Most people don’t need probiotics because they already exist in our gut. The human gut is home to more than 400 different types of potentially beneficial microorganisms. These important bacteria and yeasts are thought to offer a number of health benefits. Scientists are still learning how and why probiotics work. Some potential benefits include:
- They may boost your immune system
- They may prevent infection
- They may prevent harmful bacteria from attaching to the gut lining and growing there
- They may strengthen the mucus in your intestine and help it act as a barrier against infection
- They may inhibit or destroy toxins released by certain “bad” bacteria that can make you sick
- They produce B vitamins necessary for metabolizing the food you eat, warding off anemia caused by deficiencies in B6 and B12, and maintaining healthy skin and a healthy nervous system
When the gut is functioning optimally it does not require assistance. Unfortunately, several things can disrupt the gut’s delicate microbial balance:
- Use of antibiotic medications
- Significant diet changes
- Medications that impact the GI tract such as PPI’s or acid blockers
- Radiation or Chemotherapy
- Laxative medications
- Surgery to the GI tract
Consuming probiotic rich foods or supplements can help to restore a healthy balance to gut flora and is generally seen as safe and with few side effects. However, people with a weakened or compromised immune system due to illness or side effects of medications like chemotherapy should refrain from consuming probiotics or foods with live cultures/yeasts due to risk for serious infection.
Food sources of probiotics: Fermented Foods!
- Yogurt with live cultures. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get good yogurt. Check out how my local Harris Teeter grocery store brand of Greek yogurt ranks according to Fooducate
- Sauerkraut or Kimchi – must be fresh / unpasteurized to obtain the benefit (pasteurization kills bacteria)
- Some fermented soft cheeses such as aged goat cheese, bleu cheese, brie, cambozola, Camembert, cantal, cheddar, Cheshire, cultured dry cottage cheese, Edam, Emmenthal, feta, Gorgonzola, Gouda, Gruyere, muenster, parmesan, Roquefort, Romano, and Stilton
- Sourdough Bread
- Fermented beverages such as Buttermilk, acidophilus milk and kefir
- Tempeh (fermented soy beans)
- And…. Lots of fruits, vegetables, high fiber grains, beans, nuts and seeds that provide a healthy source of prebiotics (which I discuss in this article).
Which Is Better, Probiotic Foods or Supplements?
According to research, how you consume them doesn’t matter as long as it contains enough organisms to grow in the intestines. The jury is still out on what constitutes an effective dose of each of the variety of probiotics and varies by strain. Consuming a variety of probiotic and prebiotic rich foods in your diet would be advantageous. If you are attempting to gain a specific health benefit supplements may be more helpful but do your research.
How to Choose Probiotic Supplements:
- Stick to well-established companies and companies you know. The longer a company has been around, the more likely its products have been tested and studied repeatedly and the bigger the reputation the company has to protect. Remember, the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements including probiotics. This means that manufacturers can sell supplements simply with “claims” of safety and effectiveness.
- Check the label. Look for the probiotic’s group, species and strain, and how many of the microorganisms will still be alive on the use-by date. If the label does not answer all of your questions call the manufacturer to get more information. You can ask them to provide you with research that supports the benefit for any health claims.
- Storage Matters. Probiotics are live organisms and as such have a shelf life and “living conditions” that must be met. It is important to adhere to the storage instructions and the expiration dates on the package. Some products require refrigeration.
Well-established benefits of probiotics include:
- Treating and preventing inflammatory GI conditions, such as pouchitis (which affects people who have their colons removed), inflammatory bowel diseases (such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease), and chronic stomach inflammation and ulcers caused by H. pylori bacterium
- Treating constipation and irritable bowel syndrome
- Treating diarrhea, especially following treatment with antibiotics
- Treating infectious C diff diarrhea
- Reducing the recurrence of bladder and colorectal cancer
- Treating urinary tract infections and vaginal yeast infections in women
Some studies suggest that specific strains or combinations of strains can be effective in suppressing damaging inflammation and improving the symptoms of MS in animal models. Guidance as to beneficial strains, dosage and efficacy in humans is lacking. Research is ongoing but until more definitive evidence is available, eat and enjoy probiotic rich foods.
Probiotics. National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics. Accessed 12/13/14
American Gastroenterological Association. http://www.gastro.org/patient-center/diet-medications/probiotics Accessed 12/13/14.
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