What are Probiotics? Bacteria with Benefits
Probiotics are defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “Living microorganisms that provide a health benefit to the host when ingested in adequate amounts.” That fairly boring description hardly does justice to these tiny organisms, though.
In fact, the word “probiotic” actually means “for life” – and that’s an excellent description of these beneficial bacteria. Without sufficient supplies, your health can suffer in both mildly annoying and very serious ways. Let’s take a look at beneficial bacteria, also known as probiotics.
What Can Probiotics Do?
- Help you lose pounds and manage your weight.
- Decrease your likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer.
- Assist in managing Type 2 diabetes.
- Aid in lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol.
- Improve your digestive function and comfort.
- Keep your immune system strong, reducing colds and flu.
- Support good colon health by making it easier to manage constipation, diarrhea, and bloating, as well as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Decrease allergies.
- Reduce yeast infections.
- Synthesize vitamin K, which is essential for healthy bones.
- Combat anxiety and depression.
- Improve mood and brain functions.
- Decrease your likelihood of developing auto-immune disorders.
- Prevent the overgrowth of yeast and other harmful organisms.
- Enable the body to absorb and utilize essential minerals, such as calcium, zinc, and iron.
- Assist in the manufacturing of several members of the B vitamin family.
- Enhance communication between your brain and intestinal tract.
- Support healthy longevity overall.
That’s a very impressive list of health benefits. In fact, I’d go so far as to declare probiotics one of the closest things we have at the moment to a magic bullet that can solve a whole host of health problems. However, our good bacteria are constantly under attack as a result of poor lifestyle choices, like eating processed foods and drinking alcohol, as well as by taking antibiotics. So let’s take a moment to learn a bit more about probiotics, how they can benefit your health, and how to make sure you have plenty of them.
A Closer Look at Probiotics and Antibiotics
Probiotics are what’s known as beneficial bacteria. They are part of a normal, healthy digestive tract. Under ideal circumstances, babies inherit probiotics from their mothers at birth. Unfortunately, the practice of using antibiotics to treat everything, including the common cold (which does not work, by the way, since colds are caused by viruses, not bacteria), is backfiring.
Taking unnecessary antibiotics is bad for two reasons. First, many dangerous bugs have evolved so that they are immune to antibiotics. Second, our own internal colonies of probiotics are being decimated by repeated exposure to antibiotics. This exposure can come from prescription drugs or factory-farmed meat, which uses antibiotics to encourage weight gain in animals.
Meanwhile, recent research is providing plenty of reasons to make certain your own probiotic population is thriving. Longevity researchers, for instance, have found that the diets of some of the longest-living populations on the planet are centered on probiotic-rich fare. And others have determined that maintaining a healthy population of good bacteria in the intestines may be useful in boosting the immune system, which prevents the repeated colds and bouts of flu that can turn into life-threatening respiratory ailments, like pneumonia. In addition, here are a few more reasons to make sure your probiotic population is healthy and happy.
Probiotics and Healthy Weight
For several years now, researchers have been studying the link between certain types of unfavorable bacteria and obesity. Animal studies have revealed that substituting good bacteria for the bad ones results in weight loss, and early human trials support those findings. Since weight management is very important to good health, I’ll keep you posted on future developments in this area. But for the time being, if you’re interested in losing weight, probiotics could be your best friend.
Probiotics and Cancer
Ongoing research examining probiotics’ effect on cancer suggests several possible ways that these beneficial microbes fight the disease. For example, fermented dairy products appear to have anti-tumor effects. In addition, probiotics may suppress the growth of unhealthy bacteria that create an environment favorable to cancer. Finally, probiotics are showing potential as a means of protecting against colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the country.
Probiotics for Managing Type 2 Diabetes
Here again, researchers are finding promising outcomes in clinical trials focusing on the use of probiotics to treat and/or prevent Type 2 diabetes. Early studies indicate that a combination of dietary improvements and proper probiotic supplementation, especially with the Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria strains, may be the best bet for anyone with pre-diabetes or diabetes.
Probiotics for Lowering Bad (LDL) Cholesterol and Raising Good (HDL) Cholesterol
Research has shown that probiotics can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels in three important ways.
- These bacteria use cholesterol as fuel, so there’s less of the substance in your body.
- Probiotics also reduce the amount of cholesterol your liver makes.
- Ingesting probiotics may lead to a significant increase in good (HDL) cholesterol. This is a real advantage, since it is difficult to raise HDL levels, and that alone can be a boon to your heart health.
As I noted earlier, there are plenty of reasons to add probiotics to your daily regimen. The simple fact that they help maintain supplies of good bacteria in the intestines – thereby enhancing digestion and preventing bad bacteria from gaining a foothold – is a huge advantage to your health. So is their ability to support a strong immune system, which protects you from colds and flu, as well as complications from those ailments. And if occasional constipation, bloating, and/or diarrhea ever troubles you, here again, probiotics helps reduce these annoyances by maintaining a healthy colon. Even suffers of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have found some relief with probiotics!
The truth is, the list of probiotic benefits is long and constantly growing as researchers continue to find new and exciting ways these good bacteria can improve our health. Just recently, for example, scientists discovered that probiotics play a role in emotional health by combating anxiety and depression and lifting overall mood. There is even preliminary research showing that serious autoimmune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, may be linked to too few good intestinal bacteria and too many of the bad variety.
Making Probiotics Part of Your Life
Probiotics are an essential ingredient in many fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, buttermilk, kimchi, cheese, miso, and tempeh. While you can get some beneficial bacteria from eating these foods, there’s no reliable way to tell how much they contain In addition, supermarket yogurt is not a good way to get these nutrients. First, it contains far too few probiotics. For good health, we need doses that include billions of organisms. Second, it’s loaded with sugar, and some brands contain artificial flavorings and color, too.
That’s why supplements are the best way to be certain your beneficial bacteria are plentiful and functioning properly. If you’ve ever shopped for probiotics, though, you know that finding the right product is not easy. There are literally thousands of different strains of beneficial bacteria, making for a very confusing shopping experience.
No matter which probiotic product you choose, for best results, follow the dosage and storage instructions (some probiotics need to be refrigerated). One suggestion: Since probiotics do not like heat, I suggest avoiding hot beverages for an hour after taking supplements. Based on the responses from our readers, you may notice an improvement in your health within days.
As long-time reader, Darren, who suffered from symptoms of mold contamination (runny nose, coughing, fatigue, headaches, and joint pain) noted, “After two days on the probiotics, something changed for the better, and I haven’t been sick since. Even my wife noticed the difference. Now I recommend them to anyone who’s feeling ‘off’ and doesn’t know why. Great stuff!”
Last Updated: December 5, 2019
Originally Published: April 24, 2013