Probiotics: Bugging for more
Written by Nanette Ho, Registered Dietitian
Social media, marketing teams and the scientific community have continued to spread the word about probiotics. We are learning more about how they may affect our guts and our brains, what that can mean to our overall health, and how we can use them to alleviate unpleasant conditions. Does this mean we should all take a probiotic supplement?
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms (like bacteria and yeast) found in food products or supplements that are known to provide benefits to human health.
Prebiotics are non-digestible food components (e.g. certain types of fibre, resistant starches) that selectively help beneficial microorganisms thrive in your intestines (probiotics “feed” on these substances). Probiotics and prebiotics have a synbiotic relationship (not to be confused with SYMbiotic!).
Why are Probiotics important?
The dense, diverse and dynamic collection of microorganisms housed inside our guts interact in complex ways with our body systems, including our immune, nervous and hormonal systems. These interactions can help support immune function, regulate our moods and are important for the digestion and absorption of various nutrients.
Exposure to environmental factors, including diet, toxins, drugs, and pathogens (disease-causing microbes) can change our gut microbiota—a.k.a the diverse community of microbes inhabiting our guts. These changes can give rise to foodborne illness, nutritional deficiencies, digestive discomfort, mood problems, and have also been linked to chronic diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes and obesity.
Probiotics have shown some promise in helping restore and maintain healthy gut microbiota, and thus have the potential to promote better health and prevent various diseases.
Where can we find Probiotics?
Fermented Foods: sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, miso and kimchee are some of the most common and well-known fermented foods.
Technically, the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria found in many fermented foods do not qualify as probiotics because the specific species are uncharacterized, but they may provide similar characteristics and benefits to known probiotics.
While the type and amount of beneficial microbes in these food products may vary widely, you can rest assured that microbes aside, these fermented foods can provide more digestible and absorbable nutrients, and other beneficial substances.
For example, the fermentation process helps explain why people who are lactose intolerant can often tolerate yogurt. Fermentation can also produce compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity (read: cancer-fighting and chronic disease prevention!). They are tasty additions to meals and can be so versatile in the kitchen.
Supplements: go to most pharmacies or health stores and you’ll find rows of probiotic supplements on the shelves or in the refrigerator. Many promise great things on their packaging. Is it too good to be true? I’ll get into more detail – click on the link below!
NOTE: If you have any existing medical conditions, it is a good idea to check with a medical doctor before starting a supplement like probiotics. If you are immunocompromised (e.g. your immune system is not functioning as normal or taking medications that suppress your immune system), probiotic supplements can pose as a risk to your health.
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