Probiotics: What’s All the Hype?


Probiotics are the latest craze in the food industry, turning up in everything from pizza to chocolate. They now tally $20 billion in global sales, expanding at 20 to 30% a year. If you’re not already consuming them in some form, chances are you will be soon.

So are probiotics the new vitamins? Probiotics are actually live microbes –specifically, beneficial bacteria that promote human health if consumed in large enough quantities. For germophobic Americans, it’s a revolutionary concept. But the 100 trillion microbes that live in your large intestine do dozens of good things for you. They process indigestible fibers and help keep bowel function regular. They produce a number of vitamins, including B6, B12, and K2, and aid in the absorption of minerals such as iron, calcium, and magnesium. Equally important, they help fend off bad bacteria such as Salmonella and E.coli, which can cause severe diarrhea and, in extreme cases, severe anemia, kidney failure, and death. Basically, the intestines are a war zone, where beneficial and harmful bacteria are fighting to establish predominance. The key is for the good guys to outnumber the bad. If you want to give them a competitive edge, a regular supply of probiotics can help.

Probiotics may also be beneficial to take if you are taking antibiotics. However, many doctors do not prescribe or even mention that, so you would have to take it on your own initiative. Doing so can limit side effects, but may not prevent allergic reactions to medications.

The payoff can extend well beyond your gut, and your immune system is a prime beneficiary. How about this: In a Swedish study of 262 workers, those who took probiotics for 80 days were 42% less likely to take a sick day for an upper respiratory infection or gastrointestinal disease. Regular doses can help reduce vaginal and urinary tract infections. If you’re prone to allergies or eczema, probiotics may even help tamp down overactive immune systems. Meaning may be the spring pollen won’t be so bad for you and so forth. For me, probiotics help cut down on sneezing around this time of the year. They accomplish this via producing their own form of antibiotics, blocking pathogens from adhering to the gut, and spurring production of chemical messengers called cytokines, which communicate with the immune system throughout the body. Probiotics may even enhance your mood, thanks to a similar cross talk with the central nervous system.


So the conclusion is simple, right? Take probiotics. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. There are more than 3,000 species of good bacteria in your gut, and each has its own talents. The cultures you’re consuming may not be the ones that reduce colds or fight diarrhea. And they have to be handled correctly, so they aren’t killed during processing or storage. Only about 10% of the prebiotics have been proven in human trials. So, what to do?


Probiotic Yogurt


Be Cultured

The microbes that turn milk into yogurt and kefir are among the most beneficial, and they seem to thrive in dairy. The reason is because milk contains complex carbohydrates that the bacteria feed on. Dairy products are also kept chilled, which is important for heat-sensitive organisms, and are only weakly acidic, another plus. (Bacteria can perish in the strongly acidic environment of the stomach, but dairy provides protection.) Just make sure the container says “live and active cultures.” Dead bacteria won’t help. The more reliable brands tell you which specific bacteria they contain.


Learn to Pickle

Microbes are responsible for fermentation, turning cabbage into sauerkraut, cucumbers into sour pickles, and soybeans into miso. For thousands of years, fermented foods have been staples of the human diet. But we eat far fewer of these foods today, and when we do, modern processing often kills off the good bacteria! Basically, stores can’t have jars exploding on shelves when bacteria produce gas, so manufacturers pasteurize sauerkraut and pickles. So unless you are pulling your pickles out of a crock in a deli or buying them from a small local producer who labels them ‘raw fermented,’ you’re not getting live microbes. So, just make your own, otherwise enjoy it for taste and other benefits.


Avoid Marketing Hype

Probiotics are now being added to lots of unfermented foods too; including cookies, pizza crust, coffee beans, and powdered smoothie mixes (can you believe it?) Recall that unless the label says, “live and active cultures,” don’t count on them –particularly in products that require heating, such as coffee and pizza. High temperatures are likely to destroy the bacteria.


Give Yourself a Boost

Throughout most of human history, getting enough good bacteria was no problem. But today we live in a sanitized world. If you need extra help –for example, if you have chronic constipation (63 million Americans do) or you’re taking antibiotics, which kill good and bad bacteria alike –probiotic supplements can provide steady, reliable relief. Last year, a study in the Journal of the AMA concluded that patients on antibiotics can reduce the associated risk of diarrhea by 41% if they take probiotics at the same time. But hey, don’t count on many doctors “suggesting” you to take it together. Many doctors prescribe antibiotics and that’s it! Nowadays it is up to you to know how to better yourself.


Eat Prebiotics

Yes, prebiotics. For colonies to thrive, you need to create favorable living conditions for them. One of the best ways to do that is to consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Processed foods contain preservatives via definition are antimicrobial. In contrast, many natural whole foods include prebiotics, or foods that the good microbes themselves feed on –namely, insoluble fibers that people cannot digest but bacterial can. These fibers are in a variety of foods, including onions, bananas, asparagus, leeks, garlic, artichokes, wheat, oats, and soybeans.


Pick Your Pills Wisely

Here are some things to look for on the label:


CFUs. This means “colony forming units.” And there should be at least a billion.

Strains. Seek out the specific bacteria that will help your problem. For general health, take a brand that contains both a Lactobacillus and a Bifidobacterium.

Guarantee of activity. This should include an expiration date, plus directions on how to handle the product at home. Some probiotics are room temperature stable, but all benefit from cooler temps.

Acid resistance. Certain strains can be stabilized to survive harsh stomach acids. Others cannot. The bottle should say “acid stabilized” or “microencapsulated.”

Prebiotics. Some brands include ready-made food sources for the bacteria.


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