Here's how including probiotics in your diet improve your health
Probiotics primarily affect the natural flora of the gut. They have both generalised effects and more strain-specific effects.
One word that pops up often in conversations around digestive health is probiotics. If you're unsure of what that term means and whether or not you should be including them in your diet, you're in the right place. Probiotics are live microbes (usually bacteria and occasionally yeast) that are consumed or applied to the body for their intended health benefits.
Most of us think of infections and diseases when someone uses the word bacteria. And why not, these tiny organisms have a reputation for spreading sickness. So if someone tells you that you need to consume millions of bacteria at once, the idea may seem a bit too out there.
Then again, probiotics are not a recent discovery. We have been consuming curd since forever.
Fermented foods are the best source of probiotics. However, probiotics are also available in the form of tablets and capsules. Such pills usually contain specific bacteria — either one or a mix of two or more types of bacteria — which can be taken as per individual needs. Probiotic skincare is a fairly new trend and there isn't much evidence when it comes to their clinical benefits. Though, there is some proof that topical application of probiotics can reduce inflammation and promote wound healing.
Here is an easy guide to probiotic foods and oral supplements.
Foods are considered to be the best way to take probiotics. Most people consider any fermented food to be a probiotic. This includes yoghurt, curd, miso, tempeh, kefir, some types of cheese and many south Indian foods like dosa, idli and vada.
However, it is important to note that the probiotic action of these foods depends on the number and type of probiotic microbes present in them, which is almost nil in cooked products since most bacteria die due to heat or processing.
On the other hand, commercially sold fermented foods like pickles, beer and wine have their live microbes removed and are hence not considered to be probiotics. However, certain foods such as yoghurt are now being fortified with probiotic microbes to improve its health benefits.
Unlike probiotic foods, probiotic supplements contain specific microbes and are generally given to improve specific health conditions.
Most probiotic supplements contain one or the other strain of lactic acid bacteria (Lactobacillus or Lactococcus). Other bacteria like Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus are also taken as probiotics. Every strain acts differently and thus the action of a specific probiotic would depend on what bacteria you are consuming.
While you can’t control the number of bacteria in probiotic foods, there is a set limit of bacteria in probiotic supplements. According to the National Institute of Health, USA, probiotics are measured in terms of colony-forming units (CFU) that refers to the number of live bacteria that can divide and form a new colony. Most supplements have anywhere between 1 to 50 billion CFU. However, more bacteria does not equal to more health benefits. The CFU is usually mentioned on the label.
How do probiotics work: health benefits of probiotics
Probiotics primarily affect the natural flora of the gut. They have both generalised effects and more strain-specific effects. Experts are still trying to find exactly how probiotics work but they have some of the following effects on your gut:
- Production of short-chain fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory effects
- Reducing the pH of the gut, which helps prevent microbial infections
- Competing with pathogenic bacteria for space on the gut lining thus preventing their growth
- Balancing the gut flora
- Improving immunity
Certain species and strains of probiotic bacteria also help in the production of vitamins, improving barrier function in intestines and neutralisation of toxins. But if you are immunocompromised, probiotics are not recommended for you. Consult a doctor before you start taking any probiotics.
Research suggests that probiotics may help manage various health conditions that include, but are not limited to, diarrhoea (especially if it occurs due to an infection or prolonged use of antibiotics), lactose intolerance, constipation, colic in infants and irritable bowel syndrome.
A 2013 review indicated that administration of probiotics in childhood can help reduce the risk of food allergies later in life.
A randomised double-blind placebo-controlled study published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy, a journal of the British Society for Allergy and Clinical Immunology, showed that intake of certain strains of probiotics, particularly Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, can improve the symptoms of eczema in breastfed infants. A total of 27 infants were included in the study with an average age of 4.6 months.
For more information, read our article on Probiotics.
Health articles in Firstpost are written by myUpchar.com, India’s first and biggest resource for verified medical information. At myUpchar, researchers and journalists work with doctors to bring you information on all things health.
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