If you’ve ever struggled with digestive health, you’ve probably heard of probiotics. Probiotics are live bacteria that can support a healthy gut and are often recommended for issues with the digestive tract. They can be found in some foods, like yogurt, and in supplement form.
But wait, bacteria? Isn’t bacteria bad? Don’t we take antibiotics, lather our hands in hand sanitizers, and use antibacterial cleaning products and soaps in order to kill bacteria?
Well, yes. But not all bacteria are equal. Probiotics are known as “good” bacteria. These microorganisms work symbiotically with your body, helping you to digest and absorb nutrients from your food — and much more. In fact, friendly bacteria play a role in some of your body’s most important functions. You might be surprised at how helpful they are.
Our immune system is our body’s defense system for fighting off germs that can make us sick. But if our immune system is out of whack, it can make us more prone to infections, allergies, and some autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s disease and Rheumatoid Arthritis.
It’s been estimated that up to 80% of your immune system lives in the gut. Your gut flora are responsible for reinforcing the barrier function of your intestinal lining that prevents invasive microorganisms from entering the bloodstream.
Probiotics also release antibacterial peptides that help crowd out out more harmful bacteria. It’s like the good guys taking back the town from the bad guys. So reach for probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, pickles and kombucha to build up your natural defenses.
Several studies have shown a connection between a healthy gut and mental health. That may seem like a strange connection, but your brain and your gut actually talk all the time through the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that extends all the way to your gut. So when they say listen to your gut feelings, there’s a physical reason for that!
Your gut sends signals to the brain that influence feelings like sadness and stress, and even brain functions like memory and decision-making. Your gut bacteria actually make over 30 neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which is associated with feelings of well-being.
So it’s actually not that surprising that taking probiotics has been linked with improvements in anxiety, depression, memory, autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Yep, you read that right. Probiotics may benefit the hardest working muscle in your body.
Certain good bacteria can lower LDL in your body, the bad cholesterol. They do this by helping to break down bile in your gut, which is made primarily of cholesterol. While bile is important for digestion, if there’s too much of it, it can be reabsorbed by the gut and result in increased cholesterol levels in the blood.
Studies also seem to indicate a relationship between probiotics and healthier blood pressure, although we still don’t know exactly how it works. Researchers believe that friendly bacteria produce chemicals that activate blood vessel receptors and result in lower blood pressure.
Clearly, we’re better off with a little help from our microbial friends. So what can we do to create a healthy gut environment?
Basically, the things that keep your gut bacteria healthy are a lot of the same things that keep you healthy. Feed your friendly bacteria with fiber-rich foods like whole grains, fruits and veggies. Cut back on sugar and alcohol, which feeds the bad guys.
Stress, sleep issues, and inactivity can also contribute to an unbalanced gut. So listen to your gut and establish a healthy lifestyle. Eat more probiotic-rich fermented foods, and considering taking a probiotic supplement as well. Your gut will thank you.