The Friendly Critters in Our Gut Known as Probiotics

We often think of bacteria as harmful, however there are organisms that live in our digestive tracts that are necessary for our health…


Gut-Friendly Organisms We Want to Have

What are probiotics? Probiotics are tiny organisms that exist in a healthy human gastrointestinal tract.

Probiotics were discovered when a Nobel Prize-winning Russian microbiologist traveled to Bulgaria and observed people drinking fermented milk and living longer, healthier lives. For thousands of years many cultures ate fermented foods before refrigerators came about, as a safe way of storing and eating foods. Fermented foods are rich in beneficial bacteria that our bodies need for healthy functioning.

These probiotics are the good bacteria that populate our digestive systems. This lining of the intestinal tract in our bodies is key to optimal health. Healthy bacteria colonies help to break down foods we eat, manufacture and metabolize vitamins, and other vital nutrients, and filter out waste. But our intestinal organisms are even more complex than just that.

While the general health of the whole body, including our mental health depends on the ability of our digestive system to break down fats, proteins and carbohydrates in our foods into useable nutrients. It’s these friendly bacteria, or probiotics that live in our guts that have a real impact on our overall health.

Unfortunately, today’s modern diets are processed, pasteurized and basically ‘dead’ foods. What happens when people eat a diet heavy in processed, ‘dead’ foods, is that harmful bacteria then take over in the digestive systems, causing many problems—not only with the digestive system, but the body as a whole. Many diseases start in an unhealthy environment in our guts. And this becomes even worse from taking antibiotics. While antibiotics can kill dangerous pathogens, they also kill off the healthy and beneficial bacteria in our bodies as well.

Probiotic actually means“for life,” and probiotics like lactobacillus, plantarum and bifidis help immune cells fight disease, prevent diarrhea and constipation, protect the mucous lining of the intestine, assist digestion and provide the proper nutrients for healthy blood cells. Probiotics are also responsible for the manufacture of B vitamins and vitamin K right in the intestines where are immediately absorbed.

The tiny organisms that live in our digestive system can have a huge impact on our health. And what we eat determines what kinds of organisms we have. Unhealthy, processed, starchy or sugary foods can cause bad bacteria to grow out of control, making our immune systems weak, and affecting our ability to metabolize and synthesize vitamins and nutrients.

The intestines also function as one of the body’s most important immune defenses. In fact, 70-80% or so of the body’s immune cells are present in the intestines. Of course our immune systems protect us from dangerous viruses, bacteria, and parasites, but they also control responses to foods and food allergies as well.

The intestinal tract is the largest interface between the body and the external environment, and actually contains more surface area than our skin. Signals from nerve cells, endocrine cells, and immune cells in the intestines affect tissues and organs throughout the entire body. There are nearly a billion neurons in the intestinal nervous system.

It’s really no wonder then that people say they have a “gut feeling”.

Amongst this complicated and highly specialized system, live organisms that have a powerful effect on our health. These beneficial bacteria fight off dangerous organisms and potentially harmful invaders. Probiotics regulate our immune responses, and suppress excessive inflammation as well.

But too many antibiotics which kill off all bacteria, good or bad; toxins in the environment, and a bad diet high in sugar and starch will throw off this delicate balance. And yes, simply growing older can throw off this balance of beneficial bacteria too.

Negative changes in our intestinal flora can be associated with inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. It is now thought that many allergic reactions, asthma, and even obesity are tied to bacterial imbalances in the gut.

The good news though, is that adding the right types of probiotics and good bacteria will maintain or restore a healthy balance in your intestinal tract and improve overall health in the entire body, and fight aging.

For example, higher levels of beneficial bacteria are actually an aid to weight loss, as overweight people tend to have low levels of the right kinds of bacteria. This chronic exposure to unhealthy bacteria in the intestines causes system-wide inflammation and can lead to metabolic syndrome, which, as you may already know, is the beginning of diabetes and heart disease.

The right probiotics can help to lower blood pressure, lower LDL cholesterol and improve insulin sensitivity. And most importantly, probiotics may play a major role in preventing cancers, both inside and outside the intestinal tract—especially cancers of the colon, liver and bladder.

Two types of bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, have been found to be highly beneficial to health. Studies have shown that they can actually prevent potentially harmful bacteria from attaching to the lining of our digestive systems, help achieve the right acid-base balance for the intestines, support the gut lining and other intestinal microflora and provide strength and support for the immune system.

In two separate human studies it’s been shown that probiotics directly improve the body’s immune response. One study showed that ingesting probiotics for only a short time caused significant increases in the cytotoxic ability of natural killer cells. And, another study of subjects in their fifties who consumed a dairy drink with a strain of Lactobacillus found the same benefit.

Study after study has shown that probiotics help keep people healthier, especially the aging population. As you age, the immune system weakens and the healthy balance of bacteria and organisms in the digestive system begins to break down.

Although we typically think of probiotics benefiting just the intestines, they actually benefit the whole digestive system, including the mouth, throat, stomach, and vaginal tract.

