This question is asked to me by my patients on a weekly basis! It seems there is a fair bit of confusion about what they are, what it means for your health, whether and how much you should be taking...
With all the marketing going on for probiotic yogurts, kefir, supplements, and fermented foods - it doesn't surprise me you want a straight answer.
You have bacteria and other microbes growing in your guts; all different kinds of 'em! If you ironed it all out, your gastrointestinal (GI) tract has the surface area of a football field! .... and the whole thing is covered in bacteria and microbes like the football field is covered in grass! These microbes make up an intestinal carpet are referred to as your gut's "flora", "terrain" or "microbiome". (Cutting edge research is even looking at how to treat the flora rather than the patient thinking of it as a treatable organ in and of itself!) In a healthy person, all of 'em are helpful - some of these microscopic critters will breakdown your foods for you so they are easier to digest, some provide us with essential vitamins and minerals, and they all keep our immune system "in shape".
Occasionally, because you live in a real world, eat at restaurants, get colds/flus, take vacations, have busy lives, eat convenience food, play with your kids, etc., your gut flora will inevitably swing towards unhealthy at different times in your life. I've never met a person who was never-ever sick in their entire lives - so no exceptions to this point, even if you ate perfectly 100% of the time, went to the gym religiously, and eat all the latest and greatest health supplements, you will still sometimes get sick... and your gut flora will sometimes get unhealthy. (If you do know someone that defies this point, introduce me?! I have some questions!)
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Too much of any single strain of the regular bacteria can be a bad thing, but worse is an infection with any of a long-list of illness-causing bacteria/microbes. When that happens, anti-biotics are drugs used to kill infections in the GI tract (or elsewhere) that are too big, bad, and ugly for your immune system to handle on its own. Think of your GI tract as a hockey stadium, with seats to fill. In a normal healthy person, the "seats" are filled with beneficial microbes, or good hockey fans. In a sick person, there has been an influx of too many rowdy fans. (I don't mean the funny face painted, foam-finger carrying hecklers, but the ones who ruin the whole experience... I'm lookin' at you dude with the potty mouth spillin' his beer on the kids... I digress.) Anti-biotics work by killing off everything, and basically clear the stadium like the final buzzer. Game = over. This is a great way to get rid of the rowdy fans, but it also gets rid of the good fans too. In a similar way, your GI tract is completely cleared out of bacteria and microbes. Normally, it doesn't take long for the good microbes to re-populate and life goes on as usual. However, with an empty stadium, you are at risk for opportunistic infection (i.e. lots of rowdy fans coming back in nabbing seats from the cool kids), and when that happens, they are harder to get rid of, and they cause more problems. Enter the role of probiotics...
Probiotic is code for "Good Bacteria". They come in all shapes and sizes and strains. Bacteria naturally occur in fermented foods (sauerkraut, yogurt, kimchi) and help you promote a balanced healthy GI flora. It's kinda like free entry for the cool kids at the stadium game. If you don't like these foods, or don't eat them enough, you are less protected against swings toward unhealthy flora. What symptoms that means for you will differ from another... but understand that unhealthy flora = unhealthy you. For day-to-day maintenance, low doses of probiotics can be found in foods such as yogurt, kefir, miso, aged cheeses and fermented foods such as buttermilk and sauerkraut.
Probiotic supplements are capsules of good bacteria used to supplement and improve your gut flora quickly. Higher doses of probiotics can be helpful for many gastrointestinal and immune related conditions including (but not limited to) constipation, gas, bloating, IBS, IBD, diverticulitis, allergy, asthma, yeast infections, eczema, and asthma to name a few. This point is what all the hype is about and there is fascinating research being done into particular bacterial strains for particular conditions, but that is a topic for another post. Used as a short course after a anti-biotic treatment, they can re-populate the gut with healthy flora, preventing post-antibiotic bacterial overgrowth, a shockingly common problem. Used on a regular basis, they help to ensure the bad microbes and bacteria remain "crowded out".
If you think probiotics could be helpful for you, consult your naturopathic doctor or healthcare provider for more information and to get recommendations for safe and effective dosages for your unique situation.
DISCUSSION QUESTION: What do you think? What is your favorite way to eat probiotic foods? And if you've never tried them, will you after reading this post?
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