The Science of Probiotics: The Tiny Superheroes in Your Gut
When you hear the word "bacteria," what comes to mind? Most likely, you think of germs that can cause illness and infection. But did you know that there are also good bacteria that live in your gut? These good bacteria are called probiotics, and they play an essential role in keeping you healthy.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that live in our digestive tract. They're often referred to as "good" or "friendly" bacteria because they help keep our gut healthy by maintaining a balance of microorganisms in the digestive system. These beneficial bacteria are naturally found in the gut and help maintain a healthy balance of microflora, aiding digestion and boosting the immune system. The term "probiotic" comes from the Greek words "pro" (meaning promoting) and "biotic" (meaning life).
But how do these tiny organisms work their magic? Let's take a closer look at the science behind probiotics.
The Gut Microbiome: A Complex Ecosystem:
The human gut contains trillions of microorganisms that make up the gut microbiome, a complex ecosystem that plays a critical role in our overall health. These microorganisms include both beneficial and harmful bacteria, and maintaining a balance between them is essential for optimal health.
When the balance of bacteria in the gut is disrupted, it can lead to a range of health problems, including digestive issues, immune system dysfunction, and even mental health disorders. This is where probiotics come in.
How Probiotics Work:
Probiotics work by breaking down and digesting food in our intestines. They also help our bodies absorb nutrients from the food we eat. This is important because the digestive tract is where many essential nutrients are absorbed into the body.
Probiotics also help to prevent harmful bacteria from growing in the gut. They do this by producing lactic acid, which creates an environment in which harmful bacteria cannot survive.
But the benefits of probiotics go beyond just the digestive system! Studies have shown that probiotics can help boost the immune system, lower cholesterol levels, and even improve mental health.
More on the Potential Benefits of Probiotics:
Overall Gut Health: Helpful bacteria inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria by various means: compete for food, change pH to be favourable to themselves; produce toxins that inhibit growth of pathogens; and in general take up space. When the balance in our microbiome is out of whack, the result can be any number of illnesses.
Digestive health: Probiotics can help relieve symptoms of digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and diarrhea. They may also help improve the absorption of nutrients from food.
Immune system support: Gut microbiome is an important and integral part of our immune system. It serves a vital function in defence against illness and has a significant impact on gut-brain response. Lactic acid bacteria serve an important function in immune system regulation.
Probiotics can help strengthen the immune system by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. They may also help reduce inflammation in the body, which can contribute to a range of chronic diseases.
Heart health: Probiotics may help lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure, which are both risk factors for heart disease.
Mental health: Probiotics may help improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Skin health: Probiotics may help improve skin health by reducing inflammation and supporting the skin's natural barrier.
Gut-Brain Connection: Our microbiota communicates from the gut to the brain in several ways: including the vagus nerve, gut hormone signalling, the immune system, tryptophan metabolism, and microbial metabolites such as short-chain fatty acids. The “microbiota-gut-brain-axis” is an interactive, bi-directional communication established by the exchange of regulatory signals between the gastro-intestinal tract and the central nervous system. It is evident that gut microbiota influences human brain development function.
Weight Gain & Obesity: There is significant evidence that gut bacteria plays a role in regulating metabolism and energy homeostasis. The makeup of your microbiome can determine the amount of energy you extract from food. People with greater diversity of gut bacteria had a lower prevalence of obesity. Probiotics regulating microbes are helpful in combating overweight and obesity.
Heart Disease: Studies now indicate that the human microbiome is directly or indirectly involved in cardiovascular disease and hypertension (high blood pressure). People suffering from hypertension have remarkable gut dysbiosis (imbalance). Stiffening of the arteries and arterial dysfunction is caused by oxidative stress. Oxidative stress has been linked to an imbalance in our gut. A healthy diet high in fibre and fermented foods can go a long way to controlling oxidative stress. There is now use of probiotics to control blood cholesterol levels.
Food Allergies: By trying to kill all bacteria in the environment (super sanitised environment), we are also destroying the very bacteria that that keep us healthy by defending against disease, stabilising our immune response and preventing allergic reactions to safe substances, such as nuts. Probiotics and their metabolites can interact with immune cells and gut microbiota to alleviate food allergy. Whilst more and more studies have shown that probiotics can intervene in food allergy based on the intestinal mucosal immune system, always follow your health professional’s advice when it comes to food allergies.
Probiotic Strains: Not All Bacteria Are Created Equal:
Not all probiotics are created equal, and different strains of bacteria can have different effects on the body. For example, some strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have been shown to improve gut health, while others may have little to no effect.
There are many different types of probiotics, each with its own unique health benefits. The most commonly used probiotics include:
Lactobacillus: This is the most common probiotic, found in the small intestine and vagina. It helps break down lactose in milk and produces lactic acid, which inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.
Bifidobacterium: This probiotic is found in the large intestine and helps break down complex carbohydrates. It also produces acetic acid and lactic acid, which create an acidic environment that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.
Streptococcus: This probiotic is found in the mouth and helps to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria in the oral cavity. It also produces lactic acid, which creates an acidic environment that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.
Sources of Probiotics
Probiotics can be found naturally in some foods, or they can be consumed in the form of supplements. Some of the best sources of probiotics include:
Kefir: Kefir is a fermented milk drink that contains a variety of beneficial bacteria and also kefir yeast strains, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Kefir is one of the most effective ways to up your probiotic intake, with more live and active cultures than yoghurts.
Yoghurt: Yoghurt is one of the most popular sources of probiotics. Look for yogurt that contains live and active cultures, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium.
Sauerkraut: Sauerkraut is a fermented cabbage dish that contains a variety of beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus brevis.
Kimchi: Kimchi is a spicy Korean fermented vegetable dish that contains a variety of beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Miso: Miso is a fermented soybean paste that contains a variety of beneficial bacteria, including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
Tempeh: Tempeh is a fermented soybean product that contains a variety of beneficial bacteria, including Bifidobacterium.
Supplements: Probiotic supplements are available in many different forms, including capsules, tablets, and powders.
When consuming probiotics, it's important to choose a product that contains a variety of different strains of bacteria, as each strain has its own unique benefits. It is also important to remember that taking certain probiotics is not always suitable for everybody, and that if you have existing health conditions, you should ask a doctor if they are right for you.
The Bottom Line:
Probiotics are a vital part of our digestive system and play an essential role in maintaining our overall health. By promoting the growth of good bacteria in our gut, probiotics help to keep harmful bacteria at bay and ensure that our bodies are able to absorb the nutrients we need to stay healthy.
So, the next time you enjoy a cup of probiotic rich kefir, remember that you're not just enjoying a delicious drink – you're also giving your body the gift of probiotics, the tiny superheroes in your gut.