The term “probiotics” has become increasingly mainstream in recent years, and with good reason when you consider all the benefits of probiotics. Our bodies are host to trillions of these “good bacteria,” which confer a variety of health benefits. They are well known for the role they play in supporting digestive health, but research also shows a link between probiotics and the immune system.
The Benefits of Probiotics For Improved Immunity
Because many microbes from the external environment enter the body through the digestive system. Most immune cells reside there, too. In fact, between 70 and 80% of the immune system is located in the gut. Probiotics are also highly concentrated in the large and small intestines, where they promote immune health in a variety of ways:
- Probiotics compete for space in the intestines. They can literally crowd out unwanted microbes.
- Probiotics compete with undesirable microbes for nutrients.
- Probiotics create an inhospitable environment for “bad” microorganisms. They produce hydrogen peroxide, short-chain fatty acids, and other antimicrobial substances that are toxic to potential pathogens. What’s cool is that the short-chain fatty acids actually provide nourishment for the cells in the colon. They promote colonic health while eliminating harmful microorganisms!
One of the other benefits of probiotics is that can communicate with human immune cells. Although it is unclear exactly how this is done, the result is that probiotics help stimulate the production of both white blood cells and antibodies for specific antigens, or targets. They can also stimulate increased inflammation during times of acute infection.
Probiotics play an important role with regard to chronic inflammation. While inflammation is an important part of the immune response during an illness or injury, chronic inflammation can do serious long-term damage to the body’s tissues. It is therefore believed to be associated with the risk of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic periodontitis, and other diseases. This damaging inflammation can be the result of an over-reactive immune system that attacks benign molecules. Probiotics, however, appear to help modulate inflammation by sending “all is well” signals to the immune system. These messages essentially “call off the troops” and help prevent chronic inflammation from occurring.
Feeding Your Gut Bacteria
Because probiotics provide so many benefits, it is important to maintain a good balance of them. There are a number of foods that contain probiotics and many other foods, known as “prebiotics,” that support probiotic health.
Some probiotic foods include:
Yogurt doesn’t always have beneficial bacteria; check the label to make sure it says “contains live and active cultures.” It is also important to try to avoid flavored yogurts because they contain high levels of added sugar, which undesirable microbes thrive on. (Here’s a great recipe to make your own.)
This fermented milk drink is great in smoothies. Again, try to avoid the flavored varieties.
Fermented cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, Gouda, and many others contain beneficial microbes.
Traditional sauerkraut is made by mixing shredded cabbage with salt and allowing it to ferment. Sauerkraut with live and active cultures is located in the refrigerated section of grocery stores.
This popular tea contains many probiotics and enzymes.
Other foods can support the health of probiotics. These types of prebiotics include oats, berries and other fruits (unpeeled), garlic, onions, honey, tomatoes, asparagus, and bananas. In addition to prebiotic foods, you can also eat foods that contain phenols. Phenols are plant compounds that act as selective antibiotics, targeting unwanted bacteria. Foods that contain phenols include most herbs and spices, berries, tea, coffee, red wine, and dark chocolate. If you’re specificially looking for the benefits of phenols, we recommend trying out resveratrol with pterostilbene (the good stuff from red wine and blueberries).
Are Probiotic Supplements Good?
Most healthy people who eat a balanced diet probably don’t need to take a probiotic supplement every day (although it doesn’t hurt). There are certain factors, however, that can affect the balance of good bacteria. Stress can negatively impact gut ecology. Medications, such as antibiotics, birth control pills, and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil and Motrin are also harmful. And travel to foreign countries can cause problems such as traveler’s diarrhea. These circumstances may require the use of probiotic supplements to help restore a good balance.
It is well known that a balanced diet can support immune system function. We are now learning that it does so in part by keeping our gut bacteria healthy.
The Benefits of Probiotics Don’t Stop There.
While getting good bacteria inside your body is important – there are even more ways to get the benefits of probiotics.
Let’s go back – way back.
Apparently Cleopatra didn’t just bathe in milk. She bathed in fermented milk. It doesn’t surprise me. Bacteria is so essential both inside and outside of our body. Our skin is literally teaming with the little guys. We are actually 20 times more bacteria than we are human cells! So it is not a surprise that the decline of bacteria in our foods (pasteurization, refrigeration and generally industrialization of our foods), our environment (chemical cleaners, cosmetics, and even laundry detergents) and our water and air supply (filters with bacteria cleaning properties) is having a huge effect on our bodies.
What we fail to realize that there is also a connection of this eradication of bacteria to the growth of chronic disease. Things like: type 2 diabetes, IBS symptoms, and food allergies, asthma, eczema, dermatitis, arthritis, auto-immune conditions, hormone imbalances and generally inflammatory conditions. Most of these conditions have seen improvement from the introduction of bacteria. I am not talking about probiotics I am talking about alive, naturally forming, in the correct ratio and balanced form of bacteria found in fermented foods like Kefir and Kombucha.
The Benefits of Probiotics: Creating an Environment for a Thriving Body.
By using these products inside and out of your body you are enhancing the environment inside you and also all around you. We all know swapping out our chemical cleaners and cosmetics will hugely benefit us- but how about swapping them for bacteria-rich products?
Sounds counter-intuitive- but it is not!
Balance is the key to all health. Most natural ‘antibacterials’ (lavender, lemon, tea tree, garlic etc) are actually natural balancers. They naturally get to work on changing the ratio of bacteria (yeasts, molds and fungus). It may be surprising to realize but every single species has a very important role both inside and outside our body. Yes, even candida, listeria, and helicobacter pylori serve a purpose!
Here are just three simple ways using bacteria-friendly products can enhance your health:
- Using Kombucha (with properties like vinegar) to clean your toilet or scrub out your bath, means not only is it safer for you to use while you are cleaning but will also the make the bath water safer for your kids to bath in. Not to mention save you loads of cash!
- Using kefir in a spray bottle as a natural hair spray or ‘shampoo’ can help to balance any scalp conditions and can help your hair to look shiny and thicker and healthy.
- Kefir mixed with some honey and coconut oil make an amazing face mask and using the water or milk grains as a body scrub can really help heal any dry, oily, red or irritated skin conditions.
What do you think? Are you ready to reconsider the many ways you can introduce good bacteria into your life? You’ll be amazed at how simple changes can transform your health.
Boston, Gabriella. “Probiotics’ Benefits Go Beyond Digestion.” The Washington Post. 15 October 2013. Web. 15 July 2014.
“How to Boost Your Immune System.” Harvard Health Publications. Web. 16 July 2014.
Huffnagle, Gary B. The Probiotics Revolution. New York: Bantam Books, 2007. Print.
Killian, Joyce. “The Overlooked Role of Probiotics in Human Health.” Life Extension Magazine. April 2012. Web. 17 July 2014.
“Probiotics and Prebiotics: Frequently Asked Questions.” University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. September 2008. Web. 18 July 2014.
Turner, Natasha. “The Skinny on Prebiotics vs. Probiotics.” The Huffington Post. 9 April 2012. Web. 16 July 2014.