yogurtWhile they may sound to some like a grassroots public interest group and to others like a futuristic science fiction technology, probiotics are actually a natural dietary component believed by many to provide a wide range of health benefits.

Germs That Help

Probiotics are simply live microorganisms, typically found in fermented foods, which confer health benefits to the host.

  • While it may be easy to get squeamish at the notion of ingesting living organisms, remember that the human body is literally teeming with life.
  • The average adult human body is host to more than a trillion bacterial cells including more than 500 different species living in our intestines. These microbes are not only mostly harmless to us, but in fact help keep many of our bodily functions running smoothly.
  • Probiotics are not so different from the microbes already found in your body. In fact, they complement your body’s internal bacterial flora potentially aiding overall health.

Adding credit to their claim, their name quite literally means “good life.”

The History of Probiotics
Probiotics have been consumed by humans throughout history. Their use can be traced back over 4,000 years to the earliest cheese and dairy products, and even Greeks and Romans are said to have recommended their consumption. Today, it is believed that their positive effects come from balancing our intestinal ecosystems: getting rid of the bad microbes while keeping the good ones. But how effective are these microbes at improving personal health? Are probiotics simply a New Age dietary fad, or can they be taken seriously in the medical world?

While these microbiota are still under considerable scrutiny, studies published on their effects since research started in the 1980’s suggest that probiotics can help address a variety of health ailments:
High Cholesterol – a study presented at the American Heart Association in 2012 showed that probiotics had the ability to reduce blood levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol, commonly tied to dangerous plaque buildup in the arteries. Of the 127 adult patients sampled, those taking the probiotic had 11.6 percent lower LDL levels than those on a placebo.
Obesity – A 2006 Stanford University study revealed that probiotics could help obese people who have had weight loss surgery maintain their weight loss. Additionally, women who had recently given birth and were trying to lose abdominal fat had an easier time reducing their waist circumferences after taking probiotic pills.
Colds – In 2001, a study in Finland discovered through a randomized trial that school children who were given probiotic enhanced milk were 17% less likely to get a respiratory infection and missed 16% fewer class days than school children given normal milk.
Healthier babies – Two separate studies concluded that probiotics could be beneficial for growing newborns. A 2007 study in pediatrics reported that colicky infants, breastfed after their mothers consumed probiotics, cried an average of 91 minutes fewer than their counterparts. A follow up 2010 study similarly found that probiotic breast milk could improve symptoms of infantile colic.
Irritable bowel syndrome – Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics showed that adults who ate live-culture yogurt had reduced instances of intestinal cramping, discomfort and diarrhea.

Alongside the wide-ranging potential for health benefits, probiotics also can be found in many common grocery items. For example:

  • Yogurt
  • Aged cheeses
  • Kefir
  • Pickles
  • Sauerkraut
  • Miso
  • Kimchi, and
  • Over-the-counter pills.

Before stocking up on one of these items, it is important to note that not all products are created equal when it comes to probiotics. Some foods have higher concentrations of useful probiotics, while some have lower. There also are hundreds of different strains of probiotics, each with different potential benefits.

While the scientific jury on probiotics is still not in, humans have consumed them for millennia and they have been shown to help prevent illnesses and treat a variety of ailments. Considering their availability and long history, they may be an interesting option to explore and feel the benefits for yourself.

For more information, visit Careworks.

Author: Michele Holincheck, FNP