Chances are that you've seen advertisements promoting probiotic supplements, yogurts, and more. But what are the benefits of probiotics and where can you find them? Are these foods that you need to be cognizant about including in your everyday diet? Let's take a closer look.
Understanding the Role of Bacteria in Digestion
The bacteria within your digestive tract plays an extremely important role in your health. The majority of healthy gut bacteria or "gut flora," as health care professionals call it, is found in the final portion of the digestive tract. This bacteria is responsible for a variety of duties including fiber digestion, vitamin production, eradication of harmful bacteria, and the maintenance of immune health.
Probiotics are defined by the National Institutes of Health as "live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits." The most common types of probiotics are bacteria within the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families, but there are numerous varieties, all of which have different effects on the body. Probiotics introduce good bacteria to the body, allowing it to flourish and balance out harmful bacteria that's present in the gut.
The Effects of Probiotics
Probiotics are most effective in those who are struggling with digestive problems, such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome. They can also positively affect immune health and are speculated to eradicate precancerous cells in the body.
Probiotics are often recommended for people who have undergone a course of antibiotics, as these medications tend to eliminate much of your healthy gut bacteria. However, many factors can affect the amount of gut flora you have, including stress, fatigue, aging, smoking, and an unbalanced diet. If these factors are altering the amount of good bacteria you have, you'll know by whether or not you're experiencing the digestive woes mentioned above.
Sources of Probiotics
There's a variety of sources from which you can obtain probiotics—both naturally and artificially. Natural sources include fermented foods. Fermentation is the chemical breakdown of a substance by a living microorganism (typically yeast or bacteria), and by eating these foods, you'll be aiding the breakdown. The fermentation process is what makes these foods so flavorful. Examples of natural probiotics include sauerkraut, kombucha, miso, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, sourdough bread, and pickled foods.
Dozens of man-made probiotic products are available on the market today, including enhanced yogurts, capsules, liquids, and powders (or dietary supplements). Keep in mind that the dietary supplements you find at your local supplement or grocery store don't need to be approved for safety by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In other words, there's no way for you to know exactly what you're buying, and inevitably consuming. If you prefer to go the supplement route, try to find a product that has been researched and has evidence supporting its claims. Supplements that are verified by the United States Pharmacopeia (USP) are the most trustworthy.
Prebiotics play an important role in the big picture of probiotics. Prebiotics are typically nondigestible foods that are full of fiber that bacteria in the gut can feed on and grow from. The use of prebiotics can instigate the natural growth of healthy gut bacteria that's already present within the body. Prebiotic foods include chicory root, dandelion greens, leeks, onion, garlic, and asparagus (all in their raw form). When prebiotics are taken with probiotics, they are considered synbiotics.
The Bottom Line
So what's the takeaway when it comes to the benefits of probiotics? Should you start taking a supplement? If you're experiencing digestive difficulties frequently or are currently on an antibiotic, integrating prebiotics and probiotics into your diet is a great idea. Try to go with a natural source of probiotics before turning to a processed version.
If you aren't experiencing digestive difficulties, it's not necessary to start taking a probiotic supplement. However, including naturally prebiotic and probiotic foods into your diet in moderation is a healthy practice. It can help you maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria, ensuring continued digestive and immune health.