If there was ever any doubt that modern life disrupts digestion, just look at the number of ads for heartburn remedies, laxatives and diarrhea relievers. The typical American diet, a lack of exercise, out-of-control stress levels and the sheer speed of life today can keep our stomachs in a constant state of turmoil. As a result, a growing number of Americans suffer from everyday maladies, like indigestion, flatulence and constipation, to more serious woes, like irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.
But probiotics can fortify our defenses against these tummy troubles. Taken from the Greek word for “life,” probiotics are living beneficial bacteria that support digestion as well as vaginal and urinary tract health. Probiotics also promote the body’s overall immunity and increase the absorption of nutrients. Admittedly, eating live bugs may not sound terribly appealing. Yet a growing number of Americans are deliberately supplementing their diets with armies of these little critters to aid digestion and promote optimal health.
Bacterial Buddies: What Probiotics Do
Our gastrointestinal tracts are home to more than 400 different strains of bacteria that perform very important functions in the body — from the mouth all the way down to the rectum. But their best-known role in good health is the protection they offer against harmful bacteria, fungi and viruses. Probiotics produce organic compounds — including lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid — that increase the acidity in the intestines. This helps to prevent the “bad” bugs from reproducing. Probiotics also produce bacteriocin, natural antibiotics that kill harmful micro-organisms and enhance the immune system by boosting disease-fighting cells.
Unfortunately, a number of things can put the supply of beneficial bacteria in peril. Antibiotics are probably the biggest threat to our good bacteria. Antibiotics indiscriminately kill off bacteria — both the bad ones causing health problems and the good ones that help keep us healthy. As a result, antibiotic use — even on a short-term basis — can cause diarrhea or a pesky yeast infection.
Stress, birth control pills, a poor diet, chemical additives and environmental toxins also can destroy our friendly flora. When this happens, harmful bacteria can run rampant, multiplying like wildfire and ultimately causing disease. In fact, low levels of friendly bacteria have been linked to a number of digestive disorders, including constipation, diarrhea, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. They’ve also been implicated in jock itch, vaginitis and yeast infections. And some natural health practitioners suspect waning levels of beneficial bacteria can contribute to gingivitis, psoriasis, eczema, migraines, urinary tract infections and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Little Bugs Fight Big Problems
The two most prevalent types of probiotic bacteria that live in the gut are Lactobacillus, found in the small intestines, and Bifidobacterium, which resides in the large intestines. Not only do these two types of bacteria favorably alter the microflora balance in the intestines, they also promote good digestion and may help ease the symptoms of chronic digestive disorders.
One common malady improved by probiotics is irritable bowel syndrome. Marked by chronic abdominal pain, gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, IBS affects at least 10 to 20 percent of adults in the United States, most of them women. But according to one randomized clinical trial by researchers from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota, simply boosting the number of friendly bugs in the digestive tract may improve both colon function and the symptoms of IBS. During the trial, 48 patients with IBS were given either probiotics or a placebo twice a day. Those taking the probiotics experienced considerably more relief from gas, bloating, abdominal pain and diarrhea than those taking the placebo.
Luckily, while IBS can be painful, it doesn’t lead to serious damage. Inflammatory bowel disease, on the other hand, triggers inflammation that can cause physical damage to the gut wall. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are the best-known types of IBD and affect as many as 1 million Americans. Both of these conditions cause abdominal pain and cramping with frequent and urgent diarrhea. Worse yet, left unchecked, IBD can lead to infections, hemorrhoids, intestinal wall perf- orations and the inability to absorb nutrients. IBD also increases the risk of gastrointestinal cancer.
An increasing number of studies suggest that probiotics can benefit both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis in several ways. Along with competing with the bad bacteria for real estate in the gut, probiotics stimulate the immune system and enhance the barrier function of the intestinal walls. But these friendly bugs aren’t just reserved for chronic digestive ailments. Several studies show that some probiotic strains, like Lactobacillus GG, Bifidobacteria and a probiotic yeast called Saccharomyces boulardii, also can guard against the occasional bouts of diarrhea that strike many of us from time to time. If diarrhea does strike, taking a probiotic containing several strains of Lacto- bacillus can reduce its duration.
