The term probiotic refers to a live microorganism that, when consumed, promotes a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut. (This is different from prebiotic, which is a (nearly) indigestible substance, such as inulin, found in some fruits, herbs and vegetables.) Probiotics are found in fermented foods (such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha). Without knowing about the existence of probiotics, people have made and eaten these foods containing probiotics for thousands of years for their flavour and nutrition. In fact, some form of fermented food was developed in nearly every ancient civilization: from fermented milk in India as early as 2000 BC and fermented bread in ancient Egypt.
Over 100 years ago, while pursuing the study of why some Bulgarians he was living amongst lived longer than others, the Russian scientist and Nobel prize winner Elie Metchnioff first discovered probiotics in the sense that we know them today -- as bacteria with potential health benefits. During his study, he came across a fermented yogurt that villagers in the Caucaus Mountains drank. He found that a probiotic -- which he named Lactobaciullus bulgaricus -- was what helped elongate their lifespan and improve their health. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that the term probiotics was coined by the scientists DM Lilly and RH Stillwell. And, not surprisingly: the word probiotic comes from the Greek and Latin, meaning “for life”.
How do probiotics work in our bodies?
Many of us may have grown up with the idea that bacteria in our bodies are bad and dangerous to our health. However, this is not the case! There’s naturally a balance of good and bad bacteria in our bodies that we need in order to be healthy. Having infections, inflammation and other issues simply means that bad bacteria have entered our bodies, increased in number, and disrupted the balance of good bacteria to bad bacteria. As good bacteria, probiotics help return the balance by eliminating bad bacteria -- keeping our bodies healthy and helping us feel well.
We can view the balance of good and bad bacteria through the bigger lens of the microbiome -- “the collection of all microbes, such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, and their genes, that naturally live on our bodies and inside us” (NIEHS: “Microbiome”). We can imagine the microbiome as a diverse community of organisms, all working together to keep the body operating well. In this community, it has been estimated that there are some 100 trillion microbes: bacteria, fungi (including yeasts), viruses, and protozoa. Most of them reside in the gut. When probiotics enter the system, they typically work in the digestive tract, where they can crowd out the bad bacteria in the gut microbiome.
Bad bacteria are not the only culprit for damage to our microbiomes: many environmental pollutants that we breathe or eat can have a negative impact as well. For example, air pollution, antimicrobial products (e.g. triclosan), artificial sweeteners (e.g. sucralose), flame retardants, heavy metals (e.g. arsenic), and pesticides exist in our environments and have demonstrated negative effects to the microbiome in rats. In addition, a 2017 study showed that bacteria associated with digestion were found to have a negative correlation with stress levels in rats, which led to more prominent intestinal permeability -- a lack of separation between the contents of the gut (e.g. food, microorganisms) and the rest of the body (also called “leaky gut”). A prominent leaky gut leads to more inflammation in the body, which, in turn, causes many other health problems throughout the body.
Having a healthy and balanced microbiome is a crucial part of good health. However, like a fingerprint, every person’s microbiome is highly individualized. It changes over our lifetime as we are exposed to bacteria, the environment, illness, etc. This makes knowing precisely how probiotics will affect each person difficult; however, since probiotics are good bacteria and don’t harm us, there are no known adverse reactions to consuming them.
What specific issues can probiotics help?
A large amount of research has been done, and is still underway, into the beneficial effects of probiotics for certain illnesses or health issues. Researchers have found that taking probiotics can help with several health conditions, including:
Some other reasons to include probiotics in your diet include:
Many doctors recommend taking probiotics to circumvent side effects of drugs. For example, taking antibiotics for an infection can destroy beneficial bacteria along with the bad bacteria, leading to an imbalance in the microbiome. This often causes side effects such as diarrhea.
Probiotics produce the enzymes that are needed for nutrients to be absorbed properly, such as fiber. If you cannot digest your food well, it leads to uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea. Eating some probiotic-rich yogurt, therefore, often has a soothing effect on the stomach.
Probiotics also can help mental health by regulating brain behaviour through the communication that occurs between the gut and the brain (called the gut-brain axis). A 2020 meta-analysis concluded: “probiotics could alleviate depressive symptoms in patients with a depression diagnosis or depression scores [...] suggesting that probiotics may be adjunct therapies for mood or emotional disorders.” Other studies showed improvement in people who had anxiety, depression, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), stress, and memory issues.
What kinds of probiotics are there?
There are many different good bacteria that can be considered probiotics. Typically, the two specific species you find in stores are lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.
The lactobacillus species primarily break down lactose and sugars with the help of an enzyme called lactase. This helps the body absorb nutrients and minerals, and also functions as muscle fuel. This species is generally found in the vagina, mouth, and small intestine.
You can find the bifidobacterium species in various foods and supplements. They limit bad bacteria from growing in the intestines, and also support the immune system. They are particularly beneficial to those who are lactose intolerant -- these probiotics help in breaking down lactose so that the body is able to use it.
The bottom line is that there are different types of probiotics -- some are more targeted for digestive issues, while others may impact other places in the body. It’s important for you to know which probiotics you’re consuming based on your individual needs.
Can I get probiotics from food?
While you have likely seen probiotic supplements on the shelf of your local health food store, probiotics are also found naturally in certain foods. You won’t get as many probiotics from food as you would in a supplement, but you can increase the number of friendly bacteria in your body from the foods that you consume. Many foods that you already eat on a regular basis most likely have some amount of probiotics in them. These include:
The quality of these foods is important to keep in mind, as some products may have added (artificial) sweeteners or colours that are not good for your body. We do not add any additives or thickeners to our Promise Valley yogurt, and our plant-based packaging is free of any harmful chemicals, meaning that you can sit back and enjoy.
Our favourite way to get probiotics here at Promise Valley? Organic A2/A2 yogurt from the milk of our own, small herd of heritage Guernsey cows. In our farm store, and in several stores from Mill Bay to Tofino and Ladysmith, you can find our four flavours of yogurt: vanilla bean, honey, lemon and plain.
We invite you to get a container and try our yogurts out for yourself!