Most people relate bacteria to diseases and presume that bacteria are bad for our health. Plus, there are various household cleaning products that claim to be anti-bacterial.
However, did you know that for some bacteria, the opposite is true? These good bacteria, particularly those residing in the gastrointestinal tract, actually help our body to fight against illnesses.
Our gastrointestinal tract, also called the gut, contains trillions of microorganism. This community of microorganism include both good and bad bacteria, and collectively they are known as the gut microbiota.
It comprises about 1,000 different species of bacteria, with the potential to stimulate the maturation of the immune system and protect the body against pathogenic microbes.
Some of the species of these good bacteria that have been identified include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium and have been recognised as probiotics.
Probiotics: the good bacteria that help to fight illnesses
There has been increasing clinical evidence backing the effectiveness of probiotics in sustaining general health, especially for supporting the digestive and immune system.
Current evidences support the role of probiotics (for example Lactobaccilli) in alleviating a broad range of gastrointestinal-related conditions such as inflammatory bowel diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhoea and constipation.
Studies have reported that probiotic preparations containing Bifidobacteria are linked with a reduction in antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, especially in children.
There are also emerging evidences on the effects of probiotics in other health conditions, such as reducing the symptoms of common cold, mental health, diabetes, and obesity, as well as issues related to athletic performances.
How do probiotics help fight against illnesses?
As the saying goes, “all disease begins in the gut”, and so does the way probiotics fight diseases.
By consuming probiotics, the condition in the gastrointestinal tract – mainly the large intestine – is positively modulated. The number of bad bacteria causing illnesses is reduced, while the good bacteria in the gut are replenished.
The presence of a sufficient number of good bacteria enhances innate immunity and the intestinal barrier function. Innate immunity is the host’s first line of defence that is intended to block entry of invading pathogens, i.e. physical barriers like the skin that prevent unwanted harmful substances from entering the body.
Our intestinal barrier is part of the innate immunity. It allows nutrients to pass through the gut while preventing harmful substances such as foreign antigens, toxins and microorganisms from leaving the intestine and invading the body.
More ways to fight pathogens
Harmful bacteria can enter the body by attaching to the surface of the intestinal lining. Another mechanism in which good bacteria function is by blocking pathogens from attaching to the body, and therefore, reducing the risk of being infected.
Probiotics are also able to limit the growth of pathogens, by competing with pathogens for nutrients that are required for growth. Antimicrobial compounds produced by some probiotics can also inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria such as H. pylori.
Some probiotics can ferment certain types of dietary fibres to increase the production of short-chain fatty acids, a type of substances that play important roles in the body’s defence and immunity with anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties, as well as fight against pathogens that cause diseases.
Supporting general immunity and health with probiotics and healthy lifestyle
A regular intake of probiotic-rich foods can support general immunity and health. These foods include fermented milk products containing probiotic cultures namely cultured milk drinks and yoghurt.
When choosing fermented milk products with probiotics, you have to check the label for the phrase “probiotic cultures” and the strains are stated.
The label should also specify that the cultures are alive or viable. Make sure to check the amount of probiotic cultures contained in the product too – it should not be lower than 106 cfu/ml or cfu/g.
Apart from consuming probiotics, other healthy lifestyle habits are also essential in promoting good immunity and overall health, such as the following:
- Practice a balanced and healthy diet.
- Use the Malaysian Healthy Plate as a guide for getting a balanced, moderate and varied diet.
- Remember to eat more plant-based or fibre-rich foods, such as a variety of vegetables and whole grains that can help to reduce constipation and ensuring better digestive health.
- Foods high in fat and oil should be avoided as these foods may hinder the production of good bacteria and promote bad bacteria.
- Maintain a physically active lifestyle and get enough sleep.
- An active lifestyle helps to ensure that your gut is in an optimal working condition.
- Sufficient and good quality sleep (seven to eight-hour sleep daily) helps the gut system to continue working at an optimum level and better support the immune system.
Probiotics as part of a healthy lifestyle
A holistic approach such as consumption of probiotics, combined with a healthy and balanced diet, regular exercises and quality sleep, certainly could help to strengthen our immune system to fight illnesses.
This well-rounded approach is important not just during the Covid-19 pandemic, but also reduce our risk of non-communicable diseases (obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancers).
In the midst of a pandemic, it is even more vital to start investing in your health.
Rely on professional information such as those from the Probiotics Education Programme of the Nutrition Society of Malaysia (http://nutriweb.org.my/probiotics/).
This article is contributed by the Probiotics Education Programme (PEP) by NSM and supported by VITAGEN Malaysia. For more information on the activities of the PEP, visit www.nutriweb.org.my/probiotics
Associate Professor Dr Mahenderan Appukutty is an expert committee member with the Probiotics Education Programme and the Nutrition Society of Malaysia vice president.