Probiotics – What They Are and How They Maintain Health

Author: Linda DiBella

Probiotics is a term defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations as “live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the host”. It is estimated that the human body plays host to over a trillion microbes from over ~1000 different species on our skin, in our mouths, noses, gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts. Most are from the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces and Enterococcus genera and a wealth of research has been carried out pinpointing some of the benefits that many of these microbes confer and the roles they play to ward off sickness and disease:

Production of Beneficial Compounds and Vitamins

Two metabolic by-products of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria in the intestinal tract are lactic and acetic acids. These help to produce an acidic environment that is less conducive to harmful bacteria.

Some healthy strains of bacteria in the colon produce nutrients such as vitamin K, which is required for normal blood clotting as well as bone building and maintenance. They are also a source of B vitamins.

Completion of the Digestion Process

Most foods are completely digested and the nutrients absorbed in the small intestine; however, some carbohydrates such as fibers and oligosaccharides (considered prebiotics) require the help of microbes in the large intestine to finish the job. The combination of pre- and probiotics creates what is referred to as a “synbiotic” relationship because it promotes the growth and proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the colon.

Degradation of Carcinogens

Probiotics such as Lactobacilli degrade the carcinogenic compound nitrosamine and are thought to bind and detoxify additional carcinogens within the intestine, inhibiting their uptake into the bloodstream as well as preventing them from inducing genetic mutations and the production of cancerous cells within the colon.

Promotion of Healthy Digestive Tract

Inflammation and intestinal permeability are hallmarks of diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease (CD), and Ulcerative Colitis (UC). Healthy bacteria are believed to help combat these diseases by competing for binding sites on intestinal cells to prevent the attachment of pathogenic bacteria that can do damage. Good bacteria also stimulate immune cells to make anti-inflammatory proteins and additional factors, keeping the gut healthy.

Establishment of a Strong Immune System

The intestine is lined with a mucus layer where important components of the immune system function. Healthy flora found here and foreign antigens that pass through help to prime the immune system to properly function throughout the body. In fact, a large portion of our immune system operates within the mucus layer of the digestive tract, which acts as an interface between the inside and outside of the body.

Good bacteria are also thought to reinforce this barrier by helping to regulate interactions between intestinal epithelial cells, preventing bacteria and foreign matter from entering the rest of the body, which can lead to infection or allergic reactions. All of this suggests that the key to a strong immune system is a healthy digestive tract.

Probiotics in the Diet

One way to maintain healthy intestinal flora within the gut that is gaining interest is by including probiotics in the diet. They are found in many forms, including pills and powders as well as cultured or fermented drinks and foods. As suggested by the definition, in order to be considered a probiotic, an organism must be live and have previously been shown to produce health benefits to the host. This suggests that the term “live, active culture” may not necessarily constitute a probiotic.

However, some common cultured and fermented foods promoted as sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and KimChi. I have made my own organic yogurt using a very simple method found here. I like to use organic milk and a commercially bought plain organic yogurt as a starter.

If you avoid milk products, you can still add fermented foods into your diet in the form of vegetables. I also describe how to prepare them here. The benefits of cultured vegetables are many:

- They add beneficial microbes to the gut
- The fermentation process neutralizes any toxins in the vegetables themselves
- They provide the nutrients and fiber from the vegetables
- They are partially digested and easier on the stomach than raw vegetables
- The microbe/vegetable relationship is a synbiotic one (see above)

Include a few spoonfuls of cultured vegetables at breakfast with your veggie omelet, add them to a salad at lunch, or as a side dish with meats or grains at dinner. Cultured milk products such as yogurt and kefir are great in smoothies, on top of granola, or as a snack with dried fruit and chopped walnuts. The more ways you can think of to get them into your diet naturally, the more your gut will thank you.


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