History and Cultures
Fermented foods have been utilized by mankind for thousands of years. Depending on global origin, people have learned to eat and enjoy foods that seem a little ‘off’, often from necessity. As time passed, these foods gained popularity not only from their powerful flavors but also for their perceived associated health benefits.
Classic examples of these kinds of foods are yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso paste. A Roman medical source from 76 BCE suggests the consumption of fermented milk as the treatment for gastroenteritis.
Going even further back, and more erratically documented, the Bible cites the reason for Abraham’s longevity in his drinking of fermented milk. Biblically potent or no, there is some evidence that adding probiotic-rich foods to our diets may have some unusual and welcome benefits.
Small Factors, Large Effects
A glimpse of a healthy human digestive tract reveals a veritable menagerie of bacteria. Currently, there have been over 400 types of beneficial bacteria identified that colonize the gut, all which play greater or lesser parts in our overall health.
Their most significant impact stems from the fact that they inhabit all useful space so that harmful bacteria cannot get a foothold. If there is no space for an organism to colonize, it simply has no way to grow there.
Beneficial bacteria provide so much more than an impenetrable wall; often the side effects of their presence can produce essential elements to health. Without the assistance of helpful gut bacteria, vitamin K (an essential component of blood clotting) would not be synthesized.
Arguably the most familiar probiotic is Lactobacillus acidophilus (often known just as acidophilus). It belongs to the largest group of beneficial bacteria and can be found in fermented milk products like yogurt and kefir, and also in some yeast products.
Though antibiotic medications are important and effective in the irradiation of harmful germs in the body, antibiotics do not differentiate between helpful and harmful bacteria.
Diarrhea is often an unavoidably unpleasant side effect of such treatment- but can be lessened with the addition of probiotics. Studies have shown that the addition of probiotic factors, in either supplement or dietary form, are both useful in easing this affliction.
With careful introduction, probiotics have also been beneficial in easing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lessening associated gas and cramping.
Urinary Tract Infections
Consumption of probiotics like yogurt and sauerkraut, and prebiotic foods like artichokes, Brussels sprouts, mangoes, and avocados have further benefits. A diet rich in these items often prevents the incursion of painful urinary tract infections, and can shorten the duration of infection when partnered with proper medical intervention.
In a similar vein, a probiotic- rich diet can also help to prevent unpleasant vaginal yeast infections. Much like the intestines, if an area is colonized by beneficial or benign bacteria, there is no room for inflammatory or harmful bacteria. These helpful bacterial components assist in keeping proper vaginal pH intact for optimum health and overall comfort.
The practice of traditional Chinese medicine is arguably one of the most ancient and well-documented medical traditions in human history. Although some of the implementations seem peculiar to Western sensibilities, there is often good sense and effectiveness to be found in this knowledge.
In this discipline, the sinuses and their disorders have long been linked to gut dysfunction. Some modern research is showing modest success in backing up this claim, especially in populations suffering from seasonal allergies.
Again, when paired with proper medical intervention and antibiotic treatment, the addition of probiotic essences (either food or supplements) can ease side effects, decrease recovery time, and prevent recurrences of the same issues over time.
Unusual, Controversial Usages
A philosopher once said that the first wisdom is knowing that we know nothing. Figuring out proper, effective, and easy to implement treatment is not always a straightforward path. In this vein, probiotic treatments have been experimentally used to try to assist healing in a few unusual cases.
In a particularly controversial study, a probiotic-enhanced diet was studied to help treat symptoms of depression. In theory, if there is inflammation and bacterial imbalance in the gut, it releases cytokines (inflammatory factors) into the bloodstream.
These factors can cross over the blood/ brain barrier and potentially cause inflammation in neural tissues, leading to depression. Certain neurotransmitters are also produced in the intestines, and harmful bacterial overgrowth can disrupt proper production, leading to increased symptoms of anxiety and depression.
By rebalancing gut microflora with appropriate probiotics, researchers hope to produce a more natural treatment to these issues- but evidence is still inconsistent. In similarly interesting but lightly- researched fields, consumption of probiotics have been studied in the fields of oral health and dermatology.
While the scientific community still remains divided on the efficacy of probiotic treatments in these fields, some success has been found, and very little or no harm has been recorded.
It would seem that the addition of fermented, probiotic, and prebiotic foods to our diets can be beneficial, or at the very least benign. Results appear to vary from case to case. In the end, most of these foods are wonderful in their own rights, no matter what additional health benefit labels they may carry.
This is a case where a little adventure into unusual, pungent, and wonderful flavors may carry more than just the end benefits. A little change is good- and if your explorations find new variety in your diet, all the better.