You’ve probably heard of the term probiotics in the context of gut health but do you actually know what it means?

In this installment of our Simple Food Terms Explained series, we dive into the world of probiotics to find out what exactly probiotics are and how they can benefit your health.

What Exactly Is A Probiotic?

Probiotic is a term derived from Greek meaning “for life” and is used to refer to foods or dietary supplements containing live bacteria that are beneficial to the body. The term came into use in the 20th century when Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff suggested that the consumption of live microorganisms might offer health benefits. His contemporaries began conducting research into his claims and found that certain groups of bacteria were beneficial to the intestines, mainly those in the lactobacillus and bifidobacterium families.

Despite the massive surge in marketing for probiotics in recent years, they are not new in the food world. Fermented and cultured foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, miso, and natto have a long history in the diets of different cultures around the world and Metchnikoff’s initial findings were based on the health and longevity of Bulgarians who regularly consumed cultured yogurt in their diet.

How Do Probiotics Benefit Your Health?

There are many claims on health and wellness sites about how probiotics can cure candida, ease irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis, and heal the intestinal lining of people with celiac disease and leaky gut syndrome, but at this time the Food and Drug Administration has not approved probiotic supplements for treating any of these conditions and regulates them as food rather than medication.

Research has proven that including probiotics in your diet is extremely beneficial after a course of antibiotics. It can relieve gastrointestinal issues and help your microbiome return to a healthy state by introducing “good bacteria” that help to keep the levels of “bad” bacteria under control.

Furthermore, the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics convened in 2013 to confirm its definition of probiotics as concentrations of live bacteria that have a demonstrated benefit on the health of the host. While the jury is out on how effective probiotics are for specific treatments, the consensus is that including them in your diet through cultured or fermented foods improves digestive health and can extend to other functions such as immunity and allergies.

What Does This Mean For Gut Health?

The human microbiome is extremely complex and a great deal of research still needs to be conducted on probiotics to determine how exactly they impact your intestinal flora, but research has demonstrated that healthy individuals who follow a diverse diet have microbiomes with a wider variety of bacteria, making their gut more resilient after exposure to infections or medications that affect it.

Studies have also shown that macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) play a major role in determining the microbiome’s composition and that both short- and long-term dietary changes affect it. It makes sense then that a diverse diet of nutrient-dense foods leads to a richer microbiome regardless of whether or not you choose to supplement with probiotics, but it may be helpful to include a supplement of probiotics after infections or a course of antibiotics to give your gut a boost in regaining its previous levels of beneficial bacteria.

Sources:

http://www.health.harvard.edu/vitamins-and-supplements/health-benefits-of-taking-probiotics

http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/expert-answers/probiotics/faq-20058065

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/probiotic

https://nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3859987/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3448089/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4303825/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4837298/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4490231/