An Introduction to Probiotics
by Megan Dodds, NTP
“Bugs,” “bacteria,” “living organisms.” All of these terms are used to describe what seems to have been rediscovered and picked up by mainstream media within the last decade or so: probiotics. You’ve seen the name on food labels, boasted about in advertisements, and heard it as a passerby. But do you know what they are?
Probiotics are most basically defined as living microorganisms, many of which naturally inhabit our gastrointestinal tract to aid in food digestion, protect us from harmful microorganisms, and even help produce vitamins (1). The most common bacteria strains belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. If you read the nutrition facts on foods like yogurt, for instance, you will see these names in the ingredient list.
In order to function optimally, our microbiome requires a delicate balance of probiotics, gut bacteria, whatever you'd like to call them, that is unique to every person. In other words, no two people's gut bacteria are the same. The microbiome is a term for the collection of living microorganisms that inhabit our bodies.The more balanced the microbiome, the more stable health we enjoy via optimal digestion.
Probiotics assist in maintaining a healthy community of microorganisms, warding off undesirable bacteria, helping in rebuilding the microbiome after disturbances like rounds of antibiotics for bacterial illness, and even stimulating the immune response. (1) Did you know that the majority of your immune system is actually in your gut? All the more reason to feed and protect the digestive tract with beneficial bacteria!
Many people go about their daily lives without realizing what they experience are indeed, manifestations of digestive issues, potentially as a result of microbiome imbalance (2). A few examples include, excessive fullness in the upper abdomen directly after eating, lower abdominal bloating, gas, not “going” for a couple consecutive days, irritable bowel tendencies (IBS), acid reflux, reduced appetite, and more. Do any of these sound like you or someone you know? If yes, not to worry! There are many avenues available to improve digestive health, and probiotics may be just what your gut needs to regain balance.
If you're wondering where to acquire such gut-boosting microorganisms, look to fermented foods. Things like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir are examples of fermented foods that are easily accessible at most grocery stores these days, and pack a sizeable punch in the probiotic department. Foods that go through a process of “wild-fermentation” (e.g. like sauerkraut) create probiotics from the bacteria that already exist in and on the food. These types of naturally occurring probiotics can be hugely effective in healing digestive issues!
In addition to the health of your internal ecosystem, specific strains of probiotics taken orally in the form of food or special, high quality capsules have also been proven to have a positive effect on the quality of our external body. Namely, our skin! Skin issues like atopic dermatitis (aka eczema) (3), wrinkles due to sun exposure (4), even some types of acne (5) can be assuaged with specific probiotic protocols.
As alluded to above, the health of our gut heavily influences the quality of all aspects of our well-being; immune system, mental health (6), skin health, and so much more. Clearly, gut health doesn’t just stay in the gut, making it of utmost importance to prioritize our internal constitution by way of clean, whole foods, and maintaining a balanced microbiome.