I’ve been hearing a ton about probiotics lately. How they can boost weight loss, help with allergies and even boost your mood. Without a good mix of probiotics in your stomach you may have all kinds of illness and issues. But what are probiotics in the first place?
I decided to do some research on the topic to see if I could learn more about what probiotics do and how they help us. Are probiotics worth all the hype they’ve been getting? Should I take a probiotic? If so, which one and why?
Here’s what I found out about the benefits of probiotics.
What are probiotics in the first place?
Within your digestive system (aka your gut) you have many different bacteria. These bacteria process food and do a myriad of different tasks. They work with your hormones and nervous system to move food through your body, break it down, process the nutrients within your GI tract.
The bacteria in your GI tract is referred to as your gut flora or microbiome. Inside your gut there are also bad bacteria–the goal is to have a healthy mix and environment, where the good bacteria outweighs the bad (which can make you sick). Keeping the right microbiome will help the good bacteria flourish and help you avoid illness.
What do probiotics do?
So probiotics do a myriad of beneficial tasks for your GI tract, with new research happening every day. Here are just a few of the benefits of probiotics.
Recent research at the University of Florida shows that probiotics may help with allergy symptoms. By increasing the body’s healthy regulators: T-cells, probiotics help boost your tolerance to hay fever triggers like pollen, mold and dust. Taking a probiotic helped those mild allergy sufferers in the study to experience fewer symptoms such as running noses, watery eyes and itchy throats.
Helps with digestion
The biggest benefit of probiotics (and area of the most promising research) is in digestion. The good bacteria in probiotics help you digest carbohydrates in your small intestine and they help you absorb vitamin K in your large intestine. They help counter the effects of antibiotics (which kill bacteria in your system indiscriminately and thus can cause stomach upset). They also show promising benefits for those who suffer from IBS and other chronic digestive issues.
A research study showed promising results for probiotic use in fighting depression. Probiotics help the body convert tryptophan from the stomach (the “calming chemical” found in your Thanksgiving meal among many other foods) into Serotonin in the brain. Increased serotonin means less depression, anxiety and other mood disorders!
Strengthens immune system
Recent studies also show that probiotics reduce inflammation in the gut, thus strengthening the immune system. Your small intestines contain a high number of lymph nodes, which fight off illness and attack viruses and bacteria. When fighting off these illnesses, the lymph nodes increase inflammation, but sometimes that inflammation sticks around even after illnesses have past, causing a myriad of problems. Probiotics strengthen the epithelial lining of your intestines, warding off these pathogenic microbes and keeping them from entering the body, making you sick.
Other benefits of probiotics
There are many other benefits under research from battling bad bacteria in the urinary tract (that causes dreaded UTI’s) to warding off vaginal bacterial, yeast and fungal infections and more. There’s promising research in the area of skin disorders as well–psoriasis and eczema may both benefit from probiotic use. Both men and women may see health benefits from increasing the probiotics in their diet.
How to get more probiotics
To increase your probiotics there are several methods. Many people think of taking a supplement first. While supplements can be good, they can also offer nothing more than a placebo effect.
Here’s the deal, different strains of probiotics do different things. Lactobacillus is one of the most common probiotics, and is commonly called Acidophilus. It may also be called Bulgaricus or casei. It’s most effective in treating diarrhea and stomach upset (especially from antibiotic use) and can be helpful for yeast infections. Bifidobacterium is another probiotic (Bifidus or Breve are other names). It’s also helpful to counteract antibiotics and medication effects on your GI tract. Streptococcus Thermophilus is a bacterium that helps to ferment foods and counteracts lactose intolerance.
If all this sounds confusing, yes, it can be. To compound the issue, tests on probiotic supplements and “enhanced foods” show mixed results. In one ConsumerLab study, the levels varied greatly with a few of the tested supplements showing no viable probiotic organisms at all. Many supplements may need to be refrigerated and foods containing live probiotics shouldn’t be cooked or you may eliminate any benefits from the living organisms.
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re considering adding any supplement to your diet, ask your doctor or consult with a nutritionist. While probiotic supplements have benefits, they aren’t necessary for everyone (especially if you’re eating a balanced diet).
If you aren’t sure about probiotic supplements, you can still see benefits by eating foods containing probiotics as well as “prebiotics.” Prebiotic foods contain nutrients that feed probiotic organisms and reduce inflammation in the body. Another common conclusion is that sugar can harm probiotics, so avoiding sugar will help degrees your bad bacteria and increase your good bugs (and that sugary probiotic yogurt may be neutralizing its own benefits).
Prebiotic Foods to Boost Your Probiotic Benefits
Foods to “feed” your good bacteria are a great idea. These foods also tout anti-inflammatory properties and great nutrition. So incorporating these foods into your regular diet is a great idea anyway. Here are a few to add to your grocery list:
- Onions & Garlic
- Oats & Whole Grains
Probiotic Foods to Give You a Healthy Boost
Foods fortified with probiotics should generally be “raw” or less-processed. Processing kills many of the positive bacteria. Fermented foods contain probiotics and it’s easy to incorporate a few of these foods into your regular diet. Always look to ensure these foods contain live probiotics.
- Pickled vegetables
- Kombucha Tea
- Yogurt (Soy Yogurt is also beneficial)
Incorporate a few of these beneficial foods into your meal plan to see the benefits of probiotics in your diet today!