Warning! All probiotics are not created equally. If you’ve been to the supermarket or simply watched television during the last 12 months then you’ve probably seen or heard the term “probiotics” at least a few times. Probiotics are popping up everywhere with food manufacturers, consumers and even health care professionals touting their amazing health benefits.
Probiotic Side Effects
Probiotics first began to jump out into the spotlight in yogurt-type products. Now, they can be found advertised on the labels of everything from yogurts and juices to candy and puddings.
But what’s so great about these probiotics? Do you even know what they really are? Many people hear “probiotics” and get an image of kefir or Dannon Activa — you know, the yogurt endorsed by Jamie Lee Curtis.
Let’s first be clear on what probiotics are and what they’re not.
Experts have had a difficult time pinning down a definition for probiotics, but according to the World Health Organization (WHO) probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Microorganisms are those microscopic organisms like bacteria, viruses and yeasts. These are the tiny living matter that is not visible to the naked eye but can be viewed through a microscope.
Another term to mention here is prebiotics. Prebiotics have come into light lately for their health benefits, which are similar to probiotics. Prebiotics and probiotics are not the same.
Prebiotics are actually, in simple terms, the foods that probiotics consume for energy. Prebiotics are referred to as fermentable fiber. Prebiotics are non-digestible foods that help the healthy bacteria already living in the gut to grow and flourish. Mixed together, probiotics and prebiotics form something called synbiotics. Probiotics are the most commonly referred to of the three.
Prebiotics are found naturally in certain foods. Foods high in fiber often contain prebiotics too. Prebiotics can be found in the following foods:
Foods Containing Prebiotics
- Dandelion greens, kale, chard
- Whole grain foods
Health Benefits of Probiotics
The research is just beginning to come in on the health benefits of probiotics, but many of its advocates don’t need any more proof than their bodies have already provided.
In general, probiotics are beneficial for the body because these are the “healthy” bacteria in the intestinal tract. These are the bacteria that promote a healthy digestive tract.
How do these tiny microorganisms do such a big job?
The healthy bacteria, or probiotics, live longer than the unhealthy ones and actually help to end the bad bacteria reign in the gut. This decrease in “bad bacteria” naturally benefits the body with less illness and diseases and lower rates of inflammation.
It’s important to note that there are different types of strains of probiotics. The health effects experienced by one probiotic may be completely different from the health benefits seen from another probiotic. If you want to use probiotics to help with a specific health concern, it’s vital to select the right probiotic for the right condition.
Of equal importance is that although probiotics are a naturally occurring microorganism, if you have an existing health condition it’s wise to check with your health care professional before using probiotics to treat it. With the high rates of bacteria in probiotics, if it’s used when certain illnesses exist it could actually exacerbate the problem with resulting conditions such as sepsis.
Types of Probiotics and Health Benefits
There are different types of probiotics helpful for specific health conditions. In 2005, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine or CAM launched a conference on the specific health benefits of various strains of probiotics. CAM was joined at the conference by the American Society for Microbiology to further explore this topic. The leaders found that the following could be believed about the use of probiotics:
- Treat diarrhea
- Treat and prevent urinary tract infections
- Treat and prevent female genital tract problems
- Treat IBS
- Shorten span of intestinal tract infections
- Prevent and treat eczema
So which probiotic is the best to treat which condition? Let’s explore a few now:
4 Most Common Health Problems Treated with Probiotics
The Probiotic for Anti-biotics
It’s no secret that for all their good, in needed cases antibiotics can really do a number on the digestive tract, killing off both good and bad bacteria as they work. The best probiotics to help restore these “friendly flora” in the gut are the strains S. cerevisiae boulardii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Bacillus coagulans GBI-30.
The Probiotic for Boosting Immunity
Specific probiotics that have been studied for their immune-enhancing benefits are L. casei DN-114001, L. rhamnosus GG and L. acidophilus NCFM. These are the strains to choose during the cold and flu months (or anytime of year) to give your body the added protection needed during these sickness prone times of year.
The Probiotic for Irritable Bowel Syndrome or IBS
According to experts — although they still don’t know for certain the cause of IBS from which millions of Americans, particularly women, suffer — recent studies show that certain types of probiotics can ease the pain, bloating and discomfort of IBS.
Researchers believe that the probiotic strains Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 and L. plantarum DSM9843 can lead to a decrease in the common symptoms associated with IBS.
The Probiotic for Eczema
Eczema is occurring more and more frequently over the last few decades right along with an increase in other allergic conditions. Eczema is an allergic skin reaction afflicting sufferers with itchy, red, scaly patches that can end up being quite uncomfortable.
Some in the scientific community theorize that the increase in these allergic conditions is due in part to living in an overly sanitized world. We don’t encounter bacteria as much as we used to with hand sanitizers, disinfectants and the like.
Evidence has been growing to show that the strain of probiotics L. rhamnosus HN001 and L. rhamnosus GG can help to calm the allergic reaction that causes unpleasant eczema.
All Probiotics Are Not Created Equally: Choose Wisely
If you want to go ahead and give probiotics a try to either treat a specific problem or just boost your health in general, it’s wise to know what you’re buying before you jump right on the probiotics bandwagon.
Dannon’s Activa is not the best choice for treating health conditions, and yogurt is not the sole source of probiotics. And as with all other nutrients you want to increase you intake of, the most naturally occurring sources are the best. The following list contains foods high in probiotics.
Foods with Probiotics
- Soy products that have been fermented like tempeh and miso
- Kefir from raw dairy
- Yogurts from raw dairy
- Buttermilk from raw dairy
- Cottage cheese (with live cultures)
- Kombucha tea
- Soy sauce
- Pickled ginger
- Raw milk
- Authentic sourdough bread (made with real sourdough)
There are also a number of fortified probiotics on the market, but many of these are just a waste of your money. It’s essential to not only take regular and adequate amounts of these probiotic strains (which generally fall into the 100 million to 1 billion colony forming units per serving), but it’s also important to take forms that are “live and active.” Note here that many probiotics foods say they contain “active” cultures. This is different from “live and active” cultures.
As with any food or supplement purchase you’re going to make, do your homework instead of wasting your time and money on an impulse purchase that doesn’t meet these criteria.
You can also choose to use supplements for probiotics. If you go this route be certain, as with all supplements, that you are choosing a high-quality product.
Increasing your natural intake of probiotics and prebiotics through choosing healthy, real foods is an important step in boosting your immunity and overall health. It’s also wise to use a high-quality probiotic supplement to get the optimal levels of these friendly bacteria on a daily basis.
Mayo Clinic (2009)
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