Some of the other ways probiotics can benefit your body:

  • Probiotics can prevent wrinkles and give you a glowing complexion by eliminating the toxins and fighting free radicals that can damage skin and cause early signs of wrinkling and sagging. And probiotics help you digest your food better, so you get more nutrients in your body.
  • Probiotics can help you burn fat better by reducing cravings for carbohydrates, sugar and alcohol and help you have more energy to be more active
  • Probiotics clean your liver which is reflected in your skin and eyes. When you keep toxins from building up in the liver, you have younger looking skin with less liver spots, moles and skin tags, and you have bright, clear eyes.
  • Probiotics help your hair and fingernails grow faster and stronger by keeping the blood vessels surrounding your hair follicles nourished. Healthy blood nourishes hair, skin and nails. Probiotics also help to break down proteins in the diet that benefit hair and nails.

Although probiotics have been known about for a long time, we are just beginning to understand just how important their role is in fighting aging, maintaining good health, strengthening the immune system, and fighting disease.

There are hundreds of probiotic products available in foods, drinks and supplement forms. The following tips can help you choose a high quality probiotic product:

  • Make sure the probiotics are live cultures. Many yogurts and other food products brag about containing probiotics, but unless they are ‘live’, they won’t do any good.
  • Look at how many CFU’s are present in each serving, and go for the highest number.
  • Look for the type of bacteria present. Some of the better known ones are acidopholus, lactobacillis, and bifido bacteria. These strains are also highly beneficial: Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Streptococcus thermophilus, bifidobacteria, and Saccharomyces boulardii.
  • If you are taking supplements, make sure the product is enteric coated, meaning that it will survive the acid environment in the stomach to get to the small or large intestine where it is needed.
  • And most probiotics will die in a warm or hot environment, so be sure to buy from a trusted source that keeps their products cool enough to be viable.

Most probiotics do not have any adverse side effects but read labels carefully and take as directed. Some probiotics may have a very ‘cleansing’ effect on the digestive system—especially if you are not used to them.

Healthy Probiotic Foods

Yogurt-Avoid the sweetened, heavily processed yogurts, and instead go for unsweetened, plain, organic types of yogurt. And be sure the label says, “Live cultures”.

Kefir-A cultured milk product and is helpful to those with lactose intolerance. Kefir contains different types of beneficial bacteria than yogurt does, as well as beneficial yeasts. Kefir contains more bacterial strains that remain viable in the digestive system, increasing the likelihood of intestinal colonization.

Kombucha Tea-This tea is made from a culture of symbiotic beneficial bacteria and yeasts that has been popular in China for the last 2,000 years. Kombucha contains many important amino acids, B vitamins, and powerful substances that enhance the immune system. It’s also known to be effective against many cancers.

Kimchi-This traditional spicy Korean condiment is made of cabbage and other vegetables and seasoned with salt, garlic, ginger and chili peppers. Fermented vegetables make them easier to digest as well as the vitamin levels.

Sauerkraut-This cabbage dish has been salted and lacto-fermented over a period of weeks. The healthy bacteria in sauerkraut produce beneficial enzymes as well as having antibiotic and anti-carcinogenic substances.

Miso-Miso is made from cultured paste of soybeans. Salt and water are the only other ingredients of natural miso. The enzymes break down and help to pre-digest the proteins, starches, and fats into amino acids, simple sugars and fatty acids. Miso is often used as a soup base but is great in sauces, marinades and dressings as well. Always use unpasteurized miso, and don’t boil it; high temperatures will kill the beneficial microorganisms.

Tempeh-Another healthy form of fermented soybeans (generally soybeans are not a healthy food-unless they are fermented). This soy food is easier to digest and provides many valuable vitamins and nutrients, as well as protein, calcium and iron. The mold that is produced from the fermentation produces a natural antibiotic that strengthens the immune system.

Umeboshi-Salty, sour lacto-fermented pickled plums that originated in Japan. Umeboshi are highly alkaline and help to stimulate the digestive system, and promote elimination of toxins. They also possess natural antibiotic properties and are very beneficial for intestinal health.

Pickles-There are almost limitless varieties of lactofermented vegetables you can make using salt, temperature and a controlled environment. Most pickles purchased from the store, are made using vinegars and heat processing, which eliminates the beneficial bacteria and enzymes that result from natural fermentation–check the label to ensure pickles are actually fermented.

Fermented drinks-Besides kombucha and kefir, there are beginning to be many fermented fruit and vegetable drinks showing up on the shelves of many healthy grocery stores and health food stores. One of my favorites is called, “Inner Eco” and can be purchased at Whole Foods and other healthy food stores. This product contains one of the highest concentrations of beneficial bacteria with over 100 billion probiotics per Tablespoon!

CatheadandshouldersCatherine (Cat) Ebeling RN BSN, is a back to basics diet and nutrition specialist. In addition to her advanced degree in nursing from a major medical school, she has spent the last 30 years intensely studying diet, health and nutrition. Get the latest Gluten Free, Superfoods Recipe book HERE–The Fat Burning Kitchen Superfoods Recipes. Cat also has a book titled “The Fat Burning Kitchen, Your 24 Hour Diet Transformation” that has sold over 60,000 copies worldwide, and has helped thousands of people transform their lives, lose weight and improve their health.

Wellness Made Easy. Simple Smart Nutrition and Simple Smart Health.