A History Of Probiotics
The idea of today’s probiotic is one that actually began circulating in in the early 1900s, after Elie Metchnikoff, Nobel laureate and “father of probiotics”, began researching whether or not the consumption of microorganisms could improve the health of the general population.
This proposal spurred decades of research. In fact, scientists are still researching the ways in which probiotics may be helpful for the overall health and well-being of the human body.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are bacteria and yeast that live in the digestive system. These particular bacterium are good for you; in fact, though people often associate the idea of bacteria with the kinds of things that cause different diseases or disorders. However, that’s not always the case.
According to WebMD, the human body is actually full of bacteria, both harmful and helpful. Probiotics land in the latter category, because of their unique ability to help maintain the health and functioning of the digestive system and gut functions.
It’s important to note that the digestive tract is already home to a very complex array of these kinds of bacteria. It’s estimated that there are more bacteria in the intestines alone than there are cells in the human body!
These helpful bacteria are defined by Nature Reviews Gastroenterology as:
“live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.
They are typically bacteria, but there does exist a type of yeast that works in a similar way to probiotics.
Probiotics can be found in certain types of foods, such as yogurt, certain types of cheeses, and kimchi. The bacteria is one that is often recommended for those who are dealing with digestive issues, or are looking to promote overall gut health.
Types Of Probiotic Bacteria
While it might be easy to think of “probiotics” as a single type of bacteria, there are actually dozens that may benefit the human digestive system. As noted by WebMD, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are the two most common groups of bacteria. Within each group there are several strains of probiotic that may be helpful for our guts.
Lactobacillus is thought to be more common than Bifidobacterium. Yogurt and other types of fermented foods are the typical place in which this probiotic can be found. Certain strains of Lactobacillus may be helpful for people with diarrhea, as well as for those who deal with dietary issues such as lactose intolerance.
Bifidobacterium is the bacteria group that is most found in certain dairy products, such as specific types of cheeses. This particular bacteria group is thought to be able to ease symptoms of such diseases as IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome.
As mentioned earlier, there is a certain type of yeast that functions in much the way probiotics do. This particular type of yeast, known as Saccharomyces boulardii, is actually found within probiotics themselves, and may help fight such digestive issues as diarrhea and more.
The big takeaway, of course, is that not all probiotics are the same. Just because one strain of Bifidobacterium helps with IBS doesn’t necessarily mean that another strain will be as useful. Additionally, it may depend on the user of the probiotics as to whether or not a particular strain will be most beneficial. There are specific probiotics for men, women and those who suffer from IBS.
Why Consider Taking A Probiotic?
When thinking about adding a probiotic into your regular dietary routine, it’s important to examine where you might need some support. If you’re looking to help promote digestive system and gut health, a probiotic can help bring that good bacteria into your system.
If you’re someone who has suffered from particular digestive-related illnesses, you may want to consider taking a probiotic. After speaking with a trusted medical professional, you may want to think about ways in which you can add probiotics into your diet in order to help maintain a healthy – and happy – gut.
Not all probiotics work the same, and some may have a different impact depending on the user. Take time to think about your current diet: do you have any particular dietary restrictions or irritants? Is your diet well-rounded? Do you already supplement your diet with vitamins or other nutrients? All of these questions are important to ask when identifying the right probiotic for you.
Of course, a probiotic supplement doesn’t just help maintain levels of good bacteria in the gut. In fact, according to MayoClinic, there are several reasons why one may want to consider adding a probiotic into their diet. Though most consider probiotics to simply help with digestive health, other reasons to take probiotics include such benefits as supporting immune system health, helping with weight management, and the prevention of occasional diarrhea or constipation.
Overall, probiotics are something that you may want to look into, whether simply to help bring more good bacteria to the gut or for a myriad of general health reasons.
The Importance Of Gut Health
When striving for a healthy diet and for overall well-being, it’s important that the gut and digestive system as a whole isn’t overlooked. As noted by Dr. Ruairi Robertson, the gut is home to what is “collectively known as the microbiome”. This microbiome includes both the good and bad bacteria previously mentioned – and, of course, is home to such good bacteria as probiotics.
These kinds of bacteria are incredibly important to maintain, given that they support good digestive function. However, there are more than just a few reasons why you would want to ensure gut health, including immune system support, heart health, weight, and more.
It’s thought that without the gut microbiome, it’d be hard for human life to survive. In fact, babies are exposed to microbes as early as within the womb – we are never without our microbial pals.
Throughout life, as you come into contact with more and more of the outside world, this microbiome starts to get more and more complex. This means that it starts gaining different types of bacteria, which is thought to be an overall positive when it comes to gut health.
The microbiome is useful for several functions starting in early life, including digesting breast milk, digesting fiber, helping control immune system function, and even helping control the health of your brain.
