What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are officially defined by the Joint Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations/World Health Organization Working Group as “Live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Basically, probiotics at this point in time are live bacteria and yeasts that provide health benefits to you if you take them in adequate quantities.
Probiotic supplements are not drugs (in the United States), although super potent forms may be obtained through prescription. As such, they are not intended to treat or cure any diseases, mental or physical. Probiotics benefit and complement a healthy way of life filled with healthy nutritious food, adequate exercise, restorative sleep, beneficial social engagements, reduced exposure to toxins, and hydration with clean water.
Probiotics are part of your body’s microbiota, your collection of microbes. The sum of the microbiota and its metabolic activities is called your microbiome. You will often see the word “microbiome” used to denote both the microbiota and its genetic and metabolic effects.
A Brief History of Probiotics
Microorganisms such as Archaea are believed by science and research to be the earliest life forms, with bacteria and yeasts, which are also microscopic organisms, not far behind. Although bacteria and yeast cells are much smaller than human cells, it may surprise you to know that your human cells have some basic processes in common with bacteria and yeasts.
Animals, including humans, have microbes inside them that benefit them in multiple ways. These microbes are in a loose sense like probiotics, but the definition of probiotics was established to designate those microbes that have been isolated, studied, tested in a laboratory dish and/or clinically in animals and/or humans, and proven to have beneficial health properties. In many cases their genetic fingerprints were sequenced for identification purposes and also to check for potentially harmful genetic components. The official term “probiotics” established specific criteria for scientific studies and probiotic supplements, foods, and drinks.
While most probiotics are found only in probiotic pills, you can find some good probiotics and/or other beneficial microbes on raw produce; in raw, fermented foods and beverages such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, some cheeses, kefir, kombucha, and kvass; and in probiotic-fortified processed foods such as some breads and chocolates.
Probiotics and other gut-beneficial microorganisms are best used preventively and with variety, so for optimum probiotics benefits, indulge in them daily, and take time to determine which are the best probiotics for you.The concept of probiotics is credited to Élie Metchnikoff, a Russian scientist born in the mid-1800s, whose work provided profound insights into immunology and microbes. He developed a theory about aging that over the years had been forgotten in mainstream medicine but is now embraced by many scientists: namely, that health is influenced by toxic bacteria in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. He is said to have noticed that people who lived to be over 100 years old in the Balkan States and Russia drank sour milk, which we now call yogurt or kefir, every day. In fact, Bulgarian yogurt cultures even today are regarded as highly therapeutic as they are filled with good bacteria.
The Special Benefits of Probiotics
How can something as small as a microscopic organism be so important for health? The reason is that there is not just one microbe, nor a handful; there are approximately 1 trillion microbes per gram of feces. Microbes within you are found on your mucous membranes, spanning from your mouth to your anus, from your nasal passages to your lungs, in your urinary tract, and even on your eyes. In fact, in your digestive tract alone, it is calculated that for every cell of yours that is human, there are an equal number of bacterial cells.
There are also microbes that live on your skin, and different types prefer to live in different niches of your skin. Microbiota, the collection of microorganisms, are well adapted to live in and on your body, and while they benefit from resources you provide, under normal circumstances you benefit much more from everything they do for you.
Inside your body bacterial and other microbial cells live in close contact with your own cells, and in healthy conditions the thing that separates them from you is a layer of mucus. Between that layer of mucus and the inside of you is a layer of skin-like cells one-cell thick. One thing you have to understand about your gastrointestinal (GI) tract is that although it resides within you, it is really connected to the outside world, from your lips to your anus, and the things that protect you from the outside world are the mucus; the skin-like layer of cells with immune, nervous, and endocrine cells below it; and the beneficial microbes. At least 70 percent of your immune system is in your GI tract! This is why taking probiotics benefits the immune system greatly.
The beneficial microbes, including probiotics, live with other microbes that are either benign, pathogenic (disease-causing), or opportunistic, meaning that they normally play nicely but can get out of control if given the opportunity. Actually, any microbe can cause you problems if it ends up in a place other than where it is supposed to be. Such a scenario can happen with intestinal permeability, commonly called leaky gut. Leaky gut, which is often related to irritable bowel system (IBS), happens when the layer of skin-like cells in your GI tract develops gaps in between the cells, allowing food particles, toxins, microbes, and other hazards to enter your bloodstream, if not stopped by the immune system. Since mucus, the thin layer of cells, and your immune system are your only defenses against the outside world within your digestive tract, it is very beneficial to you to have helpful microbes protecting you from potentially pathogenic microbes. These beneficial microbes can produce acids or antimicrobial products called bacteriocins, which hinder or kill pathogens. They can also stand in solidarity to prevent pathogens from taking up residence, or displace them if they do.
But beneficial microbes such as good probiotics do more than just protect you from pathogens inside and outside your body. The health benefits of probiotics can include significant effects on your digestion and nutrient absorption. Probiotics can utilize food substances, such as soluble fibers, that otherwise would be useless to your nutrition.