Are Probiotics Actually Good For You? What Do They Do?
Image Credit: Greek Yoghurt, Pexels

Common wisdom would have us believe that bacteria are bad. So, it might be counterintuitive to consume many millions of them by way of probiotics. But taking probiotics can be of great advantage. Although bacteria are often blamed for causing illnesses, there is a growing amount of evidence that shows that particular kinds of live bacteria found in food and supplements can be used to both cure and prevent some diseases. People living in Northern Europe and Japan are familiar with probiotics since they have a tradition of consuming bacteria-fermented foods and drinks. In the mid-1990s, clinical research began to show that probiotic treatment can be beneficial for a variety of gastrointestinal issues, even delay the onset of allergies in children, and prevent vaginal and urinary tract infections in women.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are a combination of live beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live in your body. Probiotics consist of beneficial bacteria that promote a healthy and functioning body. These advantageous microorganisms can provide assistance in numerous ways, such as combating bad bacteria when there is an excess of it and boosting your well-being. As the NIH says, probiotics may contain a variety of microorganisms. The most common are bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Other bacteria may also be used as probiotics, as may yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii. Different bacteria have different effects. 

Probiotics are part of a larger picture concerning bacteria and your body, which is your microbiome. According to the Cleveland Clinic, for a microbe to be called a "probiotic," it must have several characteristics. These include being able to:

    Be isolated from humans.

    Survive in your intestine after ingestion (being eaten).

    Have a proven benefit for you.

    Be safely consumed.

Use Of Probiotics 

The use of probiotics has been seeing a steady increase the world over. Results from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) revealed that 4 million adults (1.6%) living in the US had taken probiotics or prebiotics within the last thirty days, making it the third most popular dietary supplement other than vitamins and minerals. This means that the use of these supplements had quadrupled between 2007 and 2012. Furthermore, it was determined that 300,000 children aged 4 to 17 (0.5%) had also ingested probiotics or prebiotics in the month prior to the survey.

 How do probiotics work?

According to the NIH and Cleveland Clinic, "good bacteria keeps you healthy by supporting your immune function and controlling inflammation." Certain types of good bacteria can also: 

    Help your body digest food.

    Keep bad bacteria from getting out of control and making you sick.

    Create vitamins. 

    Help support the cells that line your gut to prevent bad bacteria that you may have consumed (through food or drinks) from entering your blood.

    Breakdown and absorb medications.

Sourdough bread, Image Source: Pexels

 Benefits and risks 

The use of probiotics, while it has large amounts of anecdotal evidence, does not have a ton of scientific evidence behind it yet. Some studies have proposed that consuming probiotics while taking antibiotics may diminish the risk of antibiotic-induced diarrhea. These supplements might also decrease the number of colds one could contract in a year. Probiotics are regularly utilized to reduce gastrointestinal issues that are not related to severe illness, like gas, bloating, and constipation. Yet, more studies are required to decide who might benefit from symptom enhancement, particularly among the elderly population. 

One potential risk associated with using probiotics is that they may cause disease in people whose immune systems have been compromised either due to age or illness. Besides, as they are considered health supplements and not drugs, they are not subject to as much regulation as drugs are, so it is hard to ascertain the quality of the products on the market.

 Sources Of Probiotics  

Probiotics don't always have to be taken in the form of dietary supplements in order to be ingested. Many types of food items contain the beneficial bacteria, including Greek yogurt, kefir (a tangy dairy drink), and pickles or sauerkraut that have undergone fermentation, and indeed kombucha, a drink that has caught on quite a bit even in India. For meals, you can try and incorporate sourdough bread, cottage cheese (paneer), tempeh, kimchi (fermented vegetables with Korean spices), miso soup, etc. But, as any health advisory will tell you, ensure that you are still creating a balanced and healthy meal each time you eat. Though adding probiotic-rich foods to your diet won’t hurt you, balance is, as always, the key.