-Babita G Hazarika, Chief Dietician – Apollo Gleneagles Hospitals, Kolkata
Microbiota found in the gastrointestinal tract play a pivotal role in human health and wellbeing due to their involvement in nutritional, physiological and immunological functions. Not surprisingly, microbial imbalances can lead to enhanced risk of certain diseases. In such cases, scientific evidence indicates these ailments can be treated and even prevented via foods and supplements containing specific types of live bacteria, referred to as ‘probiotics’.
In other words, probiotics comprise live bacteria and yeasts considered “good” for human health, especially the digestive system, because they help in keeping the intestines healthy. These beneficial organisms are generally found in healthy human gastrointestinal tracts. But ageing, ailments, medications, lifestyle and environmental influences typically disturb the balance of these intestinal organisms, triggering vulnerability to immune disorders and age-related chronic conditions.
Probiotic denotes “for life” or “promoting life”. The term may come as a surprise since we usually perceive bacteria as disease-causing. Instead, probiotics have demonstrable health benefits when ingested by humans. Therefore, they are often termed “good” or “helpful” bacteria. While the actual action mechanisms of probiotic bacteria in human intestines are unclear, they are usually attributed to their anti-inflammatory effect. Robust evidence reveals that the benefits of probiotics include improving digestive function, boosting the immune system, treating and preventing urinary tract infections, healing inflammatory bowel conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), managing and preventing eczema in children and combating food-borne ailments.
Among the most popular and well-studied probiotic organisms is Bifidobacterium. They minimize abdominal distension and mitigate the symptoms in those with IBS and afflicted with alternate bouts of diarrhoea and constipation, including painful abdominal bloating and gas production. Significantly, Bifidobacterium safeguards people against inflammation, infection, cardiovascular ailments and cancer, reducing the risk of the latter.
Research has confirmed that probiotics are also important in weight management. As per one study, obese persons reduced abdominal fat by consuming a probiotic-rich fermented beverage over a three-month period. To absorb certain undigested fibre, starches and sugar in foods, the body needs these beneficial gut bacteria. A good balance of these bacteria ensures the body can efficiently convert carbohydrates into valuable sources of nutrients and energy.
Probiotics significantly benefit skin health and are especially good for children. They also help in the body’s production of Vitamins K and B. Additionally, probiotics promote mineral absorption from foods and help metabolize and break down wastes in the body.
It should be noted that antibiotics kill both the good and bad bacteria indiscriminately. People taking antibiotics should, therefore, eat yoghurt – in particular, the probiotic kind – to prevent diarrhoea. But always consult with your physician or healthcare provider before doing so. Probiotics can help restore beneficial microbes that have been depleted or eliminated due to antibiotics or stomach ailments. One of the best natural food sources for probiotics, yoghurt is also an excellent source of protein, potassium calcium, magnesium and Vitamins B2 and B12. Moreover, it prevents colon cancer and osteoporosis, lowers blood pressure, prevents vaginal infections and curbs constipation as well as diarrhoea.
Since there are different kinds of probiotic organisms, there is no particular dosage prescribed. But some persons could suffer from bloating, gas and abdominal discomfort due to probiotics. Though generally safe, there is a theoretical risk for some people with impaired immune functions. Barring such categories, probiotics are generally safe and healthy for most people.