Over recent years, the supposed health benefits has seen the sales of probiotic supplements steadily rise in the United States. But how beneficial is their consumption? In this article, we delve into probiotics, their benefits, limitations and whether or not you should introduce them into your diet as part if a healthy lifestyle.
What are probiotics?
Simply put, probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you. Often, bacteria is seen as something that is bad for you. However, our bodies are made up of both good and bad bacteria and probiotics are a type of good bacteria that can help to keep us healthy by balancing out the good and bad bacteria on our gut. Probiotics are often found in foods, such as yoghurt, pickles, and some types of cheeses, or you can take probiotic capsules and supplements.
How do probiotics work?
When we become ill, we are often given antibiotics to fight off the infection. Unfortunately, the antibiotics which we need to fight off the infection in our body also fight the good bacteria too. Eating foods that contain probiotics or taking probiotic supplements can help to replace the “good” bacteria that your body has lost and therefore, they help to restore the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria to prevent you from repeated illness and to keep your body healthy and working the way it should. In effect, consumption of probiotics can act as a barrier against unfriendly bacteria.
Pros of Probiotics
They help your digestive system
According to Heathline, taking probiotics can help soothe symptoms of digestive related illnesses such as colic, constipation, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
If you suffer from constipation, it may be a good idea to take probiotics. Probiotics have been found to lower the PH levels in the colon which can help your stool movements move quicker through it.
Bizarrely, consumption of probiotics can also aid the opposite to constipation: diarrhea. More specifically, antibiotics-induced diarrhea. They do this by replenishing the good bacteria that antibiotics may have killed whilst trying to fight the bad bacteria.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS, is a chronic disease that causes irregular bowel movements, changes to stool appearance and or/frequency and abdominal pain and discomfort. Eating certain foods can often trigger symptoms. For patients with IBS, consuming probiotics can increase their levels of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, which sufferers often have lower amounts of, and reduce inflammation in the gut which can ease symptoms.
They can improve our immune system
Our immune system provides resistance to infections, viruses and bacteria that are bodies become susceptible to. As mentioned above, probiotics encourage and replace the good bacteria within our gut. It is estimated that as much as 70-80% of our immune cells are located in our gut, therefore, by keeping our gut healthy, we can help our immune system to function well.
They can help to reduce blood pressure
According to The American Heart Association, studies suggest “regular consumption of probiotics as part of a healthy lifestyle can help to reduce high blood pressure, as well as maintain healthy blood pressure levels.” Studies found that probiotics must be taken consistently for more than 8 weeks to achieve a decrease in systolic or diastolic blood pressure levels, with the great changes seen in those with a higher blood pressure.
Cons of probiotics
Very little is currently known about probiotics
There is, currently, very little scientific evidence or wide-scale studies to back up claims that probiotics have various health benefits, or that they can effectively treat illnesses.
They could increase the risk of illness in those with existing conditions
For those who are already vulnerable, such as the elderly, children or pregnant women, caution must always be taken when opting to take probiotic supplements. The same can be said for those with an already weakened immune system i.e. from an existing disease or treatment for an illness. It has been reported that those with a compromised immune system can be more at risk from infections and sepsis as a result of increasing the probiotic levels in their bodies.
Although relatively uncommon, the side effects of increasing your level of probiotic intake are mild. If they do occur, side effects are often digestive, such as gas and bloating. As discussed above, those with existing health issues may also be exposed to infection for which they would need to be prescribed antibiotics or further treatment.
Should I take probiotics?
Although there is little thorough research into just how beneficial the consumption of probiotics is, there is evidence to suggest that taking probiotics as part of a healthy lifestyle should not cause any harm to you, and that in fact, they can help. However, it is also important to note that there are various types or strains of probiotics which can have differing effects on the body. If you are unsure, always speak to your medical practitioner before increasing your probiotic levels, either via food or by using probiotic supplements, especially if you have an underlying health condition.