You've probably at least heard of a probiotic supplement, but maybe you only have a vague idea of what they are and what they do. Probiotics are basically living organisms (like bacteria or yeast) that are introduced into the body to assist with digestion. Contrary to popular belief, not all bacteria is bad. As a matter of fact, the digestive system would be in serious trouble without the hundreds of different types of friendly bacteria that already call the intestines their home.
What does this friendly bacteria do?
Most researchers now believe that a good portion of digestive orders are caused when the friendly bacteria levels in your body is disturbed. This usually happens when you take antibiotics (which kills both good and bad bacteria) or when you've had an infection. The friendly bacteria in probiotics is believed to boost your levels back to normal and may even help to maintain your intestinal lining along with fighting the bacteria that causes diarrhea.
This all sounds good, but what if I currently feel fine?
You likely won't go wrong with taking the probiotics, even if you think your digestive system is currently on track. In addition to helping the intestines, probiotics are also thought to be fantastic for your immune system because they challenge your system with friendly organisms. Most researchers believe that probiotics give your immune system a work-out without the ill-effects involved from an actual illness. With healthy habits like hand-washing and proper food preparation being quite common in societies like ours, the immune system just isn't getting challenged as often as it used to. Probiotics are thought to help keep the immune system in tip-top shape for when the real bacteria-baddies show up.
What else do probiotics do?
There have been an abundance of studies done recently on probiotics, and research is showing that it may be positively affecting conditions that run the gambit from helping with smaller disorders like eczema all the way to serious ones like Crohn's disease or high cholesterol. Probiotics is still a relatively new idea in the field of medical study and there is much research left to be done before the advantages of probiotics can be definitively pronounced by the medical communities.
Are there dangers associated with taking probiotics?
You've likely already been eating small amounts of live bacteria in foods already without even thinking about it: yogurt and cheese for example. The only difference with probiotic foods is that they contain a higher concentration of CFU's (colony forming units), which is an approximate count of the living bacteria in a product. The people who should not take probiotics are those who have a weakened immune system or serious illness that is already taking a toll on their body, such as pancreatitis. Anyone with a serious illness should talk with their doctor about probiotics in case their digestive or immune system has already been compromised.
What about pregnant women, is it safe for them to take probiotics?
Unless the pregnant woman in question has a severe immune or digestive illness (as mentioned in the question above), there are currently no known causes for her to stay away from probiotics. As a matter of fact, in a study done in 2013, it was found that probiotic supplementation may actually help with atopic sensitivity in infants!
Although there are a wide variety of probiotic products available in your everyday grocery-store, the number of CFU's in those products tends to be very low, many times too low to be as beneficial as the product would like you to believe! I personally like to take to the internet when searching out well-rounded probiotic supplements since the variety, availability, and quality of the products is much better. One of my favorites, Cafe Viva is a coffee-mix that allows me to get my probiotics & daily caffeine boost at the same time, and it is a wonderfully versatile formula that I've used in many recipes. Click here to read more about my experience with Cafe Viva.
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Disclosure: I'm not a doctor or a registered dietitian and I don't play one on TV either! I don't claim to know all the facts or have all the answers. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your health or diet. Probiotics are still being studied and the advantages or disadvantages of taking them may change as research progresses. I received no compensation for this post and, as always, my opinions are purely my own.