Probiotics are a big buzz word in nutrition these days. But what are probiotics? How do they work? Are they safe? How are they helpful? Can they help you control your diabetes?
The term probiotic refers to micro-organisms such as bacteria and yeast that, when eaten, have beneficial effects on your health. Foods that contain beneficial bacteria, such as ‘live’ yoghurts, are called probiotic.
Normally we take antibiotics to fight bacteria, so the idea that you should ingest live bacteria seems a bit weird. Our bodies, however, are teeming with bacteria, most of which are beneficial.
Indeed, there are more than 500 types of bacteria in our stomachs, assisting our digestion and keeping our intestines healthy.
What probiotics do
The problem, when you take antibiotics to treat an infection, is that the antibiotics kill the friendly bacteria (the ones that aid digestion) along with the bacteria that are causing the infection.
As a result, the balance of good bacteria in the stomach is disturbed. According to researchers, taking probiotics helps stimulate the friendly bacteria so that your intestinal functions are improved.
Probiotics also help to maintain the immune system.
In societies where hygiene practices are good, as in the more advanced countries, there has been a sharp increase in autoimmune diseases (in which the immune system reacts against the tissues of its own body) and allergic diseases (in which the body has an abnormal reaction to substances that are usually harmless).
The increase in these diseases may be because under very hygienic conditions the immune system is not challenged by pathogenic organisms. In the view of medical researchers, probiotics can prime and strengthen the immune system.
Safety and probiotics
The consensus among medical scientists is that taking probiotics is safe and gives rise to few side effects. The only exceptions are patents with seriously weakened immune systems and severe illnesses such as pancreatitis.
For thousands of years people all over the world have been eating cheese, yoghurt and other foods containing live cultures. Thus it is not surprising that probiotics are considered safe-to-eat.
Curative power of probiotics
Several studies show that probiotics can help alleviate several specific aliments. In 2011, a panel of experts at Yale University reviewed the published research.
The panel concluded that probiotics are most effective in the treatment of diarrhoea in children, ulcerative colitis, necrotizing enterocolitis (an inflammation of the intestines mostly seen in infants), and eczema due to cow’s milk.
The experts also found that probiotics are effective in priming the immune system, and in preventing diarrhoea due to antibiotics and infections.
In addition, they determined that probiotics are less effective but nevertheless useful in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, vaginitis, and diarrhoea caused by C. difficile bacteria.
In addition to all this good news, it now seems that probiotics can help you to control your blood glucose levels.
Probiotics and diabetes
Researchers in Taiwan recently developed a new probiotic strain they call Lr263. They added it to a high-fructose diet which they fed to rats for 14 weeks. They discovered that the bacteria decreased insulin resistance and delayed the development of type 2 diabetes.
Though it has yet to be tried out on humans, Lr263 may be a promising therapeutic agent in treating type 2 diabetes.
In another randomized, double-blind, clinical trial published by the US National Library of Medicine, 64 patients with type 2 diabetes, aged 30 to 60 years, were divided into two groups.
Over a six-week period, the patients in the first group consumed 300 gram a day (g/d) of probiotic yogurt containing Lactobacillus acidophilus La5 and Bifidobacterium lactis Bb12, while those in the control group consumed 300g/d of conventional yogurt.
The researchers found that probiotic yogurt significantly decreased fasting blood glucose and haemoglobin A1c compared with the control group, and concluded that probiotic yogurt is a promising agent for the management of diabetes.
While more clinical trials are obviously needed to support these results, it does seem that diabetics can gain some benefits from consuming probiotics.
The problem is that commercial yoghurts are usually based on animal milk, such as cows or goats milk, and cannot be consumed if you are following a plant-focused diet that excludes dairy product (as I am).
So the big question is: does non-dairy yoghurt (such as soy yoghurt) have the same probiotic benefits?
The answer is a clear ‘yes’.
Making yoghurt involves adding bacteria to milk which causes it to ferment. The bacteria feed on the natural sugars in the milk and produce lactic acid which causes the milk to curdle and thicken to produce yoghurt.
Yoghurt can be made from any type of milk, cow’s milk, goat’s milk, soy milk etc. The medium is not important because the benefits of probiotics are created during fermentation, ie non-dairy yoghurt is made using the same process as dairy-based products.
What is important is the level of live active cultures in the finish product, and how well it is stored so that the cultures are not destroyed before they land in your stomach.
The problem is that commercial yoghurts are usually pasteurised after they have been made. This kills the live cultures. To compensate, the producers add probiotic bacteria back into the yoghurt after pasteurisation.
These added probiotics may not be the same as the probiotics created in the original fermentation and may not deliver the same benefits to your digestive system. But you can’t tell from the labels.
You should also bear in mind that some commercial yoghurts contain added sugar and fruit, so you need to read the labels carefully. Your best choice is plain yogurt or light yogurt made from soy milk without added sugar.
Making your own yoghurt
If you find it difficult to find commercial ‘live’ yoghurt you like and trust, you can easily make yoghurt at home from non-dairy milk.
All you need is some UHT non-dairy milk (or fresh non-dairy milk you have boiled to get rid of the bacteria and allowed to cool) and a dollop of live yoghurt as a starter. A shop-bought pot of live yoghurt will do nicely as the starter.
You mix the milk and the starter together and then incubate the liquid at around 38 to 44c (100 to 112f) for a minimum of five hours. This ferments the milk, so it becomes thick and creamy, with that distinctive, slightly tangy flavour beloved of yoghurtistas.
The longer the fermentation period, the stronger the flavour will be. A nine-hour over-night fermentation period is not uncommon.
You can ferment the milk in most kinds of vessels, as long as you are able to maintain a constant temperature of around 40 degrees C and ensure that the culture can grow without being shaken or disturbed.
One way to do this is to use a thermos flask which you have preheated by filling it with boiling water before you put in the non-dairy milk and culture. However, though I know several people who make yoghurt successfully this way, getting the temperature approximately right can be a bit tricky.
The simplest way to make your own yoghurt is to buy a yoghurt-maker, a relatively inexpensive investment, and follow the instructions.