Probiotics, The Highway To Good Health
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16 October 2010
By Ishi Khosla
The urban Indian consumer has been introduced to a series of probiotic foods. Not many, though, have a an idea of what these are. From probiotic ice–creams to probiotic dahi, lassie and chaach, what to choose and how they are different from regular versions need to be understood.
What are probiotics and how do they impact health? Probiotics is a Greek word, which means "for life". Probiotics are friendly bacteria which confer special health benefits. They reside naturally in the digestive tract – especially in the colon – and are also found in foods like yogurt and fermented milk.
Probiotic organisms like lactobacillus and bifido–bacterium are friendly bacteria as they limit the growth of disease– causing bacteria and other harmful organisms like yeasts and fungi that can cause digestive problems – diarrhoea, constipation and flatulence.
Besides protecting us from digestive disorders, these friendly bacteria also boost immunity and promote overall health and well being.
They have also been known to protect us from intestinal tract infections –– Candida and helicobacter pylori (the bacteria linked to peptic ulcers) and other gastro–intestinal problems like colitis, inflammatory bowel disease.
Evidence is also there that probiotics help in cardiovascular health by lowering triglycerides, LDL (bad) cholesterol and reducing inflammation.
Promoting good intestinal health through probiotics has also been found to protect one from autoimmune diseases and allergies. Several studies have confirmed that probiotic supplementation can reduce the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel diseases, psoriasis and even cancers. Other conditions that probiotics can help improve are skin and hair health – particularly hair fall and acne.
They also protect against nutritional deficiencies as they enhance absorption of vital nutrients including essential vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and improve vitamin B status. These can help prevent osteoporosis and anaemia.
With their impressive health benefits, how is it possible that probiotics entered our lives so late? Actually, Indians need no introduction to probiotics, with dahi and fermented milk products being an integral part of our traditional diets. The difference lies in the fact that while dahi provides combination of bacilli in varying amounts, the commercially prepared probiotic foods provide highly controlled and specific amounts and strains.
The relevance of probiotic foods is especially more today, with the erosion of traditional eating practices and lifestyles. Many factors can change gut flora, which include:
Fast paced life with increased stress, rushed or irregular meals and excessive travel.
Poor and unbalanced diets loaded with chemical additives and increased alcohol consumption. Increased use of medicines (contraceptive pills, antibiotics and steroids).
Highly polluted environments and increased use of pesticides.
Exposure to harmful radiations, chemotherapy.
These lead to dysbiosis, which means an increase in bad bacteria and flora. This disturbs the lining of our intestinal tract, leading to gastrointestinal disturbances and over a long period can end in serious complications.
It is, therefore important to replace the beneficial bacteria and know how to encourage their growth, while minimising the expansion of the unfriendly ones. Probiotics can be best included through:
Fermented Dairy products: Yogurt, buttermilk, lassie, but the cultures may not be live in all commercially available ones.
Dietary Supplements: Probiotic drinks, powders, capsules are very useful.
Helpful Foods: High–fibre foods like whole grains, oats, wheat bran, barley, Isabgo , soybeans and soy–based products, pulses, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, fenugreek Seeds (methi), garlic, onions, leek, carrots and citrus fruits.
Foods to avoid: Excessive intake of refined flours, sugars and processed foods.
Ishi Khosla is a former senior nutritionist at Escorts. She heads the Centre of Dietary Counselling and also runs a health food store. She feels that for complete well–being, one should integrate physical, mental and spiritual health. According to her: "To be healthy should be the ultimate goal for all."