Good bacteria!? Surely you jest!
At first glance, probiotics seem to be nothing more than the latest dieting fad. In a society that has told people to count calories, eat more eggs, eat less eggs, go gluten-free, etc., why should we listen to the supposed dieting experts anymore when even they can't seem to make up their minds? Probiotics will probably be the newest weight loss pill or something, right? “Guaranteed” to make you lose weight without diet or exercise?
Actually, there seems to be a lot more to probiotics than that. Studies are showing many benefits to taking probiotic pills and supplements, and increasing your intake of them can have beneficial effects on your overall health. But what are probiotics and what are the benefits of a probiotic diet?
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are actually microorganisms. Yes, that means bacteria. But that doesn't mean germs. Probiotics are classified by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization as living microbes that deliver a health benefit to their host.
You see, while people think of disease and germs when they hear the word “bacteria”, not all bacteria is bad. The human body naturally has good bacteria living inside the digestive tract, and it's important to keep a balance of good and bad bacteria. If you don't have enough of this “good bacteria”, you could find yourself facing a number of symptoms. Some of them include diarrhea (including diarrhea brought upon by antibiotics), fatigue, and urinary tract infections. In addition, you leave your immune system more vulnerable to disease than it would otherwise be with a proper balance of good and bad bacteria.
It is important to maintain this balance by consuming foods that are rich in probiotics.
Where can I find probiotics?
So what foods contain probiotic bacteria? A short list would include:
Yogurt (without high-fructose corn syrup)
Of course, there are many other foods that contain probiotics as well, and there are many other sources of probiotics that aren't foods. Water Kefir is a good source of probiotic bacteria, and you can find more information about it here.
What are the benefits of probiotics?
Many of your body's systems need a proper balance between good bacteria and bad bacteria in order to function at their optimal level. The first of those is your digestive system. Bacteria naturally lives inside your entire digestive tract, from the esophagus to the intestines and beyond. Ensuring that your digestive tract is filled with beneficial bacteria means better digestive health. It means less diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal cramps, and it also replenishes the good bacteria killed by many antibiotics (which aim to kill the harmful bacteria in your body but sometimes kills the probiotic bacteria as well). It also enables your body to more productively transfer nutrients from food to different cells, which means more energy, less fatigue, and less chance of obesity.
Another probiotic benefit for your digestive system is that it helps contain the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. While it doesn't completely eradicate the symptoms, research suggests that people with IBS experience them less when they take probiotics. Some of these symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, cramps, constipation, and diarrhea.
Of course, your immune system is important too, and there are many probiotic benefits for your immune system. As the good bacteria in your body also helps to weed out toxins and other dangerous chemicals that enter your system, it boosts your immune system to help fight common infectious diseases such as the cold or flu. It also helps fight allergies and infections. Did you know the birth canal is also lined with beneficial bacteria? Newborn babies pick up this bacteria from their mothers. Babies born by Cesarian Section, however, are more likely to suffer from allergies and weak immune systems when they are older.
Good urinary health is also a major benefit of eating probiotic foods and taking probiotic supplements. They prevent harmful bacteria from entering the urinary tract, thus preventing urinary tract infections. What's more is that probiotics can compliment antibiotics, as sometimes a urinary tract infection will return after a person stops taking the antibiotics to protect them.
Eating probiotic foods has a long, long list of other possible health benefits as well. These include fighting obesity, improving vaginal health, preventing high cholesterol levels (and thus coronary heart disease) and high blood pressure, and kidney stones. Probiotics are also believed to improve your brain function as the gut has been known to function as a “second brain” of sorts, having some control over pain and emotion (hence the existence of the “gut feeling”). A study showed that probiotics could reduce anxiety, hostility, and improve focus. Probiotics might even help in the prevention of cancer!
What types of probiotics are there?
The Declaration of Independence states that all men are created equal. The beneficial bacteria inside of us, however, are not. There are many different types of probiotic bacteria in our bodies. The two most common types of this bacteria are:
Lactobacillus-- As the name suggests, fermented dairy foods such as unflavored yogurt will contain these bacteria, and they are found naturally in the body's digestive, urinary, and genital systems. There are over fifty species of Lactobacillus in eighteen different probiotic strains. Some studies have shown them as able to reduce the severity and frequency of abdominal pain, fight bacterial vaginosis, reduce the risk of diarrhea (including Traveler's Diarrhea and diarrhea brought on by antibiotics), treat skin infections, treat lactose intolerance, and fight yeast infections, amongst other things. Different species of Lactobacillus treat different ailments.
Bifidobacteria-- This type of bacteria lives inside your colon. Different species can help fight IBS and dental cavities, and result in improved blood lipids. In addition, it could help the glucose tolerance of pregnant women. There are thirty different species of the Bifidobacteria genus in eight different probiotic bacteria strains.
What are the side effects of probiotics?
Probiotic side effects are generally mild and might include diarrhea, constipation, or bloating. Their benefits tend to outweigh their side effects. However, it should be noted that probiotic supplements are not regulated to the same degree as food and medication are.
Where else can I find probiotics?
Other than probiotic foods, you can take probiotic supplements. Stores and pharmacies such as Walgreen's, Duane Reade, and Rite Aide are sure to have a selection of probiotics near their antacid/indigestion section. But make sure you read the labels on them and see which ones are right for you. For example, some probiotics are geared towards a healthy immune system, which isn't what you're looking for if you are looking to help with digestion. Make sure you are buying a probiotic supplement that's right for you.
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Remember that much, much more probiotic research must be done to fully understand the benefits and risks of the numerous different types of bacteria. Dietary authorities such as the Food and Drug Administration have not yet labeled probiotics as “safe”, but studies seem to be heavily indicating their positive results. Many doctors prescribe probiotics for their patients. You should talk to your doctor before radically changing your diet or ingesting any probiotic supplements.