What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms, essentially good bacteria that are similar to those that are found naturally in the human gut. According to Julie Smolyansky, a nutrition expert and the CEO of Lifeway Foods, a company specializing in probiotics foods, probiotics were discovered by Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian microbiologist and winner of The Nobel Peace Prize."His studies started a huge debate about the importance of integrating lactic-acid-producing bacteria (known as probiotics) into diets," Smolyansky says. "The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine notes numerous health benefits that can occur when integrating probiotics into a person's diet."
The Benefits of Probiotics
According to Smolyansky, probiotics have been found to:
- Promote a healthy digestive system
- Benefit in treating irritable bowel syndrome and Crones disease
- Strengthen the immune system
- Treat urinary tract infections
- Help in the prevention and management of atopic dermatitis (eczema) in children
- Prevent food allergies in children
"Probiotics are great at regulating and maintaining balance in the digestive tract, as well as aiding in the immune system, which may help prevent illness," Smolyansky says. "But they are also extremely beneficial to take when using antibiotics due to the fact that these friendly bacteria help aid in immune system defense.
Rania Batayneh, a nutritionist and wellness coach and owner of Essential Nutrition For You, says probiotics have many health benefits. "Often, I find that clients who are most in need of supplementing with probiotics are those who feel that the natural balance of their digestive system is upset, for example when they are traveling or under stress, which may lead to stomach problems such as diarrhea, constipation, and discomfort," Batayneh says. "This in turn can affect other functions or physiological systems such as the immune system."
In addition to promoting healthy digestion, probiotics are also believed to boost immune function, inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and increase resistance to certain infections and disease-causing bacteria. "Probiotic bacteria help keep the digestive system and immune system in balance, and have a positive effect on different types of diarrhea as well as constipation," Batayneh says.
Benefits During Pregnancy
Smolyansky believes that probiotics are very helpful during pregnancy. "Integrating products like Kefir, which are rich in probiotics, is extremely beneficial during pregnancy," Smolyansky says. "A very common side effect in pregnant women is constipation. Probiotics promote healthy gastrointestinal function, which aids in relieving this very common problem that pregnant women face. In addition, probiotics can help increase the immune system of a baby even in pregnancy. I believe in the next decade we will see many doctors recommending woman take probiotics every day especially when pregnant ... and I believe it will be common that prenatal vitamins will include probiotics in them."
Batayneh agrees. "Exposing pregnant mothers and infants to probiotic bacteria could help stimulate the growth of the immune system and potentially play a role in preventing allergies, but how they might do this has been a matter of debate," Batayneh says.
Colleen Garvey Kueter from Leominster, Massachusetts, enjoys getting her probiotics. "I take them off and on regularly, so pregnancy was no different for me," Garvey Kueter says. "While I was pregnant, I indulged in FAGE Greek yogurt with a little honey. This is full-fat yogurt and was my healthy alternative to ice cream. Given how funky your digestion can be while pregnant, adding some beneficial bacteria seemed like an easy, tasty, healthy thing to do. I also take probiotics in pill form—especially if I have been under the weather—I think it helps me get over even a run-of-the-mill cold faster."
It is important that pregnant women and nursing mothers should only use probiotic dietary supplements if recommended or approved by their physician.
Probiotic bacteria are most often found in fermented dairy products. The most common sources are yogurt and drinking yogurt, but other probiotic dairy products like cheese, milk, sour cream, and kefir, a fermented milk drink, also exist on the market. Fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, and some juices and soy beverages can also contain probiotics.
"Many dietary supplement products also contain probiotic bacteria," Batayneh says. "Probiotics are available in foods and dietary supplements (for example, capsules, tablets, and powders) and in some other forms as well. In probiotic foods and supplements, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation."