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Just as we were coming around to keto diets and intermittent fasting, terms like digestive wellness and probiotics caught us off guard. Experts suggest they are here to stay. Though probiotics have made a recent comeback as a wellness trend in food and health, their benefits have been talked about since the beginning of the 20th century.
Nobel Prize winner Russian scientist Élie Metchnikoff had a theory that yogurt-loving Bulgarian and Russian farmers lived longer. Way back in 1907, he suggested that the balance between the beneficial and harmful bacteria in the gut could be changed and used for improving longevity and digestive strength in people. Each year about 22.4 million people visit doctors with digestive complaints, according to Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. As the burden of digestive disorders increases, people are looking at everything that digestive wellness has to offer. It involves taking care of our gut health by improving our intake of probiotics and prebiotics. It is no longer limited to just yogurts and sauerkraut—probiotics have found their way into juices and the dessert aisles and the industry is expected to grow to a $50 billion market this year.
What are Probiotics?
Bacterial strains can be either good or harmful for the body. Probiotics (meaning ‘for life’) are the good microbes, the ones that are friendly to our guts and bodies. These are live microorganisms that when consumed can benefit our digestive health and help in treating other disorders as well. As the world of medicine tries to test and confirm the efficacy of probiotics, a question that usually pops up at this point: consuming edibles with live bacteria—how risky can it be?
When it comes to consuming natural sources of probiotics, there is nothing to worry about simply because our bodies—especially our guts—are already full of both good and bad bacteria. There are about a trillion microorganisms that reside in our bowel. Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that help improve the balance in favor of the good bacteria.
Types of Probiotics
There are two main species of bacteria that are categorized as probiotics—lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.
Lactobacillus produce lactic acid and lactase that process lactose enzymes. We need this lactic acid to control the bad gut bacteria. It is also needed for muscle growth and to assist the body in absorbing minerals. Lactobacillus is found in our mouth, small intestine, and in the vagina.
Bifidobacterium are found in dairy products and are said to be good for the immune system. They also balance the growth of bad bacteria in the intestines and help digest lactose for the body’s nutritional needs.
There are also genetic subtypes of the two main species we mentioned above. When you check the label of store-bought probiotic foods or yogurts, you will find the probiotic strains mentioned in the form of main species followed by the name of the particular strain; B stands for Bifidobacterium and L stands for Lactobacillus. For example, you may find L.acidophilus mentioned on the food label, where L is Lactobacillus and acidophilus is the probiotic subtype. Some of the commonly found probiotic subtypes include B. animalis, B lactis, B.longum, L. acidophilus, and L.reuteri.
Benefits of Probiotics
Cultures such as the Europeans, Indians, and Japanese have been consuming probiotics as part of their native diet for centuries. It is only now that the scientific community is beginning to examine the range of benefits probiotic rich foods have for the body—particularly for gut health. In the science of Ayurveda, our gut is also considered to be the seat of digestive fire, or agni. Ayurveda places a lot of importance on the role of agni in controlling vital functions of the body and the metabolism. Intake of probiotics can help aid life-supporting agni.
Treatment and Prevention of Diseases
Intake of probiotics has shown promising results in treatment of ulcers, digestive disorders, urinary infections, and vaginal diseases, as well as
- Ulcers (colitis)
- IBS or irritable bowel syndrome
- Urinary tract infections
- Digestive tract ulcers and infections
- Diseases in children
- Relapse in bladder cancer
- Digestive Health
Bouts of diarrhea can leave us feeling exhausted, nauseated, dehydrated, and weak. Research has shown a strong correlation between probiotics and treatment of diarrhea. Controlled trials have proven that particular probiotic strain Lactobacillus GG can reduce the duration of diarrhea in babies and children. Probiotics have also shown to reduce diarrhea caused by antibiotics by 60%.
In cultures of the Indian subcontinent, when a child would fall sick with symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome or any other digestive condition, mothers would feed them probiotic foods like yogurt or buttermilk to alleviate the symptoms. Because of the potential side effects and fears about the long-term complications of heavy antibiotic dosages, more people are giving probiotics a shot in treating these one-off digestive conditions. Apart from soothing the symptoms of IBS or irritable bowel syndrome, probiotics have been reportedly useful in treating the inflammation of the digestive tract and resulting abdominal pain, fatigue, weight loss, malnutrition, and severe diarrhea of Crohn’s Disease. Probiotics can also resist the recurrence of certain types of cancers. Scientists are probing further into these benefits and applications.
