Probiotics: How they help our Gut and our Overall Health
Our bodies are complicated organisms and all our internal systems are connected. Our guts are an important part of this internal system and we need to nourish them appropriately for good health.
Probiotics – a supplement we can find at most health food stores or in certain fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, etc. – are becoming increasingly popular. Many speak of the countless benefits of taking probiotics and their effect on our gut and health.
What are Probiotics?
The term probiotic includes two root words: pro and biotic. Pro in Latin means ‘for’ and biotic is Greek for ‘life.’ In a very literal way, probiotic means to ‘give life’.
The reasoning is that probiotics are actually living organisms, specifically live bacteria and yeasts. Most of us associate bacteria as being harmful, but our bodies actually need “good” bacteria for optimum functioning. And probiotics can help provide it.
These live bacteria are necessary to digest and assimilate food. According to the Mayo Clinic, probiotics help send food through our gut by affecting nerves that control gut movement. Those of us who have had trouble digesting food—characterized by constipation or diarrhea, among other issues—know how painful it can be. Digestion is an ongoing process, and more so if we eat all day long. A healthy gut helps the digestive process immensely.
Gut or intestinal flora occurs naturally in our bodies; however, certain things we eat or even medications can lessen good bacteria. In 1907, Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff introduced the idea that gut flora can be modified. Thus began the development of probiotics.
The Importance of Gut Health
Gut health is imperative to overall wellbeing. Ayurvedic Medicine, which is amongst the oldest holistic healing systems, has emphasized the critical nature of digestion and its importance on the entire body.
Modern science indicates the same. Some in the modern scientific community actually refer to the gut as the “second brain” of the body. The gut—which includes the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and anus—is a mass of neural tissue, filled with important neurotransmitters that communicate with our bodies. In fact, the gut contains about 100 million neurons, which is more than there are in the spinal cord.
The sheer size of our gut – which end to end is about nine meters long – gives us an indication of the complexity of the digestive process. If something goes array, then we’re going to feel it quite literally in our gut. There are several digestive diseases or illnesses that can be rather painful and require us to alter our lifestyle to cope with them.
Common digestive issues include heartburn, irritable bowel disease, diverticulitis, pancreatitis, gastritis, ulcers, and more. Symptoms may include cramps, constipation, pain, gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
Those who suffer from digestive issues can be guided by a doctor who will prescribe an appropriate treatment plan or medication, along with any needed dietary changes. Incrementing consumption of probiotics can considerably help improve gut health.
The Brain-Gut Connection
Neurogastroenterology, the study of how the brain and the gut interact, is a branch of medicine. The brain-gut connection is so much bigger than we realize.
The feeling of ‘butterflies in the stomach’ are actually the nerves in the gut indicating that we’re either stressed or worried. The brain receives this feeling of discomfort and immediately realizes that something is not right.
Some experts believe that our guts actually have a big impact on mental health. In fact, 95 percent of serotonin – the “happy hormone” – is found within the bowels. So, “the happier the gut”, the more emotionally healthy we are.
In a study by McMaster University, researchers altered gut environments in mice to see how they might affect emotions. They observed that when timid mice were given gut bacteria of fearless mice, they became less anxious.
On the physical level, irritable bowel can lead to a leaky gut, which can lead to food sensitives, which then leads to inflammation, resulting in a host of physical ailments, which eventually develop into diseases.
Some experts believe that gut flora can actually impact whether a person has other health issues such diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, ADD, and autism.
What causes an irritable bowel to begin with? Not enough good gut bacteria, which can be the result of taking antibiotics, eating too much sugar, genes that lend themselves to gut issues, amongst other harmful lifestyle choices.
Obviously, eating a healthier diet can help our gut flora get to where it needs to be. But just as the gut flora doesn’t go downhill overnight, it can take time to build it back up again. Probiotics can definitely help speed up the process.
Types of Probiotics
There are many, many different types of probiotics. According to the Mayo Clinic, these include lactobacilli, bifidobacterial, and some yeasts, with strains within those three.
Choosing a probiotic that is right for us will depend on what we need the most help with, according to The Well Nest.
Lactobacilli Probiotics include:
L. ACIDOPHILUS strain, which can help improve vaginal health, acne, and diarrhea.
L. RHAMNOSUS strain, which can help improve eczema.
L. PLANTARUM, which helps reduce inflammation.
L. CASEI, which helps support the GI and the brain.
Bifidobacterial Probiotics include:
B. LACTIS, which can help improve immunity.
B. LONGUM, which helps with constipation and brain function.
B. BIFIDUM, which improves immunity and supports the GI.
B. BREVE, which helps prevent ageing.
Streptococcus Probiotics include:
S. THERMOPHILUS, which improves the skin.
Choosing a good quality probiotic is important. Paying attention to the label – specifically if the bacteria is live and the colonies are in the billions – will give an idea of its quality. Expiration date and need for refrigeration must be taken into account.
Foods High in Probiotics
Many people take probiotics in pill form. However, there are some foods that are high in probiotics as well. Many fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, pickles, kombucha, miso, some cheeses, kimchi, tempeh, sauerkraut, traditional buttermilk, and natto grow good bacteria.
In many traditional diets across the world, these types of probiotic foods are staples. In Ayurvedic Medicine, curd – which is a term for yogurt in India – is mentioned as being a digestive stimulant and an overall healthy food to consume.
Experts continually highlight the importance of paying attention to gut health by choosing the right foods and by adjusting our life styles. Supplements like the ones listed above may help too. The importance of good gut bacteria can never be emphasized enough for overall wellbeing.