Bacteria have been around for a while (at least two and a half billion years) and will outlive us, humans. For many years, they have been accused of all evils and antibiotics were viewed as the holy grail for saving lives… Not anymore – bacteria are our allies!
Scientists are now realizing that there are 100 trillion bacteria that live in cooperation with and in our gut (making up what they call the gut microbiome). A big chunk of these microorganisms has such an important role in our wellbeing that scientists and health agencies are willing to spend millions of dollars studying them.
Previously, we talked about the role of such microorganisms in our guts, the importance of a balanced gut ecosystem and how our western way of life is killing our shielding gut bacteria. The good news is that the solution is in everyone’s mouth: we are what we eat.
Probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics – everyone has heard of them, maybe gave them a try but do we really understand their potential?
What are they?
PROBIOTICS are live microorganisms which, when taken in adequate amounts, give us a health beneﬁt. These microorganisms have to resist (at least, partially) the digestion process to reach the intestine and are naturally abundant in some food or may be ingested in the form of dietary supplements.
Their main function is to populate (or repopulate) the ecosystem with beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Enterococcus and Streptococcus, among others.
But seeding bacteria in our guts may not be enough. For a healthy gut, we need to feed these microorganisms with the proper food to promote their growth and activity – the PREBIOTICS. Examples include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fermented foods.
Another emergent term is SYNBIOTICS. Basically, this encompasses all foods and nutritional supplements that combine pro- and prebiotic benefits.
What are the benefits of taking probiotics?
People take probiotics mostly to improve their digestive functions, but some studies state their positive effect on the immune status and in the prevention of certain diseases.
The list of benefits is ever growing; some medical claims are more evident than others. To keep abreast of all the information here are some helpful sources
- EatRightOntario.ca for practical advice on probiotics
- for a complete list of clinical claims check the Word Gastroenterology Organization’s website
- For help on how to make Smart Choices on Probiotics and Prebiotics
How do probiotics work?
The normal interaction between gut microorganisms and their host is a win-win (symbiotic) relationship.
As you know, the intestine’s main function is to absorb nutrients and water essential for our survival. Bacteria help in the absorption of some vitamins, but they also stimulate our immune defense. Approximately 60% of the body’s immune cells are in the intestinal wall to protect us from allergies (from the foods we eat) and infections (from the pathogens that may occur there).
Probiotics (the live microorganisms) compete for food and a favourable environment with pathogens preventing colonization of opportunistic and pathogenic microorganisms and, at the same time, stimulate the intestinal cells’ immune response.
All that in exchange for some food and shelter. Great tenants we have, eh?