We hear a lot lately about probiotics, but what are they and do they help us?
Living in our intestines (gut) are many and diverse microorganisms including bacteria. Some are good, some detrimental (known as good and bad bacteria). In fact, there are a greater number of bacteria in your intestines than there are cells in your body. 70-80% of your immune system is located in your gut.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that may be good for your health, especially your digestive and immune systems, known as good bacteria. They are currently being widely studied and may be able to help prevent and treat some illnesses. There is early evidence that some probiotics help prevent diarrhea cause by infections and antibiotics. Additionally, probiotics may help improve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and may be better than milk for people with lactose intolerance.
Probiotics are quite versatile; some treat diarrhea and constipation. However, when they arrive in the intestine, they are not permanently there—to get real benefits you must keep consuming them. Even a small amount of yogurt daily may help.
If you buy yogurt, choose those with active or live cultures. Look at the ingredients. Most yogurts contain acidophilus bacteria, but make sure the product contains bifido bacterium or bifidus among other bacteria. I buy plain non-fat Greek yogurt, but you can also buy flavored yogurt, which may contain more sugars.
While yogurt is probably the best known probiotic food in the Western diet, other sources are available as well. Included are:
- Kefir, a fermented probiotic milk drink. It is actually a better probiotic source than yogurt and is generally well-tolerated by lactose intolerant people.
- Sauerkraut, a finely shredded cabbage that has been fermented. In addition to its probiotic qualities, it is rich in fiber and some vitamins, but is high in sodium. It also contains the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are important for eye health. (See my blog on Antioxidants and Macular Degeneration). Both articles contain info on lutein which is contained in sauerkraut. Be sure to purchase the unpasteurized sauerkraut.
- Tempeh, a fermented soybean product, is a high protein substitute for meat.
- Kimchi, a spicy Korean side dish, usually made from fermented cabbage.
- Miso, a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans.
- Kombucha, a fermented black or green tea drink.
Most healthy adults can safely add foods or dietary probiotic supplements to their diets. Some people may experience gas (flatulence), but that usually lasts only a few days.
Take a probiotic dietary supplement with caution if you are taking an antibiotic or prescription drug that affects your immune system, are being treated for a fungal infection, or have pancreatitis. Please check with your health care provider before taking a probiotic supplement, especially if you are pregnant or have any health condition.
Eating a steady diet of high sugar, high-carbohydrates foods starves probiotics and fuels the bad bacteria in your intestines. It is estimated that about 80% of the population in the U.S. endures symptoms of gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome on a weekly, if not daily, basis. This could be caused by bad bacteria overtaking your gut.
After all the exciting proposed uses of probiotics, I must give you a caution regarding these substances. I recommend checking with your health care provider before starting probiotics. Although some probiotics have shown promise in research studies, strong scientific evidence to support specific uses of probiotics for most health conditions is lacking. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any probiotics for preventing or treating any health problem. Some experts have cautioned that the rapid growth in marketing and use of probiotics may have outpaced scientific research for many of their proposed uses and benefits.