Probiotics: Uses, Benefits, and Risks
Probiotics are bacteria that are beneficial to the body. It can be difficult to grasp the concept of probiotics for some; we take antibiotics to get rid of the harmful bacteria in our body. This just means that some bacteria when present in the incorrect place at the incorrect time can cause problems, but, the correct bacteria at the correct place and time can be of a lot of benefit to the body. This is when probiotics come into the picture. These are living microorganisms that can be used to treat and prevent numerous illnesses. The most common and widely talked about the benefits of probiotics are maintaining a healthy digestive system and boosting the immune system. However, even if not as widely known for this use, doctors recommend using probiotics for children with autism as it is believed that the function of the gut and brain are strongly linked.
Probiotics can be found in numerous food sources and are also available in supplement form. There are also several varieties of probiotics which have varying functions. The different kinds of probiotics are:
- Lactobacillus: there are about 50 different kinds of lactobacilli. In the human body, they are found in the digestive system as well as the urinary and genital system. Outside sources of lactobacillus included fermented food such as yogurt, as well as dietary supplements. Bacteria of this kind are mainly used to treat digestive issues such as diarrhea, lactose intolerance as well as yeast infections.
- Bifidobacteria: with 30 different species of bifidobacteria, appearing in the intestines within days of the birth of a child, they are responsible for making up most of the healthy bacteria present in the colon. Bifidobacteria is responsible for promoting the quality of blood lipids and the level of glucose tolerance of an individual. Studies have shown improvement and relief from indigestion, bloating as well as relief from symptoms of IBS.
- Saccharomyces boulardii: these are the only kind of yeast probiotics. Studies have shown that S. boulardii is useful for treating conditions like diarrhea that a patient might experience after course heavy antibiotics.
- Streptococcus thermophilus: this type of bacteria can be useful when treating lactose intolerance as studies have shown it produces large amounts of the enzyme known as lactase.
- Enterococcus faecium: this bacterium is commonly found in the intestines of animals and humans.
- Leuconostoc: this kind of bacteria has been widely known and used throughout the history of food processing. The use of food containing these microorganisms and their metabolites has been a part of the human diet for a long time.
Even though probiotics are extremely beneficial for the human body, they can sometimes have minor side effects such as gastric issues or bloating. Some cases of major side effects such as, causing infection have been noticed in people who have a health condition they were not yet aware of. An excessive intake of probiotics might also cause more harm rather than benefit to the body, e.g. too much stimulation of the immune system.
There are several sources where one can find probiotics, however, the most common source of probiotics is fermented food such as:
- Kefir: a drink made using milk and kefir grains and then fermented to develop taste, kefir is one of the richest sources of probiotics as it has good bacteria and yeast both working together.
- Kimchi: This is considered a side dish for almost all Korean meals and an essential in a Korean household pantry. Made from fermented vegetables such as Chinese cabbage, green onion, and radish, fermented in a mixture of red chili powder, fish sauce, ginger, and garlic, this side dish helps with improved function of the immune system, healthy skin as well as reduction of cholesterol levels amongst many other benefits.
- Yogurt: a more common ingredient around the world, yogurt is made from fermenting full cream milk by introducing live cultures in the milk and allowing them to work their magic. Eating yogurt improves an individual’s lactose intolerance, reduces the risks of gastrointestinal diseases and also helps with respiratory issues. It also helps improve gum and bone health as it is rich in calcium.
- Sweet acidophilus milk: live cultures are added to pasteurized cow’s milk to achieve this by-product. Unlike many other fermented dairy by-products that have a tangy taste, sweet acidophilus milk tastes like normal milk but holds a wider range of health benefits due to the presence of live bacteria in its composition.
Other examples of foods containing probiotics are miso (fermented paste made from soybeans), aged soft cheese (one of many fermented dairy products), Sauerkraut (fermented raw thinly cut cabbage), sourdough bread (bread made using fermented dough), pickles (vegetables or ingredients fermented in a brine usually comprising of vinegar amongst other flavorings), and tempeh (a product made from fermented soybeans in a process which binds the soybeans into a block shape) among many others. However, research is ongoing to prove with solid evidence that these foods hold a substantial amount of probiotics.
Even with numerous amounts of researches to prove that there are little to no side effects caused by products containing probiotics, specifically probiotics supplements taken by fitness experts to accelerate weight loss and fat reduction, it is advised to contact a healthcare provider before administrating a dietary supplement. Caution needs to be taken especially when considering young children, women who are expecting a baby or elderly people.
In the case of children, their immune system is not yet fully developed and introducing bacteria into their system that their body isn’t used to might cause a negative reaction. As for pregnant women and elderly people, they might have a compromised immune system, and some bacteria might affect them negatively which otherwise would be beneficial for a person of perfect health condition. Therefore, it is important to always refer to a health care provider before taking any supplementary probiotics to make sure you might not be causing more harm to your body and immune system rather than benefiting it.