possibly best known for their ability to ease and alleviate many digestive complaints. These include:
- Prevention of diarrhea in healthy children and adults. It is important to note that there is a potential risk for severely debilitated or immuno-compromised children.
- Treatment of diarrhea, especially antibiotic influenced diarrhea.
- Probiotics may have beneficial effects on chronic constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), abdominal pain, bloating, and flatulence.
- Inflammatory bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, is chronic inflammation of the small intestine and colon. Probiotics can modify the gut microbiota and may benefit the treatment and the prevention of these conditions.
- Improvement in abdominal pain or symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Prevention and treatment of ulcers caused by the bacteria H. pylori.
Respiratory System Support
Probiotics have potential to reduce the duration of illnesses and prevent respiratory infections. Additionally, studies show that active probiotics can ease symptoms and prevent infections related to asthma.
Probiotics have promise for maintaining urogenital health. Antibiotics, birth control pills, spermicide, and other factors can throw this system out of balance. Probiotics restore the balance of microflora and may be helpful for common urogenital problems such as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary tract infection.
Recent studies investigate how the gut microbiota influence blood pressure. The fermentation of fibre by the gut microbiota causes a release of short-chain fatty acids, such as acetate and propionate. There is a relationship between these fatty acids and lower blood-pressure levels in experimental models of hypertension. Fermented foods and other sources of probiotics also show promise for the reduction of cholesterol.
Maintaining Healthy Body Weight
One study demonstrated a beneficial weight loss response with the use of a Lactobacillus rhamnosus probiotic. However, a similar study using a different species of Lactobacillus showed the opposite. Subjects in this study actually gained weight when taking Lactobacillus acidophilus. Certainly more research is needed, and individuals may respond differently.
Cognitive and Mental Health
Numerous studies about the gut-brain connection point to the importance of a healthy intestinal microflora. Serotonin is a key neurotransmitter in this relationship. Maintaining good gut health actually influences central nervous system neurotransmission. In turn, this can help with depression, stress, anxiety, and serotonin-related health problems in the elderly.
One study showed many promising benefits with the use of probiotic supplements over an 8-week period. These include decreased depression and reduced levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) and hormones such as insulin.
In addition to decreasing inflammation in the GI tract, probiotics may also alleviate external inflammation as well. Infants who manifested atopic eczema showed marked improvement with probiotic treatment.
Immune System Support
Probiotics may also enhance innate immunity and modulate pathogen-induced inflammation in the body. The mechanisms involve the ability of probiotics to increase cytokine production as well as a direct action on pathogenic bacterium.
Sources of Probiotics
Live probiotic cultures are found in fermented dairy products such as yogurt and milk drinks. Fermented foods like pickled vegetables, tempeh, miso, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and soy products also contain some beneficial bacteria. Many people enjoy these products as a means of encouraging a healthy microbiota. However, probiotic supplements may provide additional support.
What to Look for in a Probiotic
Probiotic supplements provide several strains of bacteria. The most common types are Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. Another less common genus, Streptococcus, also has benefits, particularly in the reduction of oxidative stress.
Because different strains have unique benefits to the body, it is best to find a supplement that offers a blend of multiple strains. While it is unclear whether the synergistic interactions between strains contributes to increased efficacy, it is evident that probiotic mixtures are more effective than single strain supplements.
As with other health supplements, it is important to research and determine the best product for you. Although drug interactions with probiotics are rare and the risks are minimal, if you are unsure, you may choose to consult your physician or pharmacist before starting a new supplement.
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