Fight Bugs with…Bugs
Probiotics don’t just boost immunity against gastrointestinal ailments. They also help the entire body stay healthy by preventing the bad bacteria in the gut from escaping into the bloodstream, where it can lead to infection elsewhere. One double-blind study of 21 healthy adults by Turkish researchers found that those eating a probiotic-rich yogurt had significantly fewer strep germs in their saliva than those who didn’t eat the yogurt.
But the immune-boosting properties of probiotics don’t stop there. These healthful critters also boost the immune system by improving the body’s resistance to disease. A new review by Italian investigators has concluded that taking probiotics can help reduce infections in people suffering from severe pancreatitis. Other studies have found that probiotics enhance the immune function of children with HIV, reduce urinary tract infections and may even improve heart health by lowering cholesterol levels. Because of their immune-enhancing effect, preliminary research also suggests that probiotics could help prevent colon, bladder and possibly even breast cancer. While scientists don’t know exactly why probiotics appear to guard against cancer, they suspect that beneficial bacteria may prevent tumor growth by inactivating some cancer-causing substances and by preventing precancerous bacteria from becoming carcinogenic.
Probiotics improve immunity and promote good digestion.
Probiotics also help keep a lid on inflammation — good news for those suffering from allergies and asthma. An interesting study out of the University of Michigan found that the normal mixture of bacteria and fungi in the gastrointestinal tract can intensify the immune system’s reaction to common allergens, such as pet dander and pollen. But, according to research by the University of California, Davis, taking supplemental probiotics could help prevent allergies. During their study of 60 people ranging in age from 20 to 70, those eating seven ounces of probiotic-rich yogurt a day suffered far fewer reactions to common allergens than the group that didn’t eat the yogurt.
The Candida Connection
If you’re a woman who has ever taken antibiotics, you’re likely all too familiar with the yeast infection that can arise. Frequent antibiotic use can lead to an overgrowth of yeast (Candida albicans), which thrives in a digestive tract lacking friendly bacteria. The result is often a vaginal yeast infection or thrush, a yeast infection in the mouth that causes often-painful white or yellow spots on the mouth and tongue.
While human trials have not been conducted, laboratory experiments show that Lactobacillus acidophilus, one of the primary probiotic strains found in yogurt, produces natural compounds that prevent the overgrowth of candida. Based on this, a growing number of doctors are advising their patients to take probiotics whenever they prescribe a course of antibiotics. Starting the first day you take an antibiotic, take a probiotic containing at least 1 billion live organisms per day. For best results, take your probiotic first thing in the morning or between meals when stomach acid is low.
Get Some Culture
Fortunately, you can fortify your army of beneficial bugs by taking a probiotic supplement every day. These beneficial bugs are sold as powders, liquids, capsules and tablets — many of which need to be refrigerated. The minimum dose to prevent common illnesses is 1 billion live organisms daily. While that might sound like a lot, it’s actually about the same amount you’ll find in a cup of yogurt. But when it comes to probiotics, more is better. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to take 2 billion to 6 billion organisms per day in divided doses.
Look for a probiotic that promises “live and active cultures” and make sure the product carries an expiration date. Although most probiotics need to be kept in the refrigerator to ensure the bacteria’s viability, at least one brand comes freeze-dried and can last for up to two years if kept in a cool, dry cabinet.
If popping a pill full of critters doesn’t sound appealing, you can stock up on probiotic-rich foods. Yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, buttermilk, sauerkraut and acidophilus milk contain various amounts of live beneficial bugs. Check labels to see which types of bacteria are in specific foods.
Kim Erickson is the author of Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics (Contemporary Books, 2002) and a frequent contributor to Herbs for Health.
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