What Are Probiotics?

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You have bacteria in your gut—and that’s okay!   Some types are important to have and some aren’t.  It’s all about trying to find a healthy gut balance.  The good bacteria are known as probiotics, which literally means “for life.”  Probiotics can help keep the natural balance intact by reducing the harmful bacteria’s growth.  Fortunately, the gut has 400 types of probiotics.  One commonly known group is the lactic acid bacteria, Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is found in yogurt.

Why would I need probiotics if my body already produces them?
Just because your body produces good bacteria doesn’t mean the balance in your gut is optimal. Taking probiotics may counteract the risk of the bad bacteria overcoming the good.  For example, bad bacteria are harmful to our health and sometimes we need antibiotics, which means “against life,” in order to kill them off.  Unfortunately, antibiotics don’t distinguish between good and bad bacteria, killing them all.  Over time, overdoing antibiotics can upset the balance and lead to bad bacteria overgrowth.  In this case, it would be helpful to supplement with probiotics.

What about my diet—can that help balance my good and bad bacteria?
Having a poor diet can also support bad bacteria growth.  A poor diet is one that includes too much processed food with little fiber and not enough foods that are whole and natural.  Whole foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, have enough fiber to push food through your digestive tract.  Like a stagnant pool, bacteria tend to grow in warm dark places.  If the gut doesn’t get its share of the fiber, it won’t be able to eliminate waste well, constipation can result, and bacteria will then have the opportunity to fester!

Do probiotics really help for constipation?
There is some truth to those “irregular, bloated tummies” shown on commercials.  But not all yogurts are created equal.  Only the ones with the live bacterial cultures, such as Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillis, are those that have shown improvements with constipation.  It’s important to look for the Live & Active Cultures Seal on the package to determine whether or not the yogurt has live cultures.  There is a National Yogurt Association that is responsible for providing the stamp to consumers.  When a product has the stamp, it means that the yogurt was not heat treated during post-fermentation, which could kill the live active cultures that you want.

Where can I find probiotics?
Probiotics are available as dietary supplements, but are also present in many fermented foods with live cultures such as yogurt, natural cheese, kefir, miso and sauerkraut.  Green foods, such as wheat grass, spirulina and chlorella, are also sources. Greek-style yogurt is the best type of yogurt to choose since it is high in protein, devoid of high fructose corn syrup and has fewer additives.

Are supplements in pill-form just as effective?
Pills are considered dietary supplements, which are not FDA-regulated.  According to physician Robynne Chutkan, Associate Professor of Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the probiotics that are sold as, “… nonrefrigerated, pill-form supplements may not contain enough active bacteria to be effective.”  She states the problem is that heat, oxygen and moisure can cause the bacteria to become inactive.  Is it therefore best to try to get probiotics from food sources.  And if you need to buy the pills, get products that have more than one kind of bacteria in it to allow for the chance that one species may endure the environment better than another.

Who needs probiotics and how much?
Everyone may benefit from probiotics; however, the following conditions have warranted probiotic supplementation: yeast infections, antibiotic therapy, digestive disorders, peptic ulcers, chronic constipation and immune dysfunction.  Elderly individuals may benefit more since their guts do not produce as many good bacteria.

Probiotics don’t work for everyone: genetic factors may affect a person’s reactions.  It’s best to “listen to your gut” when considering the use of probiotics.

References
1. Koop-Hoolihan L. Prophylactic and therapeutic uses of probiotics: A review. J Am Diet Assoc. 2001;101(2):229-241.
2. WebMD

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