In recent years, the medical profession has become increasingly aware of the human body’s status as an ecosystem in and of itself, and the impact of that ecosystem on human health.
When germ theory first arose, the belief was that disease was caused by “germs,” including bacteria. Indeed, antibiotics were a major innovation in the healthcare field, providing healthcare providers with a potent weapon against bacterial infections, such as staph and strep. These advances created a popular belief that all bacteria are bad.
However, our digestive systems are home to millions of bacteria, and many of these bacteria are important for human health. One of the many benefits of breastfeeding is that good bacteria are passed from mother to child, allowing a healthy ecosystem to flourish in the infant’s digestive system. Anyone who has taken antibiotics can attest to the effect that these drugs, which kill bacteria indiscriminately, can have on the digestive system.
Human breast milk is not a viable—or appealing—option for most healthy adults to promote a strong gut biota. There several other foods that provide high levels of good bacteria without the risk and “ick” factor of breast milk. One of the most common and popular probiotic foods in the standard western diet is yogurt. Kombucha, a fermented tea, is an increasingly available and accepted probiotic food. Cultures all over the world have been eating fermented foods for centuries. Perhaps one of the most well known is the Korean specialty, kimchi, a spicy fermented cabbage.
A diet that incorporates probiotic foods is an important component of a healthy lifestyle.
Recent studies have suggested that a healthy gut biota is linked not just to a healthy digestive system, but a number of other positive health outcomes, including helping maintain mood, improve mental health, boost your immune system, and promote cardiovascular function. Studies have even demonstrated that probiotics can help with weight loss and reduce belly fat.
As with all areas of nutrition, the best guideline on probiotics comes from Buddhism: moderation in all things.
Your gut biota is an ecosystem, and over-reliance on probiotics can have negative consequences. The most obvious, and immediate consequences can be excessive flatulence and frequent bowel movements. However, there can be other ill effects that are less obvious. These include potential complications and infections for immuno-compromised individuals.
How much is too much?
There remains much research to be done on probiotics, and there are many different varieties of probiotics. There are no official guidelines on the appropriate amount of probiotics necessary for good health. It may be that each of us has a different “ideal” gut biota.