Probiotics is a term defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations as "live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the host". It is estimated that the human body plays host to over a trillion microbes from over ~1000 different species on our skin, in our mouths, noses, gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts. Most are from the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces and Enterococcus genera and a wealth of research has been carried out pinpointing some of the benefits that many of these microbes confer and the roles they play to ward off sickness and disease:
Production of Beneficial Compounds and Vitamins:
Two metabolic by-products of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria in the intestinal tract are lactic and acetic acids. These help to produce an acidic environment that is less conducive to harmful bacteria.
Some healthy strains of bacteria in the colon produce nutrients such as vitamin K, which is required for normal blood clotting as well as bone building and maintenance. They are also a source of B vitamins.
Completion of the Digestion Process:
Most foods are completely digested and the nutrients absorbed in the small intestine; however, some carbohydrates such as fibers and oligosaccharides (considered prebiotics) require the help of microbes in the large intestine to finish the job. The combination of pre- and probiotics creates what is referred to as a “synbiotic” relationship because it supports the growth and proliferation of beneficial bacteria in the colon.
Degradation of Carcinogens:
Probiotics such as Lactobacilli degrade the carcinogenic compound nitrosamine and are thought to bind and detoxify additional carcinogens within the intestine, inhibiting their uptake into the bloodstream as well as preventing them from inducing genetic mutations and the production of cancerous cells within the colon.
Promotion of a Healthy Digestive Tract and Immune System:
Inflammation and intestinal permeability are hallmarks of diseases such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s Disease (CD), and Ulcerative Colitis (UC). Healthy bacteria are believed to help combat these diseases by competing for binding sites on intestinal cells to prevent the attachment of pathogenic bacteria that can do damage. Good bacteria also stimulate immune cells to make anti-inflammatory proteins and additional factors, helping to ward off these diseases.
A large portion of our immune systems operate within the mucus layer that lines our digestive tract, which acts as an interface between the inside and outside of the body. Healthy flora found here and foreign antigens that pass through help to prime immune function. Good bacteria are also thought to reinforce this barrier by helping to regulate interactions between intestinal epithelial cells, preventing bacteria and foreign matter from entering the rest of the body, which can lead to infection, allergic reactions and the diseases such as those mentioned above. This suggests that the key to a strong immune system is a healthy digestive tract. This is something that I strongly believe and have written about in the past (see my post Maintain Health Through Proper pH).
Probiotics in the Diet:
One way to maintain healthy intestinal flora within the gut that is gaining interest is by adding probiotics to the diet. They are found in many forms, including pills and powders as well as cultured or fermented drinks and foods. As suggested by the definition, in order to be considered a probiotic, an organism must be live and have previously been shown to produce health benefits to the host. This suggests that the term “live, active culture” may not necessarily constitute a probiotic. However, some common cultured and fermented foods promoted as sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh and fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut and KimChi. There are vast resources for recipes online on how to make yogurt or kombucha or ferment vegetables. I have been making my own organic yogurt using a very simple method found here. My friend Claire Criscuolo shows how to make it in the first video on the page. I often eat it with granola or add it to my morning smoothie. This website, www.bodyecology.com, has instructions and recipes on how to ferment vegetables and includes suggestions for foods, recipes and more tips on maintaining a healthy digestive tract that will keep you happy, youthful and full of energy. A recipe for fermented vegetables can be found here.