There’s no denying that high profile celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Halle Berry and Lindsay Lohan, have helped to make probiotics a household name in the UK, where some two million Brits now consume probiotic foods and supplements on a regular basis. Yet, it’s not only the rich and famous that are currently extolling the many virtues of probiotics. Glenn Gibson, Professor of Food Microbiology at Reading University and a leading authority on gut bacteria, also insists that probiotics are ‘worth taking on a daily basis’. But what are probiotics exactly and more importantly, what are the most compelling probiotic health benefits now associated with their routine consumption?
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are micro-organisms – live bacteria and yeast, which are often referred to as ‘friendly’ or ‘good’ bacteria because they “confer a health benefit on the host” (Source: World Health Organisation). In fact the word ‘probiotic’ is derived from the Greek word ‘probioticum’, which means ‘in favour of life’.
Probiotics live in the human body – many of them, like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, in our gut. They’re also found in probiotic superfoods, such as fermented food and drinks (which have undergone a special process that encourages the micro-organisms to feed on the sugar and starch they contain), and concentrated probiotic supplements that contain billions of active probiotic cultures.
Some of the most popular probiotic foods and drinks in the UK include:
- Pickled vegetables – such as Sauerkraut, which is prepared by adding salt to sliced cabbage in order to introduce friendly bacteria and trigger a process known as lacto fermentation. Sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables are not only packed with probiotics; they’re also a great source of fibre.
- Kefir – a fermented milk drink that’s made by inoculating cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk with kefir grains (a blend of lactic acid bacteria and yeast, suspended in protein, lipids and sugars). Kefir boasts a similar flavour to yoghurt, is loaded with calcium and probiotics, and is an extremely healthy alternative to ordinary cow’s milk.
- Tempeh – a vegetarian meat substitute made from naturally fermented soy beans that are rich in probiotics and a complete source of vegetable protein. Tempeh comes from Indonesia and it’s lovely nutty flavour is particularly suitable for oriental dishes.
- Kombucha – a refreshing tea that’s typically flavoured with fruit and herbs and is positively teeming with probiotics in the form of “friendly” bacteria. Thanks to its impressive energy boosting and restorative properties, kombucha was the tea of choice for Chinese emperors and warlords. Today it remains a prized source of Chi (the revitalising life force that harmonises body, mind and soul) in traditional Chinese medicine.
The pros of probiotics
The latest research suggests that the friendly bacteria in probiotic foods and probiotic supplements not only offer a large number of positive health benefits, particularly for our gut; they also help to prevent and treat a wide variety of modern ailments.
3 compelling health benefits associated with probiotics
Three of the most compelling probiotics health benefits are explored below.
1) Probiotics help to strengthen immunity
One of the key functions of friendly bacteria is to stimulate our immune response, which means that by consuming probiotic foods, drinks and supplements, we can in turn strengthen our immunity to illness and disease. Indeed in one small study on students, those who consumed a fermented dairy drink in place of milk, benefited from an increased production of lymphocytes – three sub-types of white blood cell (Natural killer cells, T cells and B cells) that are found in our immune system and a marker of immune response.
As a result, probiotics can help to prevent and treat the following:
- Digestive issues – according to Stefano Guandalini, MD, professor of paediatrics and gastroenterology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, ‘Probiotics can improve intestinal function and maintain the integrity of the lining of the intestines’. That’s because the bacteria in probiotics stimulate the natural digestive juices and enzymes that keep our digestive organs functioning correctly. Research has shown that probiotics can help those suffering from Crohn’s Disease, ulcerative colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Leaky Gut Syndrome and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (AAD).
- Urinary Tract Infections – research indicates that probiotics help to maintain significant populations of ‘friendly’ bacteria in the urinary tract and thus prevent the invasion of the ‘bad’ bacteria that lead to urinary tract infections, which are particularly common in women.
- Yeast infections – probiotics can also help to prevent and treat yeast infections that occur when the ratio of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in our body is out of balance. The most prevalent yeast infection is Candida albicans, which can affect the reproductive organs (the majority of women will suffer from a vaginal Candida infection at some point in their life), skin, intestines, mouth and throat. Enjoying probiotic foods, drinks and probiotic supplements helps to restore balance to intestinal flora via the introduction of large volumes of friendly bacteria that eradicate the Candida yeast for good.
- Allergies – a comprehensive study on women with a history of seasonal allergies, found a direct link between those taking probiotics during pregnancy and a 30 percent reduction in the instance of eczema in their infants. In addition, infants who received probiotics in-vitro had 50 percent higher levels of tissue inflammation, which is believed to trigger immunity and limit the occurrence of allergies.
- Raised cholesterol – the American Heart Association presented research at their 2012 Scientific Sessions, which demonstrated that the probiotic known as Lactobacillus reuteri could lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol levels.
- High blood pressure – other studies have found that the consumption of fermented milk containing strains of LAB (lactic acid bacteria) probiotics may help to lower blood pressure.
2) Probiotics help to encourage natural weight loss
In a recent interview American actress, singer and food writer, Gwyneth Paltrow, revealed that the secret to her svelte figure was the daily addition of probiotic supplements to her breakfast. Although it’s not yet clear how probiotics encourage weight loss, Stanford University researchers have found that those who are obese tend to have different gut bacteria than those with a healthy weight – a strong indication that gut flora plays a role in weight management. Preliminary research also indicates that probiotics can help those who have received weight loss surgery to maintain their weight loss, whilst a study of post-partum (the period immediately after giving birth) women demonstrated that a probiotic supplement containing lactobacillus and bifidobacterium helped to reduce waist circumference.
3) Probiotics help to promote mental wellbeing
Lastly it’s now believed that probiotics may also be beneficial for healthy brain function and mental wellbeing. In fact researchers at UCLA discovered that brain function in healthy women who regularly consumed a probiotic yoghurt actually improved. As a result, it’s thought that probiotics might have the potential to change brain neurochemistry and, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, could additionally be used to treat anxiety and depression.