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Probiotics have created quite the buzz in the health world in recent years, and it has become very popular to take probiotic supplements or add probiotic-rich foods to your diet.
But what exactly are probiotics? What do they do? And can they really help to keep you healthy or improve certain health concerns?
Let's take a closer look at the importance of probiotics in the body.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms (like bacteria and yeasts) that live naturally inside of us and that are beneficial to the body. Probiotics are often known as "good bacteria" or "friendly bacteria," because they are linked to various health benefits.[1-3]
Most of the time, we think of microbes as harmful germs. But that's not always the case. While some microorganisms can indeed make us sick, others can actually help keep us healthy. The latter are what we call probiotics.
Both good and bad bacteria are in our bodies all of the time, making up something called the microbiome. The microbiome is the community of microbes living in your body. Much of the microbiome is in the digestive tract, but microbes are also found all over the body on the skin, in the lungs, in the urinary tract, and in the vagina, for example.
The key to a healthy microbiome is to keep things in balance. If too many unfriendly bacteria build up, it can cause serious problems like infection and illness. That's where probiotics come in. Good, friendly bacteria help to balance out the bad bacteria and allow everything in the body to function as it should.[1,2]
What are the health benefits of probiotics?
As mentioned above, we need the friendly little microbes called probiotics in our body to keep things in balance.
Probiotics are particularly important when it comes to our gut and digestive tract. By introducing probiotics to your digestive tract, you can support a healthy balance of bacteria there.
Friendly bacteria in the digestive tract serve important roles in the body, such as:
- Helping us digest food
- Helping us produce key nutrients
- Fighting off bad bacteria that can cause infections
- Preventing disease
- Keeping our gut lining strong
- Enhancing immune responses
- Producing anti-inflammatory effects
- Affecting nervous system function[1,3,4,5]
One of the most notable effects of probiotics is that they can enhance our immune system.[3-5] When we have diverse and abundant probiotics in our body, our immune system is able to function better and keep us healthier.
There are several different health conditions which can benefit from probiotics, particularly those related to the digestive system. For example, probiotics have been shown to positively affect things like irritable bowel syndrome, irritable bowel disease, diarrhea, constipation, and more.[2,3]
Probiotics also have the potential to support other diverse health conditions like insulin resistance, obesity, periodontal disease, type 2 diabetes, vaginal infections, high cholesterol, and more.[2,3,5]
It is important to note that different strains of bacteria act in different ways and have unique effects in the body. So while one strain of friendly bacteria may help dental health, for example, other strains may be more useful for digestive health.[3,6]
Healthy probiotic foods to add to your diet
One way to introduce more probiotics to your system is to eat foods that contain them.
Most people associate probiotics with yogurt. But if you don't like yogurt or you are lactose intolerant, you are in luck; the food sources of healthy probiotics don't stop there. There are a wide range of foods that contain live, friendly, probiotic bacteria. Many probiotic-rich foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, and more have long been staples in traditional culinary practices from cultures around the world.
If you want to get more probiotics in your diet, then you'll need to give fermented foods a try. Fermented foods are a great source of active probiotic cultures.
When a food goes through the fermentation process, natural bacteria feed on the sugars and starches in that food and create acid – along with the tangy, sour taste you might be familiar with. Fermentation is what turns cabbage into sauerkraut, soy into miso, milk into yogurt, and so on. Fermentation has long been used to preserve food, but it also has the added benefit of providing us with foods that are high in probiotics.
Here is a list of probiotic-rich fermented foods to try adding to your diet:
- Fresh sauerkraut
- Fermented drinks like ginger beer
- Raw apple cider vinegar
- Fresh, fermented pickles
As you can see, there are options for everyone to enjoy the benefits of probiotics in your food, no matter what kind of diet you follow.
Note that these foods don't always contain live probiotics. In some cases, they aren't prepared via fermentation and so won't actually contain probiotics. And these foods are also often processed in such a way that any probiotics present are destroyed by various food-processing techniques.
Take pickles and sauerkraut, for example. Most canned options you'd find on grocery store shelves aren't actually made through the process of fermentation and are instead made with vinegar. Even if they are fermented in the first place, they are usually preserved with pasteurization or other methods that kill off any live bacteria.
Look for products that say "live cultures," "active cultures," "raw," or "contains probiotics" on the label so that you can be sure you are actually consuming friendly microbes with each bite. Make sure to choose fresh items in the refrigerated section rather than canned goods stored at room temperature.
Are probiotic supplements a good choice?
Aside from natural food sources, you can also get probiotics through supplementation. This is a convenient option to provide your body with the different types of microorganisms that are thought to provide health benefits.
Probiotic supplements are very popular. In fact, they are the third most commonly used dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals and are used by 4 million U.S. adults. But whether or not you choose to take a probiotic supplement is up to you and your doctor. Many healthcare providers believe it can be useful to give probiotic supplements a try to see how they can improve your general health.
Discussion with your healthcare provider is always recommended before you add in any new supplements to your routine, including probiotics.
It turns out that bacteria aren't all bad. On the contrary, the community of microbes living in our bodies plays a very important role in our health.
Probiotics are the friendly microbes in our bodies that help keep things in balance and that have a wide range of important health benefits. From helping to improve our digestion to boosting immune function, probiotics have important functions that can fight off illness and keep us healthier.
A great way to start introducing more probiotics to your system is to consume fermented foods that naturally contain probiotics like kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, yogurt, and more. Some people prefer to take probiotics in supplement form, which is something you can always discuss with your doctor if you are interested.