These days we are constantly bombarded by commercial messages urging us to fight germs and rid ourselves of bacteria. But in the right places and amounts, bacteria are actually very valuable to our health and wellness. Under normal circumstances, friendly bacteria found in our digestive system live with us in symbiotic harmony, but factors such as poor diet and medications such as birth control pills, antibiotics and corticosteroids, can upset this balance and lead to a host of difficulties. We now know these live microorganisms are cancer-protective, immune-enhancing, and anti-inflammatory. Here are six great reasons to take them daily.
Relief of digestive system upset. All types of digestive symptoms including diarrhea, adverse reactions to antibiotic therapy, constipation and food poisoning can be relieved by probiotics. Probiotics reduced the risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea by 42 per cent, according to an analysis of 82 studies published in Journal of the American Medical Association. Another study found that it prevented and treated constipation during pregnancy -- in fact, bowel movements increased from an average of three times a week to 6.7 a week.
Lower cholesterol levels. Anything that improves digestion, including how you absorb and utilize nutrients, can have a powerful impact on your health -- notwithstanding your cholesterol levels. Daily doses of a probiotic (Lactobacillus reuteri) lowered key cholesterol-bearing molecules in the blood as well as "bad" and total cholesterol, in a study presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2012. The study involved 127 adult patients with high cholesterol. About half the participants took the probiotic twice a day, while the rest were given placebo capsules. After nine weeks, the supplementing group had their levels of LDL ("bad" cholesterol) lower by 11.6 per cent, while cholesterol esters were reduced by 6.3 per cent and cholesterol ester saturated fatty acids by 8.8 per cent. The study results suggest that the probiotic broke apart bile salts, which led to reduced cholesterol absorption in the gut.
Beat belly fat and lighten up. It's true. Research completed at the Department of Genomic Sciences at the University of Washington found increased fat storage in rats that lacked probiotics. The correct balance of intestinal flora seems to limit fat storage by repressing the expression of a protein called fasting-induced adipocyte factor. University of Turku in Finland study results presented at the 2009 European Congress on Obesity suggest that women taking probiotics during the first trimester of pregnancy are less likely to experience obesity. Known as adiposity, this pregnancy-associated condition is one of the unhealthiest forms of obesity.
Boost your immune system. If you have spent the bulk of the season fighting off colds and viruses, you may want to build your immunity with probiotics. One group of researchers looked at college students -- a great group to pick, since they are often sleep-deprived, stressed, living in close quarters and therefore particularly vulnerable to colds. The study found that while all students caught colds at roughly the same rate, the students who took the probiotic supplementation experienced: a duration of colds that was two days shorter (four days vs. six days); symptoms that were 34 per cent less severe; and a higher quality of life that resulted in fewer missed school days (15 vs. 34 missed by students taking the placebo). Take probiotics daily -- versus seasonally -- to keep your immune system running smoothly.
Protect your gut against stress. For anyone with sensitive tummy, it's of no surprise that a bit of stress can throw your digestion into a frenzy with diarrhea or stop it in its tracks, leaving you constipated for days. Probiotics may help to reduce gut symptoms caused by long term stress, according to a study in the journal Gut. Chronic stress is known to be implicated in the development of irritable bowel syndrome and in the worsening of symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. After all, your stomach isn't called the "second brain" for nothing; where stress goes, it follows. Probiotics can help.
Prevent yeast infections. If you are a woman with recurrent yeast infections or urinary tract infections, the bacterial balance in your large intestine is likely compromised; it can then be even further compromised with the use of antibiotics). Probiotics can prevent infections and yeast overgrowth by blocking harmful bacteria from attaching to intestinal walls and by helping to maintain the appropriate intestinal pH. Probiotic treatment has been shown to benefit bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary tract infections.
So are all probiotics made equal? Staring at the probiotic selection in any health food store can be an overwhelming task. After all, is more better? For most of my patients I recommend a probiotic with 10 to 15 billion CFUs per capsule, taken morning upon rising and before bed on an empty stomach. However some gut conditions require you to switch up your bacterial defense in the short term. I recommend consulting with a health practitioner if you are uncertain as to which one to choose for your particular condition. Be sure to follow any course of antibiotics with supplements of acidophilus for double the length of time you took the antibiotics.
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. About 30 percent of the patients who take antibiotics report suffering from diarrhea or some other form of gastrointestinal distress, according to the recent <em>JAMA</em> study on probiotics and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. As a result, doctors commonly prescribe taking probiotics to "repopulate" the digestive tract with healthful bacteria. The study found that it was a viable solution for many. <br><br> But probiotics can also help with other types of digestive issues. <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16863564" target="_hplink">Research has shown</a> 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. In one study, female IBS patients experienced some alleviation of symptoms like abdominal pain and irregularity when they were given a supplement of the bacterial strain, Bifidobacterium infantis. <br><br> Even for those without an urgent problem, probiotics can help with overall digestive management. Challa argues in his book, <em>Probiotics For Dummies</em>, that 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 make a nice compliment to antibiotics among people who suffer from urinary tract infections, <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16827601" target="_hplink">according to the research</a>. <br><br> What's more, there's emerging evidence that regular probiotics can help <em>prevent</em> bad bacteria from invading the urinary tract by maintaining a population of healthy bacteria on the tract's adherence sites. <br><br> Infections of the urinary tract are extremely common, especially in women. Most infections disappear with antibiotics, but about 30 to 40 percent might return, <a href="http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/urinary-tract-000169.htm" target="_hplink">according to literature</a> from the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Allergy research is still preliminary, but at least one <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/AllergiesNews/story?id=4727318&page=1#.T7FHU59Ytvd" target="_hplink">large, high quality study</a> found 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. <br><br> 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.
Just like the digestive tract, the vagina relies on a precarious balance of good and bad bacteria. When that balance is off, it can result in one of two very common, though thoroughly uncomfortable infections: bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. In fact, bacterial vaginosis can actually <em>lead</em> to a yeast infection. <br><br> Some small studies have found that <em>L. acidophilius</em> can help prevent infection, manage an already active one or support antibiotics as a treatment, though it's worth noting that the probiotics were taken as vaginal suppositories, rather than orally in food. <br><br> Probiotics may also have a special role in maternal health, as pregnant women are particularly susceptible to vaginal infections. And bacterial vaginosis has been indicated as a contributing factor to pre-term labor, making probiotics a potential boon for fetal health.
Surprisingly, <a href="http://www.med.umich.edu/opm/newspage/2006/hmprobiotics.htm" target="_hplink">one of the main functions</a> of healthful bacteria is to stimulate immune response. <br><br> By eating probiotic-rich foods and maintaining good intestinal flora, a person can also help to maintain a healthy immune system. And that has real world effects: for example, in <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15309418" target="_hplink">one small study</a> of students, those who were given a fermented dairy drink (instead of milk) displayed increased production from lymphocytes -- a marker of immune response.
In 2006, Stanford University researchers found that obese people had different gut bacteria than normal-weighted people -- a first indication that gut flora plays a role in overall weight. <br><br> Some preliminary 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 abdomnial fat, the addition of <em>lactobacillus</em> and <em>bifidobacterium</em> capsules helped reduce waist circumference. <br><br> It's still unclear how probiotics play a role in weight loss -- and there is some controversy about <a href="http://scienceblogs.com/obesitypanacea/2010/03/are_probiotics_the_cure_for_ab.php" target="_hplink">how significant the probiotics-associated weight loss is</a>. <br><br> But as long as the probiotics source is low-calorie and healthful, itself, it is an innocuous method to attempt.
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