What Are Probiotics and Do You Really Need Them?

What Are Probiotics

Your digestive system processes food and your body absorbs nutrients depending on the strength and efficiency of the digestive system. Food gives life and energy and the overall health of the digestive system is important for health and to stay energized. The ancient Indian science of Ayurveda has much to say about digestive system and digestive power, termed as “agni” which is the Sanskrit word for fire. Powerful digestion is a requisite for good health. Good digestion depends, to a certain extent, on the flora in your stomach. Your stomach has good bacteria as well as bad. Probiotics contain good bacteria useful for digestive system health and to keep bad bacteria in check. So, what are probiotics and do I really need probiotics for health is a question you would well ask.

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The Ayurveda connection to what are probiotics

In order to understand what are probiotics, you must know the Ayurveda perspective on good health and digestion. Strong digestion promotes better absorption of nutrients. Absorbed nutrients generate what is known as Ojas or liquid energy, vitality, and immunity. Better digestion prevents a generation of toxins. Toxins, according to Ayurveda, lead to an imbalance of kapha, vata and pitta, and the imbalance leads to disease. Excess of harmful bacteria in the gut can also lead to the generation of toxins. Consume probiotics on a regular basis and you keep harmful bacteria and, therefore, toxins in check. Ayurveda sings praises of yogurt as compared to milk because it is so beneficial for health.

What are probiotics

In simplistic terms, probiotics are live bacteria and some fungi that are good for digestion and health. Probiotics help to maintain balance between good and bad bacteria while promoting a healthy gut. If you want to know exactly what are probiotics keep reading.

The word Probiotic is a combination of “pro” meaning for and “biotic” which represents life. Your gut is home to over 100 trillion microorganisms spread across 500 species. You have good bacteria as well as bad. Probiotics keep bad bacteria in check to prevent issues such as inflammation and infection.

Types of probiotics

Probiotics is a general term covering a range of helpful bacteria found in a variety of foods, usually fermented.

  • Bifidobacterium: This class of bacteria is usually found in fermented dairy products like yogurt and kumiss.
  • Lactobacillus: You will find plenty of lactobacillus in yogurt. Lactobacillus improves digestion and can put a stop to diarrhea which is why if you have diarrhea you should consume buttermilk made from yogurt.
  • Saccharomyces Boulardi: This belongs to the fungi family and comes in useful when you have digestion issues or diarrhea.

Within these broad categories you have sub-categories.

Sub-categories include

  • B.animalis that boosts immunity and helps improve digestion.
  • B.breve found in the gut and in the vagina. It helps ferment sugars and absorption of nutrients as well as breakdown of plant fiber
  • B. lactis found in raw milk and used as starter to make yogurt and cheese
  • B. longum found in the intestines and helpful in breaking down of carbohydrates besides working as an antioxidant
  • L. acidophilus found in small intestines and the vagina and in natural yogurt as well as fermented soy foods
  • L. reuteri found in the mouth and intestines, which helps prevent dental decay and improve digestion

The above information should enlighten you as to what are probiotics.

What are Probiotic foods

Now that you know what are probiotics you will want to know about probiotic foods. Foods that are fermented usually contain probiotic bacteria and fungi. Some good probiotic foods are:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Fermented vegetables like cabbage and vegetable pickles. Korea has its version of fermented cabbage known as kimchi and the Germans have sauerkraut.
  • Cheese like gouda, parmesan, mozzarella and cheddar.
  • Tempeh is fermented soybean
  • Miso is the Japanese variety of fermented soybeans, fermented with the help of fungus known as koji. Miso may also have other items like rice and barley.
  • Kombucha is fermented tea, either green or black
  • Natto  from Japan is made from soybean and contains Bacillus subtilis
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Yogurt

Ask anyone what are probiotics and the first thing they will say is yogurt. You have plenty of bifidobacteria in it in addition to a high amount of calcium. You should consume more yogurt and avoid milk if you have lactose intolerance. If you have irritable bowel syndrome then yogurt is just the thing for you. Keep in mind that you should consume only homemade yogurt or unprocessed yogurt. Pasteurization kills the bacteria.

Kefir

You get kefir when you ferment cow’s or goat’s milk along with kefir grains. Kefir is actually not a grain but a culture of lactic acid bacteria and yeast. Kefir is better than yogurt because it has more of probiotic bacteria and yeast.

Kimchi, Sauerkraut, pickled vegetables

The Germans make sauerkraut by finely chopping cabbage and letting it ferment. Kimchi, the Korean version, has other vegetables too in addition to cabbage. You can make your own pickled vegetables by mixing together chopped cabbages, green chillies, carrots, ginger and garlic and let it sit for a week. When you consume such fermented vegetables you take in a healthy dose of probiotics in addition to Vitamins B, C, K, calcium and minerals.

Fermented soy

Raw or cooked soy may not be as beneficial for health as fermented soy is and you have fermented soy widely used in South-east Asia, Japan and China. Fermented soy and the different ways it is processed endow it with different flavors. You have tempeh from Indonesia, Miso and Natto from Japan. These contain bacillus subtilis and, in addition, you get Vitamin K2 and calcium, helpful for preventing osteoporosis.

