From the moment of birth – and even before – when we are still moving through the birth canal entering the world for the first time, our bodies are exposed to bacteria of all kinds. Some bacteria are harmful to our bodies, causing symptoms such as stomach upset and diarrhea. Some are beneficial to our health – maintaining a balance in our digestive systems.
Probiotics, literally translated as pro-life, are live microorganisms, similar to the beneficial bacteria living in our digestive tract. This good bacteria is important to our overall health because it competes with the harmful bacteria and helps to manage it. Probiotics also produce a natural antibiotic that kills off the harmful bacteria.
We are not born with microflora and babies are not exposed to bacteria until the birth process. Creating a healthy balance begins with breast milk, which naturally contains probiotics. Recently, some baby formulas have begun adding probiotics as well.
Probiotics must be introduced to our bodies through the foods we eat, or through supplementation. Yogurt with live, active cultures, fermented foods such as naturally fermented pickles and sauerkraut, buttermilk, soy products such as miso, tempeh, and soy beverages all have some form of probiotic in them.
Although gas and bloating can sometimes occur with high doses, probiotics are generally safe. Many people find they help with digestion and prevent stomach upset.
Supplementing with probiotics can be particularly helpful when taking antibiotics. Since most antibiotics do not discriminate, killing both healthy and unhealthy bacteria, the microflora balance is thrown off. Probiotics will help restore it.
Dietary insoluble fiber is also helpful in managing a healthy balance of bacteria. Fiber is actually what is called a prebiotic. Helpful bacteria can feed on it, supporting its growth, but harmful bacteria cannot.
There are many different strains of probiotics and the effects or benefits from one strain do not necessarily carry over to the others. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the two most common groups of bacteria strains found in foods and supplements.
While probiotics have been used in one form or another for centuries, much is still not known about how they work and their effects on our wellness. It is thought that probiotics can have an overall beneficial effect on the immune system, but more research is needed to produce definitive evidence. But, for now there’s no harm in eating a little more yogurt and letting that helpful bacteria grow.