Probiotics are living microorganisms, essentially good bacteria and yeasts that are helpful for maintaining balance in your digestive system and immune system. Our bodies are full of bacteria, both good and bad, and probiotics are similar to the good bacteria found in the human gut. We are born with a sterile gut, and by the time we reach adulthood approximately two kilograms of bacteria have taken up residence. The majority are good bacteria that help break down food and suppress bad bacteria.
More than a century ago Russian scientist Elie Metchnikoff introduced the concept that human gut flora can be modified, with harmful bacteria being replaced by beneficial gut bacteria. He himself experimented, and consumed fermented milk with “Bulgarian Bacillus”, and reporting significant health benefits over time.
For the past twenty years or so, researchers have been trying to understand how probiotics work and how certain probiotics can benefit particular health conditions. Researchers have found that they can:
- Help keep the good and bad bacteria in our gastrointestinal tracts balanced.
- Help replace the good bacteria lost when taking antibiotics.
- Promote healthy digestion.
Common types of probiotics:
- Lactobacillus – Most common probiotic found in fermented foods such as Greek yogurt, kefir, soy products and fermented milk drinks. Lactobacillus is also helpful for people who can’t digest lactose.
- Bifidobacterium – Can be found in dairy products. It has been shown to help with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
Research has shown that probiotics have been used to ease the symptoms of:
- Bloating, wind, heartburn, constipation and diarrhea and gastrointestinal conditions
- Skin conditions such as eczema
- Colds and allergies
- Vaginal and urinary health
- Reduce incidence of thrush (more common in pregnancy due to increased glycogen levels or the use of antibiotics)
- Oral health.
Further benefits in pregnancy
Digestive and gastrointestinal health issues can occur during pregnancy due to hormonal changes that relax the muscles of the digestive tract and slow down gut motility, food digestion and breakdown. Probiotics can help relieve these symptoms, including heartburn, bloating, wind, constipation and diarrhea.
Having a strong and healthy gut is very important for both mother and baby; however, this can be hard to manage, particularly in the first trimester of pregnancy when nausea and vomiting can lead to a diet lacking in many essential nutrients or an unbalanced intake of them. The balance between friendly and harmful bacteria in the gut can shift negatively due to a diet high in processed food, a decreased intake of fruit and vegetables, antibiotic intake, carbonated drinks, high caffeine intake and high-stress levels. These substances alter the good bacteria in your system, which are then passed down to the fetus, and can affect immunity. Both the good and bad gut bacteria that are passed down to the fetus can lead to allergies or related conditions such as Asthma and Eczema. If you have a family history of these, you can help prevent passing them onto your baby by ensuring that your gut bacteria is healthy. Studies have shown that mothers who boost their probiotic intake during pregnancy can reduce their child’s risk of allergies, such as eczema and asthma by up to fifty percent. Mothers also benefit by decreasing their risk of colds and upper respiratory tract infections.
Probiotics are available in food and dietary supplements such as capsules, tablets and powders. They can be taken safely with your regular pregnancy vitamins to boost your gastrointestinal health and immune system.