Supplementing your diet with bacteria… sounds kind of crazy in our age of antibacterial and antimicrobial cleansers, right? But by some accounts, it won’t be long before we’re all using these microorganic supplements called probiotics in our diets. Many of us have been consuming probiotics in food for years without knowing it. Europeans and Japanese have been consciously consuming probiotics for many years, and the enthusiasm for probiotics is beginning to sweep through America. So what are probiotics, and how exactly can they improve your health and quality of life?
- Good bacteria in our bodies? Our body is a veritable universe of microbial life – perhaps a slightly disconcerting thought, though our health depends upon them. While the definition of probiotics has been rigorously debated throughout the years, commonly they are defined as live microbes that, when taken in certain amounts, benefit our health. Think of probiotics as a sort of opposite of antibiotics; whereas antibiotics are used to kill harmful bacteria in our bodies, probiotics are taken to add to our populations of microorganisms that help us maintain proper health. In fact, probiotics are often prescribed to help your body re-equilibrate after an antibiotic regimen. But antibiotics aren’t the only substances that can deplete our symbiotic bacterial populations; alcohol, antibacterial soap, stress, travel and medical conditions can all contribute to the weakening of our friendly microorganisms. And anything that weakens them consequently reduces our ability to fight off true enemies of our health.
- How long do the probiotics last? Studies of fecal matter suggest that probiotics do not establish themselves permanently within our bodies, but rather create a temporary beneficial population inside of us. When our friendly microbial populations are depleted for whatever reason, the right strains of probiotics can temporarily serve the same beneficial functions while our native microorganisms regain their former strength. Or, if our native populations suffer frequent depletion, regular supplementation of probiotics can allow our bodies to function healthily.
- Where to find probiotics. You can most conveniently find probiotics in common foods like yogurts containing active cultures, miso and certain soy products and juices. Look for the yogurts that contain three or more strains of bacteria. Probiotic-laden drinks like Japan’s Yakult and France’s Actimel (those of us in the U.S. would know it as Activia) will become increasingly available sources of probiotics. Potent supplements are also available for those who seek to combat IBD with probiotics. Effective supplements should contain about 1 billion colony-forming units (CFU).
- Digestive benefits of probiotics. You may have noticed a period of diarrhea and digestive discomfort after a run of antibiotics has ended. Your temporary digestive ailments are due to the fact that the antibiotic wiped out some of your body’s helpful bacteria in addition to the harmful bacteria it intended to destroy – sort of an instance of collateral damage, to put it nicely. In fact, though about 100 trillion microorganisms live in the human gut, sometimes they can use a helping hand. Probiotics boost your good gut bacteria, helping defend you against the collateral damage of antibiotics and even help defend vacationers from the dreaded 'traveler's diarrhea.' Additionally, those with irritable bowel disorder, as well as those with inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, can benefit from taking probiotics in their daily diet.
- Fighting infection. Women and men will be happy to know that probiotic strains of lactobacillus help the immune system fight off vaginal and urinary tract infections.
- Anti-carcinogenic properties of probiotics? Animal tests of lactic acid bacteria has shown that probiotics could potentially help defend our bodies against certain cancers like colon cancer. But evidence is far too preliminary; right now, we must contend with the exciting glimmer of potential.
- Talk to your doctor or nutritionist. There are hundreds upon hundreds of microbial species in our bodies, but these species can be divided even further into specific strains. And specific strains are recommended to bring relief for specific ailments. As for the particular strains of beneficial bacteria you should take, the best advice is to talk to your doctor or nutritionist. For more severe conditions, a supplement would be needed; regular food sources like yogurt are probably not potent enough to make a difference. Lastly, though most side effects of probiotics are harmless (like temporary gas build-up), sometimes more serious side effects can occur. The safety of certain probiotics when taken by children, the elderly or those with compromised immune systems is as yet unclear; more research must be done. In the meantime, your doctor or nutritionist is the best source of up-to-date information regarding beneficial strains, research and the efficacy of different probiotic sources available to the consumer.
- Prebiotics. Lastly, your doctor may recommend that, in addition to probiotics, you regularly supplement with fiber as well (known as a “prebiotic” substance). Prebiotics nourish the helpful microorganisms that already inhabit your body.
Stay tuned as ongoing research leads to a greater understanding of just how probiotics, in specific forms and dosages, can improve our health. Soon we may all find ourselves telling our children, “You can leave the table as soon as you’ve finished eating your bacteria!”