By Heather Bauer, R.D., nu-train
With nutrition and health, it happens all the time. Suddenly, through marketing or through increased interest from a few highly respected media personalities, certain fads or foods hit the spotlight. And while sometimes it may lead to a misinformed public blindly following a new fad (i.e. The Cabbage Soup Diet, The Ball Diet, etc.), occasionally a few healthful gems are unearthed.
One such beneficial food component is probiotics.
Though probiotics were discovered back in the early twentieth century (and recognized as healthy bacteria way before that), it is only in the last few years that probiotics have made it big. Oprah has mentioned them in both her magazine and on her show, and now each major yogurt company is touting the different probiotic cultures that their yogurts contain. So, we now know that probiotics are good for us, but what exactly are they?
What They Are
Probiotics are friendly bacteria. These bacteria live naturally in our stomach and intestines, which keeps us healthy and functioning. In fact, it has been estimated that there are more healthy bacterial cells associated with the human body than there are human cells, and that there are more than 400 species of probiotics.
The intestinal microflora, which means the variety of bacteria in our intestines, is highly specific for each individual. These friendly bacteria begin to accumulate in our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts from infancy, and tend to remain fairly stable over time. However, our microflora develops in stages throughout our lives and are affected by diet, illness, and even environmental factors. This is important since optimal gut and digestive health is necessary for the absorption of nutrients and for removing toxins. For this reason, many health professionals feel that ingesting probiotics to further ensure GI health is beneficial.
Why They're Getting Even More Press
Recently, there has been a plethora of new research regarding probiotics and health. All of the research, however, is preliminary and mostly inconclusive so don't try and treat any medical problems without consulting a physician.
- Promote recovery from diarrhea
- Help alleviate symptoms of lactose intolerance and malabsorption
- Relieve constipation
Immune System Effects
- Stimulate gastrointestinal immunity
- Reduce chance of infection from common pathogens (i.e. Shigella, Salmonella)
- Normalize immune responses
- Inhibit chronic sub-clinical inflammation
- Improve inflammatory conditions with an autoimmune component, such as asthma, eczema, or Crohn's disease
Effects on Disease
- Improve food allergies
- Promote recovery from vaginal (bacterial and yeast), urinary tract, and bladder infections
- Reduce several risk factors for cardiovascular disease
- Reduce several risk factors for intestinal cancers
- Ameliorate inflammatory intestinal disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
Where We Get Them
Probiotics can be found in supplements and in foods such as certain yogurts and other dairy products. Consuming probiotics from foods, however, appears to be the best way to go. Dairy foods help to protect probiotic bacteria. Since our stomachs are highly acidic, many varieties of probiotics may die before they even reach our colons. Dairy foods, however, help to buffer stomach acid and increase the chance that the bacteria will survive into the intestine.
The most common bacterial strains added in yogurt are L. bulgaricus, S. thermophilus, and L acidophilus, so look for these on the label. It is important to note that not all yogurts contain active bacterial culture. Make sure to check the label for words such as "live cultures" or "active cultures". Also, avoid yogurts that say "heat treated after culturing" since this means that the live cultures were destroyed and will be of no benefit to you.
Finally, the potency, or amount, of live cultures is also important since a certain number of cells are required to attain the benefit. Check to see if the label states how many viable organisms are in the product.
The Bottom Line
Probiotics are a current trend that is actually healthy for our bodies. Including one serving of yogurt or another probiotic containing food per day, can help you reap the benefits.
Aside from its probiotic qualities, yogurt is also a great source of protein, calcium, B vitamins and other nutrients. To ensure the probiotic health benefits, however, you don't want to heat the yogurt or you will destroy the live cultures. Instead, try incorporating it into cool dishes like cold soups, dips, salad dressings, or parfaits.