Betty is a Registered Dietitian who earned her B.S. degree in Food and Nutrition from Marymount College of Fordham University and her M.S. degree in Clinical Nutrition from New York University. She is the Co-Director and Director of nutrition for the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
There are very few people who have not heard about the "new" health miracles called probiotics. They claim to help with health problems, ranging from constipation to diarrhea, and prevent colds or fight them once you already have one. Probiotics are showing up in foods, beverages, and supplements. What exactly are they, do they work, and are they safe for us to be consuming?
Let's start with the facts behind what probiotics are. The root of the word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning "promoting" and biotic, meaning "life." There is some debate about how to define probiotics. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines probiotics as "live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." Yes, they are actually alive, and most of these microorganisms are bacteria. Most people think of antibiotics and antibacterial products when you mention bacteria. Both of those kill bacteria so why would you want to consume anything that has live bacteria in it? It's all about balance.
Our digestive system normally has what we would call "good" bacteria and "bad" bacteria. Maintaining the correct balance between the "good" bacteria and the "bad" bacteria is necessary for optimal health. Things like medications, diet, diseases, and your environment can upset that balance. Is your body able to handle this on its own or do you need to start including probiotics in your diet? This article will help you decide.
What is the gut?
A "gut feeling" or a "gut reaction" to something is a description of a sense you have about it without knowing why. This probably comes from the fact that many people experience their emotions in their stomach or gut area. Think about where you would physically feel a "gut feeling." Research has shown that the network of neurons lining our guts is so extensive that is has now been nicknamed our "second brain" or "other brain." This gut "brain" doesn't think for us, but it does play a key role in certain diseases and communicates with the brain in our skulls.
Our "second brain" is known as the enteric nervous system. It is a collection of neurons in the gastrointestinal tract. Its role is to manage every aspect of digestion in all the organs of the gastrointestinal tract, including the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and colon. It uses over 100 million neurons and some of the same chemicals things that can be found in your "other" brain, including neurotransmitters and neuropeptides.
Within your gastrointestinal tract, there is intestinal microflora or microbiota. This complex ecosystem contains over 400 bacterial species. Small amounts can be found in your stomach and small intestines, but the majority is found in your colon. The intestinal microflora aid in digestion, synthesize vitamins and nutrients, metabolize some medications, support the development and functioning of the gut, and enhance the immune system.
Probiotics' side effects, if they occur, tend to be mild and digestive (such as gas or bloating). More serious effects have been seen in some people. Probiotics might theoretically cause infections that need to be treated with antibiotics, especially in people with underlying health conditions. They could also cause unhealthy metabolic activities, too much stimulation of the immune system, or gene transfer (insertion of genetic material into a cell).