Probiotics, prebiotics, symbiotics, dietary fibre, lactobacilli, bifidobacteria. Much has been said and written in recent years about these important substances, which have become synonymous with good health. The term probiotic, signifying “good” bacteria, has been in use since the 1960s.
According to the World Health Organisation, probiotics are live microorganisms (the so-called good bacteria) which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host. Today, probiotics are extensively studied and their beneficial effects are well-documented in scientific literature. Probiotics were discovered by the Russian microbiologist Élie Metchnikoff, who observed the beneficial effects of microorganisms on human health, particularly in people who consume large amounts of yoghurt, kefir, and other products of fermentation that contain lactid acid bacteria.
The balance of probiotics and “bad” bacteria
Probiotics perform an important role in the digestive system. They ensure the conditions for the optimal function of the microbiota. Our intestines are home to around 38 billion bacteria, not all of which are harmful. It is precisely the “good” bacteria, or probiotics, that are very important for digestive health. It should be noted that intestines are not only a digestive organ, but the central organ of the body’s immune system, since they contain more than 70% of its immune tissue. By maintaining a healthy balance between probiotics and “bad” intestinal bacteria, we therefore support the entire body. Numerous factors can ruin this balance, such as unavoidable exposure to stress, a poor and unbalanced diet, physical and mental exhaustion, chronic medical conditions, and medications, particularly antibiotics. This can cause an increase in “bad” bacteria, leading in turn to a number of health issues, including diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, vitamin and mineral deficiencies (due to reduced intestinal absorption), and a weakened immune system. In other words, intestinal microbiota are constantly undergoing transformation; therefore they must be regularly replenished.
Beneficial effects of the “good” bacteria – probiotics
As science advances, research uncovers ever more benefits of consuming probiotics and affirms their importance in everyday diet. Among their many beneficial effects, probiotics can:
- impede the growth of “bad” bacteria;
- benefit people with lactose intolerance
- allow the synthesis of vitamin K and some vitamins B;
- strengthen the immune system;
- lower cholesterol;
- lower blood pressure;
- prevent and treat diarrhea;
- relieve inflammation caused by inflammatory bowel diseases (such as ulcerative colitis and/or Crohn’s disease).
- help to alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome;
- prevent the growth of harmful bacteria triggered by stress.
One clinically proven effect of probiotics is that they prevent gastrointestinal problems during antibiotic treatment. While many of these effects have not been clinically proven, there is no doubt that probiotics are important for human health.
Adverse reactions to probiotics
Although probiotics are generally accepted as safe, we should be aware that every body is different and that continuously taking probiotic dietary supplements is not required. In fact, some probiotics can cause allergic reactions. These may include headache, bloating, flatulence, or diarrhea that may last several days.
Which foods are probiotic?
Probiotics are available naturally in some foods, in dietary supplements, or added to foods, mainly fermented dairy products. Since the traditional preparation of yoghurt, kefir, cheese, and sauerkraut involves lactic acid bacteria, these foods are valuable probiotic sources, although their effects might have not been clinically proven.
Experts recommend diet and lifestyle changes as the best and most sustainable way of maintaining digestive health and a healthy microbiota balance.
Many foods are naturally rich in probiotics, including:
- YOGHURT AND KEFIR – excellent probiotic sources that are also suitable for the lactose intolerant.
- SAUERKRAUT – look for non-pasteurised sauerkraut with live active bacteria cultures.
- PICKLED CUCUMBERS – look for those pickled in brine rather than vinegar.
- SOME TYPES OF CHEESE – although most cheese is produced by fermentation, it is not necessarily probiotic. Probiotics survive cheese maturation only in certain types of cheese, for instance gouda, cheddar, and mozzarella.
In addition to including these foods in the diet, experts also recommend consuming leek, buckwheat, polenta, and oatmeal, which boost the digestive system and help to maintain a healthy microbiota balance.