Include Probiotics in Your Diet: 6 Reasons Why They Are Great for You
Some words automatically have a negative connotation about them, and bacteria is one of them. The minute you hear or read the word, you get images of germs, icky stuff and illness. Well, that's kind of understandable, considering how many diseases they cause, some of which are dangerous.
However, there is another kind of bacteria, who are actually the good guys. These help us in many ways, including fighting the bad bacteria. Sounds like we have an interesting movie going on in our bodies! This only gets more interesting as we learn more about these bacteria, known collectively as probiotics.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are a combination of 'good' bacteria and yeasts that exist in the body naturally. They live all over the body, like the gut, mouth, urinary tract, skin and lungs. Probiotics perform many useful functions including digestion and fighting infection. The most important probiotics live in the lining of the gut, where they create an ecosystem of their own, called the microbiome.
The microbiome has a huge impact on our overall health. It hosts almost 1000 different species of bacteria, and it is crucial to maintain a proper balance among them. Every individual's microbiome is unique; even twins' microbiomes are not similar.
An imbalance between the quantity of good and bad bacteria in the microbiome can lead to improper functioning of different parts or systems of the body. This could happen due to illness, as a side effect of medicines or malnutrition. The imbalance an manifest as digestive problems, allergies, weight gain and even mood swings. It is during such situations that the natural probiotics in the body need some extra help.
This can be done either by consuming more probiotics or prebiotics. Although they sound similar, the two are different. Prebiotics are non-digestible and help the existing microbes grow, while probiotics are actual live bacteria, added directly to the existing microbiome.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
1. Reduces the Risk of Diarrhea
Diarrhea can occur due to many reasons, including food or water borne germs as well as a course of antibiotics. When we take antibiotics. it is with the purpose of destroying any infection-causing bacteria in our system. Unfortunately, the good bacteria also get destroyed in the purpose, leading to digestive issues like diarrhea. Consuming probiotics avoids this side effect, by effectively repopulating the microbiome.
Even if the probiotics don't stop the diarrhea completely, they can at least reduce the severity. Studies show that taking probiotics can reduce antibiotic-induced diarrhea by 42% and other infectious diarrhea by up to 50%. Probiotics are also recommended for travellers to stay safe from diarrhea associated with food and water borne diseases.
2. Eases Digestive Issues
Since most healthy bacteria in our body live in the gut microbiome, it is obvious that it will have an impact on our digestive health. Several people across the world suffer from digestive issues like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and probiotics greatly help easing the symptoms of these diseases.
Probiotics help with minor gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas and constipation. They also reduce the effect of more serious illnesses like ulcerative colitis and even necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious disease that can be fatal for new-borns. Probiotics have also shown to ease the symptoms of Crohn's disease and prevent a relapse.
3. Boosts Immunity
Taking probiotics maintains the balance of the gut microbiome, which has a great impact on our natural defences. Probiotics give immune cells a boost, increasing the production of natural antibodies in the body. This boost in immunity protects us against various illnesses and not just digestive issues.
Studies have found that taking probiotics regularly can reduce the number of times we catch the common cold in a year. It has also proven to be effective against respiratory infections in children as well as urinary tract infections in women. It also works to reduce the intensity of any infection we may have and greatly reduces the duration of illness.
4. Reduces the Severity of Inflammatory Conditions
Inflammation can affect all parts of the body, and can appear in different kinds of symptoms. Probiotics have been shown to have good success with various inflammatory conditions like asthma, allergies, food intolerances, rheumatoid arthritis and eczema.
Eczema mainly affects babies and young children, and when they take probiotics, their symptoms are greatly reduced. When pregnant women consume probiotics, their children are 83% less likely to suffer from eczema. These effects may be because of probiotics reducing the levels of C-reactive protein, which is considered a marker of inflammation.
