What are probiotics and why are they important?

By on February 17, 2013 under Gut Health

What are probiotics? Probiotics simply refer to the good bacteria that live inside the human body. Approximately 100 trillion good bacteria live inside a healthy human being. The number of good bacteria in our GI tract normally outnumber our own cells by a ratio of 10:1. These good bacteria serve a variety of functions to keep us healthy.

What do probiotics do for us? These bacteria actually support our health, serving a variety of functions including:

  • Digestion of food and absorption of nutrients – poor digestion can be caused by imbalance of gut bacteria, leading to bloating, abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea
  • Production of vitamins – certain vitamins are actually produced by the bacteria that live in our gut.
  • Immunity  – 70% of our immune system resides in our gastrointestinal tract, in part because these good bacteria provide a barrier to keep the bad guys out, bad guys being infectious agents and also environmental triggers that can cause an immune reaction leading to inflammation and autoimmune disease.
  • Inflammation – good bacteria help reduce inflammation which is the common denominator in all of the diseases highlighted below.

Why do we need to take probiotics?

  • Good health starts in the gastrointestinal tract where these bacteria live. Because of all the important functions these tiny organisms provide, good bacteria plays a key role in our health.
  • Imbalance of gut bacteria has been liked to cancer, asthma, allergies, obesity, diabetes, autoimmune diseases and even brain, behavioral and emotional problems like ADHD, autism, Alzheimer’s disease and depression. All of these diseases are on the rise.
  • The Standard American Diet (S.A.D) of processed sterile food with few fresh vegetables and fruit does not support growth of these good bacteria that protect us from disease.
  • I recommend that everyone take a probiotic supplement for health promotion and disease prevention. For those with the above medical conditions, it is even more important.

What do you need to know before you buy probiotics? I recommend taking a probiotic with at least 15 billion CFU (colony forming units) but I usually recommend more for patients with health problems or those who have taken repeated courses of antibiotics in the past. And contrary to popular belief, most yogurts do not supply enough bacteria and most of these yogurt brands contain added sugar, additives, and preservatives. Other foods that contain probiotics are sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempeh. Here are some tips to choosing quality probiotic supplements:

  • Look on the ingredient list and make sure that the bacteria has a code (made up of letters and numbers) after the name. This means that the bacteria comes from a source that has proven beneficial in human studies.
  • To ensure the probiotics are effective, they should be either refrigerated or in a blister pack or a sachet (pouch) so that they have minimal exposure to air, heat and light.
  • They should be from company that produces high quality products. Read more about how to choose quality supplements.
Read more about how to improve the health of your gastrointestinal tract.