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You may have heard a lot about probiotics recently and could be wondering what the hype is about. Whether it's through adding a few probiotic-rich foods to your shopping list or in the form of a dietary supplement, you could see big benefits by adding these healthy bacteria to your diet.
Generally, bacteria are thought of as microorganisms that should be killed off to prevent disease and infection. However, it's important to not discriminate against all types of bacteria, because some have protective benefits. Probiotics have been shown to promote a healthy gut environment, restore balance after antibiotic treatment, treat irritable bowel syndrome and help alleviate discomfort from a vaginal yeast infection or urinary tract infection. Moreover, some studies suggest that they can influence healthy neurological function.
In a trial conducted at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, researchers found that probiotics can produce chemicals that act as a vehicle for neuroactive compounds that promoted mental health.
"There is already evidence to suggest that the connection between gut microbes and the nervous system represents a viable route for influencing neurological function. A recent study in mice, for example, showed that the presence of neurochemicals such a serotonin in the bloodstream was due to direct uptake from the gut," said lead researcher Mark Lyte.
In the gut, probiotics help maintain microbial equilibrium to aid in good digestion and nutrient absorption. Additionally, the healthful bacteria are thought to strengthen the immune system by fighting off microorganisms that cause diarrhea and other infections, such as H. pylori. Probiotics can also help people who have a sensitivity or intolerance to lactose, because they allow the body to digest the dairy-derived sugar even when an integral enzyme is absent in the gut.
The benefits of probiotics are thought to be powerful enough to help reduce a person's risk of developing bladder cancer, eczema and pouchitis, a condition that sometimes occurs following colon removal.
The two most common types of probiotics are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Top probiotic foods include:
• kefir (similar to yogurt, this fermented dairy product combines goat milk and fermented grains)
• tempeh (this is a fermented, probiotic-rich grain made from soy beans)
Additionally, probiotics are available as nutritional supplements in capsules, tablets and powders.
Side effects of probiotic use are usually mild, like gas and bloating, and are uncommon. In rare instances, taking probiotics for infections that require antibiotics can have more serious effects. Never use the nutritional supplements to treat serious illnesses that require professional medical care. Individuals should always consult with their health care provider before beginning any new supplement regimen.