Most people who have heard about "probiotics" probably vaguely associate this concept with health. Here is some more info on these exciting foods that can really have a positive effect on your well-being.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics can be defined as foods or products which are prepared with the aid of bacteria or fungi and are then taken by mouth or added to foods. Many probiotics are made by the process of lactic acid fermentation. The most common microorganisms, which are used to produce probiotics, are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, the so-called lactic acid bacteria.
The probiotic approach
The probiotic approach states that if sufficient probiotic bacteria can be introduced into the digestive tract at a time when the body is stressed or exposed to illness (these are times when the balance of the intestinal flora or bacteria are dominated by pathogens), or at birth, or after antibiotic treatment, then digestive upsets can be restricted to a minimum. During periods of stress and ill health, the negative bacteria in the intestines tend to multiply prolifically and it is essential to try and keep the levels of ‘healthy’ bacteria as high as possible.
What does stress do?
We all know that there are many different types of stress which can have a devastating effect on the human body and health. Stress can be nutritional (eating an unbalanced diet, using fad or starvation diets to lose weight, minimal or unbalanced food intake caused by eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia), environmental (very high or low temperatures, very dry or wet climates, exposure to pollution), or psychological (stress at the office, at home, at school).
All types of stress can increase the tendency to develop illnesses of all kinds, but human beings are particularly prone to developing intestinal diseases when exposed to stress. Why does stress affect the digestive tract?
When we are exposed to various types of stress the number of coliform bacteria in the digestive tract increases, the mechanisms which would normally control the number of ‘bad’ organisms in the intestines become less effective, and the quantity and quality of the fatty acids produced in the digestive tract also change. In other words, the normal function of the digestive tract becomes seriously disturbed and the patient often develops diarrhoea.
Effect of antibiotics
Antibiotics are powerful aids in the fight against disease, but most antibiotics not only destroy harmful bacteria which make us ill, but they also knock out the good bacteria in our bodies.
The beneficial microorganisms in the digestive tract can be negatively affected for as long as 6 months after you have taken a 7 day course of standard antibiotics. It is ironic that the positive effects of antibiotic treatment are often nullified by diarrhoea, which develops because the antibiotics have destroyed the ‘good’ bacteria in the gut. Once the ‘good guys’ are knocked out, the ‘bad guys’ or pathogens get a chance to proliferate and cause upsets.
How probiotics can keep you healthy
Studies have shown that if you take probiotics in food or as an oral supplement, these beneficial bacteria cultures can reverse the harmful after-effects of antibiotic treatment and prevent the growth of negative bacteria during times of stress. Probiotics can also stimulate the production of immunoglobulin in the intestines which improves the body’s immune response.
Beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are also able to produce various antimicrobial agents, which can help to inactivate harmful bacteria. Research results indicate that these antimicrobial agents are effective against a whole host of well-known pathogens such as Salmonella, Shigella, Staphylococcus and E. coli.
The bacteria used in probiotics, therefore, function like benign antibiotics without causing disruption in the normal condition of the digestive tract.
Probiotics are therefore valuable health-promoting and disease-preventing agents.
Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Health24.com. Read more of her articles.