Probiotics are living organisms, including bacteria, that support proper health within many of major systems of the human body, including the digestive and immune systems. For centuries, bacteria has been associated with causing disease, illness and even death; research now demonstrates that certain bacteria, including Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) and bifidobacteria, may be quite beneficial to our health.
History of Probiotics
The name “probiotics” stems from the Latin “pro” and “biota”, which essentially means “for life”. While the concept of consuming bacteria and microorganisms to support health may be a relatively new concept in North America, medical history indicates that the practice has existed for centuries in Europe.
Microorganisms in the Human Body
While consuming living bacteria and microorganisms is a difficult concept for many to embrace, it is helpful to understand that the human body already contains several types of living organisms. In fact, there are an estimated 400 to 500 different types of bacteria located in a healthy human digestive tract. These bacteria, categorized in colony forming units, are estimated to be in the 100 trillion range. While most of these bacteria are helpful and serve an important purpose, some bacteria are known to be harmful, and even fatal.
Probiotics have demonstrated to be effective in supporting health in several important areas, including:
Perhaps the most important function of probiotics is replacement of healthy bacteria, such LAB, to the digestive system; especially after illness or treatment with antibiotics. As previously mentioned, healthy bacteria located in the digestive tract serve several purposes; one is to keep harmful bacteria, such as Clostridium difficile bacteria, in check.
Clostridium difficile bacteria, or C. difficile, is an opportunistic bacteria that has proven resistant to treatment with antibiotics. As illness or antibiotics kill off the healthy bacteria of the digestive tract, C. difficile spreads rapidly, causing fever, vomiting, kidney issues, and in extreme cases, death.
Probiotics are available in a wide variety of foods and supplements in grocery and health food stores. Most food sources of probiotics are yogurt or kefir-based; these foods are also often low in fat and high in protein, making them a great choice for supporting overall health. Fermented vegetable products, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and certain pickles also contain probiotics. Probiotics are also available in supplement form, including capsules. Supplementing with probiotics in capsule form provides between 10 billion and 250 billion live cultures per serving.
In addition to consuming probiotics, there is growing evidence that supports consuming adequate amounts of prebiotics. Prebiotics are carbohydrates probiotics need for food and proper function; these include foods like whole grains, honey, onions, garlic and bananas. Yogurt and kefir products contain adequate carbohydrates to fuel the probiotics contained in the product, making these foods the preferred choice for probiotic supplementation.
Although scientific research demonstrates significant health benefits associated with probiotics, they are considered a supplement and not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration However, nutritionist and researchers suggest consuming between 1 billion and 10 billion live cultures each day; this amount can be realized in one serving of yogurt or kefir.