The human gastrointestinal (GI) tract harbors a complex collection of microorganisms. The individual digestive system contains about 1.5 kg of viable (live) bacteria, made up of more than 500 different identified microbial species. Indeed, the total number of bacteria in the gut amounts for more than 10 times that of eukaryotic cells in the human body, and this bacterial biomass can constitute up to 60% of fecal weight. This complex microbiological community is called the intestinal microflora. While most people are familiar with the side-effects of some members of it (e.g., diarrhea), the beneficial effects in stabilizing gut well-being and general health are less well known. These so-called 'friendly' bacteria are naturally present in the GI tract as part of the normal healthy intestinal microflora and ensure the balance that creates a healthy individual. Such beneficial microbes and a healthy intestinal microflora also constitute the main source of pro-biotics used to improve intestinal and host health.
Fermented products containing living microorganisms have been used for centuries to restore gut health. Such utilization of live microorganisms to improve host health forms the basis of the probiotic concept.
Usually probiotics are taken in the form of dairy products, drinks, or supplements, but in African countries they have traditionally also been ingested in fermented cereal and in fermented vegetables in Asian countries. The claimed benefits of traditional fermented foods range from treatment of diarrheal diseases to alleviation of the side-effects of antibiotics to the prevention of a number of other health problems. In some countries fermented foods have even been associated with benefits to the skin.
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