Cheese

What are probiotics that children love? The answer, of course, is cheese. The best cheeses that contain probiotics are gouda, parmesan, and cheddar. Cheese is best consumed raw, not cooked. Please avoid pasteurized cheese if you want the probiotic benefit of cheese. Apart from probiotics cheese gives you calcium, protein, vitamin B12, selenium, and phosphorus.

Supplements

What are probiotic supplements is another question that people ask. Cultured live strains of various bacteria are collected and dried. These are packed and sold as probiotic supplements. Such supplements may contain only one strain of probiotic bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus or a combination. It is best to consume supplements that contain a mix since the effect is much better. Please look at the expiry date of the pack.

Doctors usually recommend probiotic supplements to patients who are on antibiotics since antibiotics can kill the good bacteria along with the bad. You need probiotics to rejuvenate the good bacteria colony. Even if you are in normal health and do not consume antibiotics it is not a bad idea to consume probiotic supplements if you cannot eat yogurt, cheese or fermented vegetables.

The right quantity is important

Regardless of whether you opt for natural probiotic foods or take in supplements, you must consume a minimum amount known as colony-forming unit. The amount varies depending on the strain of the bacteria or yeast. Some are effective in doses of about 2 billion colony forming units while some work when you consume a minimum of 20 billion colony forming units. Do not worry about overdosing on natural probiotics.

What are probiotics and their effects in various conditions

As seen above in the section on what are probiotics there are different types of bacteria and yeast that are classified as such. Each bacteria family or yeast has a different effect.

Bowels and constipation

Certain strains have a positive impact in cases of irritable bowel syndrome and constipation:

  • B. lactis is known to have a positive impact on people affected by irritable bowel syndrome and on constipation. It also helps to reduce bloating and gas.
  • B. longum, L. acidophilus. L. reuteri and B. animalis also help in relieving constipation.
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and lactobacillus acidophilus are helpful when you have diarrhea. Consume buttermilk with black salt and cumin powder.
  • Bifidobacterium and lactobacillus are effective in cases where a person has irritable bowel syndrome characterized by diarrhea.
  • S. cerevisiae yeast is known to help people with irritable bowel syndrome and abdominal pain due to constipation.
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Probiotics for weight loss

  • What are probiotics that help reduce weight? The answer is Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus gasseri. These bacteria are known to reduce amount of fat that your gut absorbs. L. gasseri, as studies have shown, helps reduce belly fat.

Probiotics for brain health

  • Bifidobacterium breve, Lactobacillus helveticus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacteriaum longum and Bifidobacterium infantis have a positive impact on brain and CNS functions. These bacteria are helpful in reducing symptoms of anxiety and stress. If you suffer from depression then consume yogurt and fermented vegetable pickles.

Probiotics good for heart

What are probiotics that are good for heart health?  The answer is to consume yogurt and fermented vegetables that have substantial amounts of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus reuteri and Bifidobacterium longum. These help to reduce cholesterol and improve fat metabolism as well as blood pressure.

Probiotics good for immunity

What are probiotics considered good for immunity? The answer is Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus crispatus, and Lactobacillus gasseri. It may not be easy to get them all from a single food source but you can find supplements that contain all these strains. You remain better protected against allergies, cancer, and infection.

Probiotics promote better absorption of nutrients, nullify the effects of harmful bacteria and the toxins they generate and slow down oxidative damage. You remain youthful and energetic to a  ripe old age when you make probiotic rich foods a part of your daily diet.

Prebiotics to promote probiotics

Now you know what are probiotics. You have a colony of friendly bacteria and yeast that do all the good work in your gut. However, like any living organism, they too must have the right foods in order to flourish. You consume yogurt, cheese, and fermented vegetables but the bacteria must flourish and spread. In order to help them do that you must also consume foods that such probiotic bacteria love.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics mainly consist of carbohydrate fiber that the human body cannot digest. Apart from probiotic foods, you must also consume a goodly amount of prebiotic food. These are the common foods that you can consider as prebiotic.

Bananas

Bananas are rich in vitamin B, sugars and both soluble and insoluble fiber

Asparagus

Asparagus is a treat so have more of it and on a regular basis since it has soluble and insoluble fiber that is considered prebiotic.

Onions

Onions spice up all foods and also help probiotic bacteria to flourish. These also boost immunity and cleanse your system so you have ample reasons to consume at least one fresh raw onion every day.

Garlic

Garlic is antioxidant and has powerful antibiotic agents that will kill harmful bacteria while helping the “good” ones flourish.

Probiotics risk factors

You cannot have too much of a good thing and that holds true for probiotics. However, everyone is different so there are cases where probiotics can have a negative effect.

  • In some people, probiotics are likely to trigger allergies.
  • Probiotics may cause stomach upset, gas, bloating and diarrhea. However, these are temporary symptoms. Keep consuming probiotic-rich foods and such symptoms subside.
  • Those with compromised immunity may actually suffer negative effects when they consume probiotics. If you have a critical or severe illness it is best to stay off probiotic foods and consume probiotic supplements under doctor’s advice.

The risks are relatively few and minor whereas the gains are major. What are probiotics if not a blessing and boon for human beings?

Your digestive system is important for your overall good health. Bad bacteria promote more toxins, reduce nutrient absorption and make you prone to illness. Consume probiotic-rich foods to maintain a healthy balance of friendly bacteria and you will feel the positive effects in just one week.

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