Clearly, it’s important to keep your gut healthy as you move through life. Without a healthy digestive system, it may be easier for you to take ill simply because you don’t have the microbiome support for each of your most important bodily systems.
How Probiotics Work
There is still a lot of research being done in the way of finding out how exactly probiotics work, and why it is that they’re so useful for the overall health of the human body.
In fact, as noted by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), researchers have been studying the bacteria to evaluate its usefulness in treating several diseases and health problems. These diseases include those such as, but not limited to:
- Allergies, such as eczema or hay fever
- Tooth decay and other oral health issues including periodontal disease
- Liver diease
- Necrotizing enterocolitis in low birth weight infants
- Colic in infants
- Digestive disorders such as diarrhea, IBS, and inflammatory bowel disease
- The common cold
As researchers continue to make headway into the world of probiotics, it’s thought that different strains of the bacteria work to support the body in different ways. As of now, it’s thought that probiotics might help to maintain a complex, healthy community of microorganisms within the body.
With the importance of the microbiome for every day life, this is particularly necessary when facing diseases and coming into contact with ‘bad’ bacteria.
Probiotics also work to stabilize the digestive tract against those bad bacteria, as well as to stop the growth of potentially harmful microorganisms. This may provide a safer environment in which good bacteria may flourish.
The bacteria may also help the digestive tract find balance after a disturbance. For example – if you are taking a certain antibiotic, or have a sudden illness, your gut microbiome may be disturbed. Probiotics are on the front lines of helping your gut return to normal after such an occurrence.
Finally, it’s thought that probiotics work by stimulating your immune system in the fight against potentially bad bacteria.
Potential Side Effects Of Probiotics
Of course, there may be some side effects when introducing probiotics into your diet. According to RDN Erica Julson, those who are experiencing serious diseases or compromised immune systems may have more severe side effects. The five most common side effects include:
- Unpleasant Digestive Symptoms – Even though many people take probiotics without having side effects, a temporary increase in gas or bloating, as well as some constipation, is one of the most commonly reported side effects. In order to combat this, you may want to start with a lower dose and slowly increase over the course of a few weeks.
- Headaches – Probiotic-heavy foods, such as yogurt or kimchi, contain something called biogenic amines. These are substances that are formed during the fermentation process that bacteria go through. Biogenic amines can, in some cases, increase or decrease blood flow in such a way that some sensitive users may notice in the form of a headache.
- Increased Histamine Levels – It’s thought that certain strains of probiotics can produce histamine, a molecule that the immune system creates when a threat is detected in the body. With the rising of histamine levels, blood vessels work to bring more blood to affected areas. In this case, the process may trigger some allergy-related symptoms, like watery or itchy eyes and a runny nose. If you have a histamine intolerance, it’s important to speak with a trusted medical care provider about avoiding foods with high levels of histamine. Histamine producing probiotics include, but are not limited to, such strains as Lactobacillus buchneri, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus hilgardii, and Streptococcus thermophilus.
- May Cause Allergic Reactions – As previously stated, those with certain dietary restrictions or sensitivities may want to consult their medical care provider when determining what kind of probiotics to introduce into their diet. People who are prone to certain allergies, such as dairy, egg or soy, will want to carefully read the labels of their probiotic supplements, as they may contain ingredients that may adversely affect the user’s system. Additionally, those who have yeast-related allergies may want to stay away from those probiotics that are yeast-based.
- May Increase Risk Of Infection – Though the majority of people are totally safe taking probiotics, the bacteria may not work in the same way for everyone. In fact, in some very rare cases, the bacteria may enter the bloodstream and, for infection-susceptible people, cause infections. Those who have immune system-related illnesses or disorders may have a greater risk of infection, as well as those who have been in the hospital for a while or have had a recent surgery. Of course, it is important to note that this risk is very low: according to HealthLine, only one in one million people who take Lactobacilli based probiotics will have an infection. This risk shrinks when looking at those taking yeast-based probiotics.
Probiotics are a good bacteria that may greatly help support the overall health of not only the digestive system, but of the immune system, heart, and brain.
These good bacteria come in several strains that may affect individuals differently, so it’s important to consider your current diet and overall health goals when thinking about which kind of probiotic to add to your diet.
With continuing research, scientists have found that probiotics are key to some of the body’s most important functions, and work to help prevent the growth of bad bacteria in our bodies.
Though there may be some side effects that come with taking probiotics, it’s thought that the overall use of probiotics can greatly help with your overall health and wellbeing. In fact, the risk of these side effects is fairly low within the population.
Overall, probiotics are a great way to consider helping aid the health of your digestive system, gut flora, and overall health.
Josh is a qualified personal trainer based in Sydney Australia. He is passionate about helping people reach their health and fitness goals through proper nutrition choices. Josh also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and Juris Doctor from The University of Melbourne.