Probiotics: Health Essentials
Humans have more microbes in and on their body than the number of cells. Trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi live in the human digestive system and most of them are beneficial bacteria. Collectively they are called “gut microbiome” or “gut flora” and they are essential for a number of physiological functions to keep us healthy. The gut microbiome is now considered as one of the organs in the human body, and hence should be taken care of just like all other organs. Probiotics are the supplemental form of healthy bacterial colonies used to replenish the gut microbes. It is important to have a balanced bacterial population in the digestive system. Any imbalance in the digestive microbial environment is called dysbiosis.
A modern diet containing meat, fats, and refined sugar has very low fiber content and that distorts a healthy gut microbiome. This can be an underlying cause of obesity, inflammation, and many chronic metabolic diseases including high cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar. Some other indicators of unhealthy gut flora are frequent digestive complaints, heartburn, bloating, fatigue, sluggishness, sugar cravings, irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, inflammatory bowel disease, autoimmune diseases (such as allergies, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and thyroid issues), migraine headaches, skin issues and psoriasis, depression, anxiety and sleep and mood disorders.
Probiotic bacteria not only contribute to the maintenance and recovery of healthy gut flora, but also repair the connective tissue of the intestinal wall and improve the intestinal barrier for prevention of future infections. Natural sources of probiotic bacteria are plain cultured yogurt, cheeses, and fermented foods such as sourdough, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha. The gut microbes help in digestion of food, absorption of nutrients, synthesis of B group of vitamins, folic acid, and vitamin K, and they are an essential support of healthy immunity. Additionally, healthy gut flora is an important part of the Gut-Brain axis which is important for mental health and cognition.
The gut microbiome starts developing in the digestive system right from birth and is constantly changing and adapting to maintain optimum intestinal and overall health. It varies from person to person and can be depleted due to genetic makeup, diet, a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol consumption, smoking, antibiotics, painkillers, statins and most other oral medicines, mental stress, aging, and environmental pollutants.
Consumption of a plant-based diet with abundant dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates is important in supporting the growth of the healthy colonic bacteria. Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes act as food for the gut microbes. The compounds produced during digestion of the fibrous foods such as short chain fatty acids (e.g., butyrate) are the major anti-inflammatory agents in the colon. Due to this property of fibers to help in maintaining the healthy gut bacteria, the dietary fibers are called prebiotics.
On the other hand, probiotic supplements are a very specific combination of bacteria. The most commonly used bacteria in probiotic supplements are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species which have the maximum health benefits. While choosing a probiotic supplement, it is important to pay attention to the bacterial strains and number of colonies included in a probiotic supplement since they need to pass safely through the stomach acid to reach the colon to be the most effective. Having a healthy gut microbiome is the key to long-term health!