A person’s gut microbiota has the potential to promote health and longevity, which has given rise to the popularity of probiotics live microorganisms (in most cases, bacteria) that are similar to beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut.
Probiotics are widely present in the market as dietary supplements, including capsules, tablets, and powders; and in dairy products, such as cultured milk drinks and yogurts with live and active cultures. Some common probiotic bacteria added to food products are Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus gasseri, and Bifidobacterium bifidum.
People often take probiotics when they are prescribed antibiotics for an infection. While getting rid of bad bacteria, antibiotics sometimes remove good bacteria too, upsetting the normal bacterial balance in the gut and causing diarrhea. Probiotics may help in the short run because they crowd out the bad bacteria. However, experts caution that more research is required to determine the safety and efficacy of long-term use of probiotics.
Concerns about Probiotics
Number of bacterial strains
The gut microbiota contains at least 1,000 species of bacteria, while cultured probiotic products contain just a handful of bacterial strains. Adding a few bacterial strains is deemed insufficient to induce the health effects widely advertised by these products. Furthermore, the types of bacteria used in probiotic products vary from product to product. The effects of probiotic products may differ from person to person.
Can probiotics withstand stomach acid?
Probiotic products often claim to contain billions of live, friendly bacteria. But stomach acid destroys bacteria that may enter the stomach in food. Hence, large numbers of probiotic bacteria have to be consumed to ensure that an adequate number survive and reach their site of action in the lower GI tract.
Studies have shown that probiotics do not colonize the gut and are quickly flushed out of the GI tract when one stops consuming them. Hence, continued consumption is needed for sustained impact.
Strong scientific evidence supporting specific uses of probiotics is still limited. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Union have not approved any health claims for probiotics. Over the years, claims such as “aid in and/or promote digestive health”; “help protect against cold and flu viruses”; and “promote regularity and reduce the incidence and/or duration of diarrhea” have been strongly challenged in lawsuits.
Concerns have also been raised about the quality of probiotic products. A 1999 study revealed that of over 50 probiotic products tested, many contained fewer live organisms than their labels claimed. More importantly, several contained bacterial contaminants that had potential health risks.
The data on safety, particularly long-term safety, are limited. The risk of serious side effects is greater in people who have underlying health conditions.
According to a study, when patients suffering from acute pancreatitis (rapid inflammation of the pancreas) were administered probiotics, 16% of patients died, compared to 6% in the control group.
Additionally, probiotics may also trigger allergic reactions, causing problems such as breathing difficulty, hives, vomiting, diarrhea, and coughing. The young, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems (e.g., patients taking immunosuppressants) should seek advice from a healthcare provider before using probiotics, as they may induce potentially fatal conditions.
Cultivating a Harmonious Ecosystem
It is well established that a plant-based diet has many health advantages, but the importance of the gut microbiota to human health has been ambiguous until the past decade.
Diets of our evolutionary ancestors were largely based on plant foods, and this form of diet is believed to optimally utilize and fuel the gut microbiota. A typical Western diet (low in dietary fiber and high in saturated and trans fats) is strongly linked to high cholesterol levels. Such an diet is believed to underutilize and deplete the gut microbiota of metabolic fuels, resulting in a less-than-optimal gut microbial profile.
In contrast, a fiber-rich, plant-based diet does not harm health. It promotes consistent production of short-chain fatty acids and is associated with a reduced risk of advanced colorectal adenoma.
While the exact pathway by which one’s gut microbiota affects overall health remains inconclusive, research has shown that the gut microbiota ecosystem affects insulin resistance, cholesterol levels, the rate of deposition and utilization of fat, and inflammation. Cultivating a healthy gut microbiota ecosystem could be the solution to diabetes, obesity, and many medical conditions prevalent in today’s society.
Plant Foods for a Healthy Gut
Psyllium husk stands out with an exceptional amount of fiber. Including psyllium husk in one’s daily diet easily boosts total fiber intake, creating a harmonious gut environment. Psyllium husk also helps relieve abdominal pain and discomfort in patients with irritable bowel syndrome.
Oats are high in soluble and insoluble fiber. Studies have shown that beta-glucans (a form of soluble fiber) in oats may promote gut health.
Soybeans, soy milk, tofu, and soy meat are commonly consumed by vegetarians as sources of protein in place of meat. In addition, soy milk has been found to help improve the intestinal environment. Consumption of soy favors the proliferation of beneficial gut bacteria.
Fruits are an excellent source of fiber, an important component for overall digestive health. Oranges contain a high amount of antioxidants, especially vitamin C. Recent research shows that consuming orange juice with high-fat, high-carbohydrate meals prevents meal-induced oxidative and inflammatory stress, including the increase in endotoxin, an inflammatory molecule thought to be caused by gut bacteria. Fruit polyphenols are also beneficial. Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds that give color to fruits like apples, grapes, and cherries. They break down into molecules that positively influence beneficial microorganisms in the digestive system. Additionally, fruits such as blueberries and bananas aid in promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Eat a variety of fruits for multiple benefits.
Never Too Late
With a better understanding of the gut microbiota environment, we can make healthier diet and lifestyle choices. Enrich your gut microbiota ecosystem with a plant-based diet. A diet rich in plant foods also provides additional benefits in the form of essential nutrients, phytosterols, and antioxidants, which nourish the body for better health.
It is never too late to change your diet. According to a Harvard study, following a change from an animal-based diet to a plant based diet, the gut bacteria composition in the body actually changes within one day!
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