Admittedly, the term probiotics doesn't seem all that appealing; it sounds dangerously close to "antibiotics," a type of medication that brings to mind particularly nasty illnesses, such as pneumonia and sinus infections. Not to mention that antibiotics carry along a wide range of unpleasant side effects; users have been known to experience everything from dizziness to rashes to diarrhea. Despite this unfortunate association, research indicates that probiotics can be very beneficial to your digestive system, and can even negate some of the unintended consequences of antibiotics.
The Purpose of Probiotics
First, a little bit of background information on probiotics. Like many words in the English language, "probiotics" can trace its routes to the cradle of Western Civilization - ancient Greece. The prefix "pro" stands for "promoting," whereas the "biotics" part translates into "life."
From this point on, the exact definition of probiotics gets a bit murky, with different organizations offering up their own take on the subject. For clarity's sake, we'll go with the description provided by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, which defines probiotics as follows:
"[probiotics are] live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host."
You read that right; probiotics are living, microscopic things. Not only that, but they are also a type of bacteria to boot. Your body is no stranger to bacteria - it's hard to see how it could be, given that there are several pounds worth of bacteria floating around in your skin, nose and intestines.
But wait a minute - aren't bacteria bad? Don't they cause a seemingly endless number of diseases, some of which are life-threatening? If there's so much bacteria swimming inside our bodies, shouldn't we all be struggling just to stay alive?
This situation actually makes sense when you realize that not all bacteria are inherently bad; to the contrary, our body needs a certain amount of bacteria to function properly. This "friendly" type of bacteria play a prominent role in our digestive system, as it breaks down food into smaller pieces, allowing the body to extract valuable nutrients from its meals. In addition to aiding the body's digestive process, friendly bacteria also attack and destroy harmful forms of bacteria.
For the most part, probiotics are a type of healthy bacteria. Like other friendly bacteria inside the gut, probiotics are tasked with purging various enemies from the digestive tract and utilizing passing food. As you can imagine, an insufficient amount of probiotic bacteria leads to a number of health complications. When this scenario does occur, both the body's digestive tract and its immune system become vulnerable to allergic reactions, autoimmune disorders and infections.
Probiotics Under the Microscope
In recent years, a niche market for probiotic supplements has emerged, with several products claiming to boost probiotic bacteria in the body. Not to be outdone, a number of foods have been heavily marketed based on their probiotic properties. Given that most people know very little about probiotics, it's understandable that some consumers might wonder about the effectiveness of such products.
Medical researchers have pondered this very question, and have conducted numerous studies to determine if probiotics live up to their billing. A large compilation of probiotics studies were examined by Yale University faculty in 2011. After reviewing the complete body of research, the Ivy League experts concluded that probiotics could be useful in treating the following conditions:
- Childhood diarrhea
- Ulcerative colitis
- Necrotizing enterocolitis, an infection that causes inflammation of the intestines. This condition occurs mostly in infants
- Preventing diarrhea and infectious diarrhea caused by antibiotics
- Preventing pouchitis, a type of intestinal inflammation that can develop after intestinal surgery
- Eczema (a type of skin disorder that leads to rashes, dry skin and blisters) caused by an allergic reaction to cow's milk
- Strengthening the immune system
The Yale team added that probiotics might also prove effecting against the conditions listed below, though they cautioned that more researched is needed to confirm these benefits:
- Certain symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Diarrhea caused by C. difficile bacteria
- Crohn's disease
Adding Probiotics to Your Diet
Given that the value of probiotics has been extolled by numerous studies, it would likely prove beneficial to work them into your daily diet. As mentioned above, there are several probiotic supplements available to consumers at popular drug store chains. Shoppers looking for probiotics in foods and beverages also have many options:
Yogurt - By far the most well-known food source of probiotics is yogurt. This diary product contains lactobacillus or bifidobacteria, two types of good bacteria that can starve off diarrhea, gas, bloating and cramping (don't feel bad if you struggle pronouncing these bacteria; together, their names add up to thirteen syllables!)
Sourdough Bread - The next time you go shopping, you might to consider picking up some sourdough bread. Sourdough bread features lactobacilli, which has been linked to smoother digestive patterns.
Sauerkraut - You've probably heard of sauerkraut, though you might not know what it actually is. This German dish consists solely of shredded cabbage and salt; both ingredients are placed into a jar, and the salt facilitates the formation of bacteria. In turn, these bacteria produce acid, giving sauerkraut its distinctive tangy taste.
In its unpasteurized form, sauerkraut contains three notable probiotics - leuconostoc, pediococcus, and lactobacillus. If you have concerns about eating sauerkraut which has not been pasteurized, bring the issue up with your doctor.
Bananas - Another food with a tongue-twisting type of probiotic are bananas. In this case, the helpful bacteria are called fructooligosaccharide. Fructooligosaccharide, which spurs the formation of healthy bacteria while allowing the body to absorb greater amounts of calcium.
Other Foods With Probiotics:
- Dark Chocolate
- Cottage Cheese