Probiotics have also been found to be useful in maintaining the microbiota in the intestinal tract and vaginal lining, which have very sensitive microbial ecosystems. The restorative value of probiotics can help deal with conditions like vaginosis, urinary tract infections, or yeast infections.
Important Food Sources of Probiotics
Yogurt tops the list of healthy probiotic sources. Fermented by good bacteria like the bifidobacteria, it has shown encouraging results in treating diarrhea in children. It has also shown promising results in improving symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Be sure to pick a yogurt can with live cultures. Apart from digestive health, yogurt is also good for the bones and hypertension.
Kefir grains may look like cereals but they are actually bacterial cultures. Kefir is a fermented drink made from mixing kefir grains with milk. Kefir, like yogurt, can be ingested by people who are normally lactose intolerant because the lactose is broken down. Kefir has more fat, proteins, and probiotic strains than yogurt. It comes loaded with nutrients like proteins, vitamin B, potassium, and calcium. Some of its benefits include
- Improves the balance in favor of good bacteria in intestinal tracts
- Helps treat diarrhea caused by antibiotic dosages
- Treats symptoms of IBS
- Prevents gastrointestinal infections
- Treatment of urogenital infections
- Better bone health
- Lowers cholesterol
- Better immunity
A European import, sour and salty with a long shelf life, sauerkraut is finely cut cabbage fermented by lactic acid bacterial strains. It is a powerful probiotic that is also rich in fibre, antioxidants, vitamins (C,B and K), sodium, iron, and manganese.
- Tempeh or Tempe
This is a traditional Indonesian soy product where whole soybean is fermented using a natural culturing process. It is made into cakes or patties, and has a nutty aftertaste. It can wonderfully substitute meat in your diet while keeping the protein intake high. In traditional tempe shops, the cultures used are rich in vitamin B12, but similar versions in the West are made using cultures that provide much less in terms of vitamin B12. Soybean is usually high in acids that hinder absorption of iron and zinc, but the fermenting process lowers the presence of these acids.
Kombucha is a popular Asian fizzy tea fermented by a friendly strain of bacteria and yeast. It is made by fermenting sweetened tea with microbial colonies consisting of bacterial strains and yeast. The probiotics in kombucha are said to improve gut health and immunity. It also prevents growth of certain cancer cells. Kombucha can potentially reduce infections by killing bad bacteria before they affect the body. It also enlivens your mind and is known to help deal with depression or mood disorders, and may also reduce the risk of heart diseases. The antioxidants in kombucha also reduce toxins in the liver.
- Pickles or Gherkins
Cucumbers and olives fermented in a solution of salt and water—with the help of naturally occurring bacteria in them—are another source of probiotics. They are also a rich source of vitamin K and sodium.
Kimchi is another Asian side dish that consists of fermented cabbage or other vegetables typically flavored with scallion, chilli pepper, ginger or garlic. Kimchi has digestive benefits and is rich in vitamin K, riboflavin, and minerals.
Buttermilk is widely consumed in the Indian subcontinent and tropical climate for its cooling properties along with probiotic benefits. There are two varieties of buttermilk—the traditional one consumed in the Indian subcontinent and the cultured variant used in the West, with relatively less probiotic strains. It is low in fat, but does not lack in key minerals and vitamins B12, riboflavin, phosphorus, and calcium.
Not all types of cheese contain probiotics, but in those where bacterial strains outlive the aging process—such as cottage cheese, gouda, mozzarella, and cheddar—they can be found. Soft cheeses are usually high in probiotics on consumption as they have pH just high enough for the bacteria to survive in the digestive tracts. Cheese is yet another source of protein, calcium, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and other minerals.
Prebiotics are what feeds probiotics. In other words, probiotics are the good bacteria and foods rich in probiotics deliver them into gut microbiota; prebiotics are the compounds that support the growth of probiotics. Particularly in the gastrointestinal tracts, prebiotics can help improve the balance of good bacteria. Plant-derived carbohydrate compounds like fructans and galactans are good sources of prebiotics. Foods like dark chocolate, bananas, honey, artichokes, garlic, leek, whole-wheat flour, onion, and asparagus are rich in prebiotics. Benefits of prebiotics may include
- Bolsters absorption of calcium and other minerals
- Improves the immune system
- Reduces acidity in the stomach
- Decreases risk of colorectal cancer
- Fights Crohn’s Disease and IBS
- Reduces hypertension
- Infection reduction in infants.
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