Anyone who remembers their basic health and biology classes from school will recall that while the human body itself is made up of billions and billions of various specialized cells, it also plays host to an entire series of complex, microscopic ecosystems. That’s right, we’re host to organisms that aren’t actually part of us directly.
Our digestive tract is the main venue of these exotic ecosystems, containing a vast array of different bacteria which have a mutual relationship with us, called “symbiosis”. These help in various stages of breaking down our food, in fighting off hostile exterior invasions from bacteria and viruses, and in providing necessary enzymes and other organic substances our body depends on to stay alive.
It sometimes really shocks us when we think about this because we tend to think of bacteria as these harmful organisms that make us sick, resulting in infections, and overall cause undesirable outcomes in our lives. As a result, when you hear the term “probiotic”, it sounds almost like a bad thing. After all, antibiotics help fight off infections, so wouldn’t the opposite cause harmful things?
The answer to this is no, in fact, probiotics are targeted to aid the good bacteria in our bodies, while antibiotics are to target things that oughtn’t to be there. Probiotics are generally ingesting these bacteria themselves, rather than things that aid the existing colonies of them in your body, where antibiotics are usually simply biochemical agents that are toxic to the harmful bacteria (some in ways we still don’t fully understand, believe it or not).
The problem though is that antibiotics do often diminish the presence of these various good bacteria, which is why a diet that contains recommended amounts of probiotics is a very health-conscious idea. Many of the foods we have grown to enjoy in modern times, at least in the realm of healthier, non-artificial things, can be probiotic.
Dairy is a good source of probiotics, especially where it’s fermented to make cheeses and yogurts. Yogurt advertisements often point out the probiotic benefits, and this isn’t just marketing talk, it’s true, and it is very good for you.
What Probiotics Do
So, what exactly do these bacteria do, and what kind of bad symptoms might we experience if we have deficiencies in this area? As I pointed out a moment ago, your digestive tract is one of the most bacteria-heavy parts of the body, and where their presence is most heavily needed. Here, these bacteria help in the digestion of food. It’s not all just acids, these bacteria help bring down and process the complex molecules further, for easy absorption by the body.
Bacteria like these are crucial in digesting things like lactose (milk sugar), which is notorious for causing stomach pains and diarrhea in many people. Lactose intolerance can be acute and not treatable, but many cases of milder intolerance can be abated fairly easily with the proper probiotic nutritional choices.
Symptoms of decreased bacteria are similarly unpleasant, including nausea, indigestion, constipation, diarrhea, malnutrition, loss of appetite, severe acid reflux, skin conditions such as eczema, and possibly severe deficiencies I crucial things beginning to show up.
Your immune system can also be compromised, resulting in a greater susceptibility to the flu and the common cold among other things.
Types of Probiotics
So, there are probably different kinds of probiotics, right? Because surely, the good bacteria aren’t some swiss army knife that can do everything your body needs. This is correct, and there is a long list of these truth be told, but we’re going to look at three of the most important, and the ones readily replenished with the right dietary choices.
- Lactobacillus: This sounds like a dinosaur doesn’t it? This is actually the more common of the probiotics, the one found in yogurt and sometimes cheese or other fermented foods (even wines and beers can have lactobacillus to some level). Lactobacillus is also the most common bacterium that your digestive tract needs, as its job is to break down complex things like lactose and some more complex protein structures.
- Bifidobacterium: This one is fairly common in a lot of dairy products, and can reduce recurring diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome, and can help improve lactose tolerance as well.
- Saccharomyces boulardii: This is a species of yeast common to a lot of probiotic products, which also works well to prevent diarrhea, and some studies have linked it aiding in regularity of bowel movements (which is actually a rarity in people naturally).
Well, it’s pretty clear that probiotics are important to digestion and thus, the overall health of your body. However, amazingly, these have also been linked to improved urinary and vaginal health, improves oral health, and preventing severe allergy symptoms or odd strains of the cold.
Some studies have linked them to better skin health as well.
Sources of Probiotics
Okay, so what are some good sources of probiotics, aside from supplements (which are a good idea, especially if you’re on antibiotics)? Obviously, chief among them are foods created via fermentation. Common among these are cheeses, yogurts, some butters and other processed dairy.
Vinegars and some beers/wines also contain probiotic bacteria as well. The problem seems to be that a lot of these things can be otherwise less than healthy, right? Believe it or not, cheese isn’t inherently unhealthy, and yogurt is actually all-around very healthy and an excellent source of ready protein as well.
Alcohol in moderation also won’t hurt you, a single glass of a rich red wine with dinner, or a light beer, for example, can have some benefits for those with an otherwise healthy body.
A Word on Safety
Probiotics should be taken with some common sense and caution. Remember, these are regulated like foods, not medications. Thus, their units of measurement and compliance standards are unlike medical products.
If you’re unsure due to immune system issues, digestive problems, or due to recent surgeries or other complications, you should see a doctor about probiotics, especially targeted supplements.
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