HEALTHY CHOICES, HEALTHY LIFESTYLES BY BARBARA B. MINTZ, MS, RD
Doctors commonly prescribe taking probiotics to “repopulate” the digestive tract with healthful bacteria. Bottom line, the good bacteria help “crowd out” bad bacteria.
We usually think of bacteria as something that causes diseases. But did you know that your body is full of bacteria, both good and bad? Probiotics are often called “good” or “helpful” bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy. These organisms are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for your health, especially your digestive system. Probiotics are naturally found in your body. You can also find them in some foods and supplements.
It’s only been since about the mid-1990s that people have wanted to know more about probiotics and their health benefits. Doctors often suggest them to help with digestive problems. Since your gut acts as a strong immunity system all by itself, it is important to keep probiotic rich foods in your diet. They help keep your body in balance and fight off disease, both locally and systemically, in addition to aiding digestion. Basically they can help balance your “good” and “bad” bacteria to keep your body working like it should.
WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS?
The word “probiotic” is a compound of two Greek words: “pro,” to signify promotion of and “biotic,” which means life. The World Health Organization defines a probiotic as any living microorganism that has a health benefit when ingested. The USDA defines a probiotic as “any viable microbial dietary supplement that beneficially affects the host.” All definitions tell us that these tiny organisms are important to our health. The most common come from two groups. Lactobacillus is one you’ll find in yogurt and other fermented foods. Different strains can help with diarrhea and may help with
people who can’t digest lactose, the sugar in milk. Bifidobacterium is found in some dairy products. It may help ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and some other conditions.
WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?
Digestive health: Each of us has more than 1,000 different types of bacteria that live in our digestive tracts, helping us to break down food and absorb nutrients. But when we take antibiotics – medicine that is designed to kill destructive, illness causing bacteria – the drugs can also kill the healthy intestinal flora that helps us digest. Doctors commonly prescribe taking probiotics to “repopulate” the digestive tract with healthful bacteria. Bottom line, the good bacteria help “crowd out” bad bacteria. That’s because the intestine is lined with adherence sites where bacteria latches on. If the sites are populated with good for-you microbes, there’s no place for a harmful bacterium to latch on.
Probiotics can also help with other types of digestive issues. Research has shown that probiotics can be helpful for people with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, a hard-to-treat condition that can have a range of intestinal symptoms, such as abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.
Urinary health: Probiotics make a nice compliment to antibiotics among people who suffer from urinary tract infections, according to the research. Regular use of probiotics can help prevent bad bacteria from invading the urinary tract by maintaining a population of healthy bacteria on the tract’s adherence sites. Infections of the urinary tract are extremely common, especially in women. Most infections disappear with antibiotics, but about 30 to 40 percent might return, according to literature from the University of Maryland Medical Center. Eating probiotic-rich foods, or taking supplements, can help with lower the incidence of reoccurrence.
Allergies: There has been some interesting research surrounding probiotics and allergies, particularly in pregnant women and their babies. A relationship between women taking probiotics during pregnancy and a 30 percent reduction in the instance of childhood eczema (an early sign of allergies) in their infants was reported in one large study.
Researchers selected women who had a history of seasonal allergies – or whose partners had histories of allergies. The infants who received probiotics in-vitro also had 50 percent higher levels of tissue inflammation, which is thought to trigger the immune system and reduce allergy incidence.
Immune health: Surprisingly, one of the main functions of healthful bacteria is to stimulate immune response. By eating probiotic-rich foods and maintaining good intestinal flora, a person can also help to maintain a healthy immune system.
Obesity: It’s still unclear how probiotics play a role in weight loss – and there is some controversy about how significant the probiotics-associated weight loss is. Some research shows that probiotics can help obese people who have received weight loss surgery to maintain weight loss. And in a study of post-partum women who were trying to lose abdominal fat, the addition of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium capsules helped reduce waist circumference.
Where are probiotics found?
There are foods that are rich in probiotics and consuming these foods regularly is recommended:
• Plain unflavored yogurt (Greek is best)
• Kombucha tea
If you have an aversion toward these foods, or are lactose intolerant, there are many probiotic supplements available. Acidophilus comes in capsule or liquid form. Make sure you find yours in the refrigerated section of your health food stores. Those capsules that are kept at room temperature may not contain the live cultures you need for optimum benefit. Remember that supplements are not regulated by the FDA and so you may not get what you are paying for. Better to get your nutrition from whole foods! •