5. Aids Weight Loss
Obesity is considered a national epidemic in some countries, due to the large number of people who are becoming obese. Obesity can lead to a large number of chronic illnesses, and taking probiotics can stop this epidemic in its tracks. Research shows that including probiotics in the diet can aid weight loss in many ways.
Healthy weight loss requires the loss of fat rather than muscle, and probiotics help in this regard. They prevent the absorption of dietary fat in the gut, letting it get excreted out of the body. Probiotics also increase the feeling of satiety by boosting certain hormones, which prevents overeating. In one study, women who consumed probiotics for 3 months lost 50% more weight than women who didn't. Probiotics can also help in reducing belly fat, which is considered a dangerous place to store fat.
6. Boosts Heart Health
The digestive benefits of probiotics also end up helping the heart. Digestion is helped by bile, a body fluid containing large amounts of cholesterol. Probiotics break down bile in the gut, preventing it from getting absorbed into the blood as cholesterol.
Due to this, several studies have found that consuming probiotics for just a few weeks can reduce LDL or 'bad' cholesterol and increase 'good' HDL cholesterol, thereby protecting the heart. Additionally, probiotics also reduce hypertension, another factor that contributes to cardiac illnesses.
Best Probiotic Foods
There are two ways to include probiotics in our diet - by consuming supplements or increasing the quantity of probiotic foods. Fermented foods are high in probiotics, since the fermentation process uses live bacteria. However, it is important to consume them uncooked, as heat can destroy the probiotics. Here are some of the best probiotic foods you can include in your diet:
Yogurt - Yogurt is made from milk fermented by the lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria. Go for plain yogurt without any additives since processing can destroy the bacteria. Regular yogurt has more probiotics than Greek yogurt.
Kefir - Kefir is a fermented milk drink, where cow's milk is fermented using kefir grains. Kefir grains are cultures of lactic acid bacteria and yeast.
Kombucha - Kombucha is basically fermented tea, and it can be made from black or green tea, fermented using bacteria and yeast.
Buttermilk - Buttermilk refers to the liquid leftover after making butter. Buttermilk contains the bacteria used for fermenting the milk as well as essential micronutrients.
Tempeh - Tempeh is made from fermenting soya beans using a fungus called Rhizopus oligosporus. It is available in a solid patty form, and is used as a meat substitute.
Sauerkraut - Sauerkraut is made of shredded cabbage fermented by lactic acid bacteria. Go for unpasteurized sauerkraut to get the probiotic benefits.
Kimchi - Kimchi is also made from cabbage, along with different spices and seasonings. Kimchi contains a variety of lactic acid bacteria, including Lactobacillus kimchii.
Cottage Cheese - Cottage cheese is also made using a process that involves the fermenting of milk, and it maintains the probiotic content as long as it isn't heated. Cottage cheese is also high in protein.
When buying any probiotic food from the supermarket, check the label for “live and active cultures” to ensure the presence of probiotics.
Bottomline: Should I Take Probiotics?
Since our body naturally contains probiotics, consuming more probiotics is generally considered safe. Some people may experience a few adverse effects as soon as they introduce probiotics in their diet, but they wear off within a few days. These side effects may include bloating, flatulence and mild loose stools.
While probiotics can help everyone, people suffering from certain health conditions may find greater benefit by consuming probiotics. These health conditions include:
Inflammatory bowel disease
Irritable bowel syndrome
Urinary tract infections
However, those who have a weak immune system due to any illness or chemotherapy are advised to stay away from probiotics, as are people who've recently had surgery. In case of chronic illnesses or very young children, it is best to consult your doctor before introducing probiotics in your diet. It is important to know if the probiotics may interfere with existing medications or if it can worsen your condition.
(Pratibha Pal spent her childhood in idyllic places only fauji kids would have heard of. She grew up reading a variety of books that let her imagination wander and still hopes to come across the Magic Faraway Tree.You can view her blog at www.pratsmusings.com or reach to her on Twitter at @myepica.)
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