We don't usually think of bacteria as a good thing, but when it comes to your stomach, they're essential. In the right places and amounts, strains of beneficial bacteria called probiotics, and the prebiotics that feed them, are valuable to our health -- not to mention our waistlines.
Under normal circumstances, friendly bacteria live in our digestive tract in a healthy balance. However, factors like poor diet, or medications including birth control pills, antibiotics and corticosteroids, can upset this balance and lead to a host of difficulties.
All probiotics improve the balance of the intestinal microflora. Research has found that these live microorganisms are immune-enhancing and anti-inflammatory, and some studies have indicated that they may protect against certain cancers. Probiotics prevent infections and yeast overgrowth by blocking harmful bacteria from attaching to intestinal walls and by maintaining intestinal pH. They improve digestive function and assist with the production of a number of vitamins, including vitamins K, B12, B5 and biotin.
Prebiotics are non-digestible, oligosaccharides (several types of sugar molecules linked together) ingredients in our food that are the food sources for probiotics. Consuming prebiotics alone can often help digestion, because they feed, nourish and increase probiotic bacteria.
Prebiotics have benefits beyond the positive effects on digestive flora. Some animal studies have indicated that they have a protective quality against early-stage colon cancer. Other studies have suggested that prebiotics lower triglycerides, but just exactly how is unknown. They may also help regulate blood sugars, and data already exists showing that some prebiotics may reduce appetite, increase satiety, and thereby decrease the amount of energy consumed after several weeks of consistent use.
Who needs extra prebiotics and probiotics?
Antibiotics work well at killing off the bad bacteria that make us ill, but they also kill off good bacteria needed for digestion: acidophilus and bifidus, which are both types of probiotics. If you have taken antibiotics in the past, or will need to take them in the future, be sure to supplement with probiotic supplements that contain acidophilus. Other medications, such as the birth control pill and cortisone (used to treat inflammation), may affect gut bacterial balance. In women, recurrent yeast infections may be an indication that the healthy bacterial balance in the large intestine has become compromised.
Supplementing the diet with beneficial bacteria like probiotics and prebiotics stimulates immunity through increased activity of cells (macrophages) that consume invading organisms, as well as through increased production of other white blood cells and cytokines -- this could lead to stronger resistance to bacterial and viral infections. In fact, studies have also shown that children attending daycare catch fewer colds and the flu if they are given probiotic supplements containing acidophilus, bifidus or both. Adults have been found to experience the same beneficial effect on immune system function. With benefits ranging from reduced cholesterol and inflammation to improved digestion and weight loss, the right type of bacteria should be a staple in your supplement cupboard (or in this case, fridge).
Getting the healthy bacteria your body needs
Yogurt naturally contains probiotics, but supplements may be more effective if you are looking for a concentrated source. Some prebiotics are naturally found in foods like chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, onions, asparagus, garlic, bananas, barley, wheat, rye, and tomatoes.
Probiotic supplements should be refrigerated to maintain the viability of the microorganisms, in the same way yogurt, milk and other refrigerated cultures need to be stored. Without proper storage, probiotic supplements may spoil and or lose potency. I recommend a probiotic with at least 10 to 15 billion cells per capsule, such as Clear Flora, while a good maintenance dose is 1 to 2 billion of both lactobacilli and bifidobacteria once a day, away from food. Recommended brands include:
Clear Flora (Clear Medicine): 2 capsules on rising
Ultra Flora (Metagenics): 2 capsules upon rising
ProbioMax Daily DF (Xymogen): 2 capsules upon rising
Multi-Probiotic 4000 (Douglas Labs): 2 capsules on rising
Bio-K+: 1 jar (away from food) or 1 capsule per day (with food)
Smooth Food 2 or Probiotic All Flora (New Chapter): 2 capsules per day
It's always wise to consult with a doctor before beginning any health regimen to determine appropriate dosages and health risks. During antibiotic therapy, you should increase the dose significantly and take the probiotic for twice the length of time of your antibiotic treatment. You may experience gas and bloating at the start -- simply reduce the dose, then slowly increase it as your body adapts.
If you use prebiotics, the dosage of FOS and inulin ranges from four to 10 grams per day. Some supplements may contain both prebiotics and probiotics.