by Kimberly Allen, RN
As more and more people are looking for natural ways to improve and maintain their health, there is an increasing interest in probiotics. It seems like there are commercials on every channel, in every magazine and online touting the health benefits of probiotics. They have become popular not only in the US but worldwide as well, so it’s no surprise that even in Honduras I get asked about them. So what are probiotics? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAQ) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”.
Many people cringe at the thought of willingly ingesting bacteria, I mean they cause infections right? Actually thousands of bacteria are natural inhabitants of our bodies. In the digestive system alone there are over 500 different ‘types’ of bacteria that are natural inhabitants. Then each ‘type’ has it’s own species and each species has it’s own different strains. which adds up to millions of bacteria that are normal inhabitants of our digestive system, some ‘good’ some ‘bad.’ The key to maintaining good health is maintaining the proper balance between the two. So why do bacteria live in our bodies? The bacteria found in our digestive system, particularly the intestines, play a crucial role in digesting the food you eat. They aide in synthesizing vitamins and other nutrients as well as metabolize certain medications. Our digestive system is also home to over 100 million neurons as well as certain neurotransmitters. These are responsible for managing every facet of digestion that take place in each of the digestive organs. The bacteria that naturally inhabit our digestive system are crucial to the development and function of those neurons.
The bacteria that exists naturally in our bodies also plays a significant role in developing and maintaining our immune system. One expert has said that there has been a dramatic increase in autoimmune as well as allergic conditions in “societies with very good hygiene.” With all the anti-bacterial soaps, cleaners and hand sanitizers in use today we are washing away many of the bacteria that would normally challenge our immune system keeping it strong and healthy.
So how do probiotics help your body? Most experts believe that many digestive disorders develop when there is a disruption in the balance between the ‘good bacteria and the ‘bad’ bacteria. There are a variety of factors that can cause a disruption including infection and antibiotic therapy as well as any damage to the lining of the intestines. The belief is that probiotics improves your intestinal function as well as maintaining the health and integrity of the intestinal lining. Some people call them “natures truest form of antibiotics”. Probiotics not only help to maintain the delicate balance between the good and bad bacteria they also aide in the building of a strong and long lasting immunity to a wide variety of illnesses and diseases as well as bacterial infections and viruses. They even help protect against cancer.
Though most are aware that probiotics can be taken orally as a supplement they can also be found in many of the foods we eat everyday. The most well known is yogurt. Other foods that claim to contain probiotics include cereal, cookies, granola, juice and candy bars. However, they may not contain the type and/or amount needed to provide health benefits.
Taking probiotics has, for the most part, been found safe with minimal side effects. People have been eating yogurt and cheeses as well as other foods composed of live cultures for hundreds of years without any significant problems. However, people with weak immune systems or a serious illness can have problems.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.