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Probiotics, also known as "the good bacteria," have been making headlines lately, mostly for their role in maintaining proper gut health. But what are probiotics and can they actually help keep us healthy?

Everyone has bacteria in their gut–billions, in fact–and they're supposed to be there. These bacteria are called "the good bacteria" because they work symbiotically with the body. They feed off prebiotics (a form of indigestible carbohydrates) from our food and in turn play a role in processes such as digestion and immunity.

There are thousands of different types of bacteria found in the guts of humans, and the exact composition of your gut's bacteria–called the "microbiota"–is unique only to you. Many factors can influence the types of bacteria present in your gut, including genetics, how you were born (i.e. vaginally or via C-section), use of certain drugs, medicines or supplements, or your diet, age and geographical location.

This is a fairly emerging field of research and it is not well-known exactly how the bacteria present in our gut effect our health, but studies are suggesting that manipulating the microbiome could potentially be used in the treatment of a wide variety of diseases. A few examples:

  • Cardiovascular health: Some studies are suggesting that certain strains of bacteria could potentially function to remove excess cholesterol from the body and increase the metabolism of cholesterol.
  • Mental health: Research is showing that probiotics could have an anti-inflammatory effect, and may even play some role in the maintenance of hormone levels such as serotonin. It is also likely that stress or other types of mental distress could negatively impact the microbiota in your gut.
  • Digestive health: Probiotics are showing some promise in treating diarrhea and may even help people manage the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn's disease and other diseases of the digestive system.
  • Obesity: Studies have revealed distinct differences between the microbiota of overweight and normal weight individuals.

So what can you do to keep your microbiota in-check? Although there are many supplements available on the market today, the best way to keep your gut bacteria flourishing is by consuming probiotic-containing foods such as yogurt, kefir and other fermented foods (in moderation, of course). Supplements and food sources contain unique strains of probiotics that all influence health differently, so be sure to talk to your doctor before adding more probiotics to your diet.

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