You don’t have to be a health fanatic to have heard about probiotics, but you might be confused about what the real benefits are.
According to an article in the journal Nutrition Research Reviews, probiotics are good bacteria that have a beneficial effect on the consumer. The article reports there are more than 500 different bacteria species that naturally live in the gut and help the body with digestion and absorbing nutrients. These naturally occurring bacteria also protect the body from invading bad bacteria.
Bring on the bacteria
Taking a probiotic supplement can help if your body is having trouble maintaining a healthy balance of bacteria.
“Probiotics deliver a mega dose of good bacteria to your system,” said Jessica Davis, a dietitian with Samaritan Albany General Hospital. “For people who are on heavy antibiotics that have killed a large amount of the bacteria in their system — good and bad — the good bacteria in the probiotics grow and take up room in the gut. Then if you’re exposed to a nasty bug, there’s nowhere for it to colonize because the space is already filled up.”
Davis, who works with patients in the hospital who are vulnerable to harmful infections, notes that those who have trouble with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), constipation, diarrhea or other gastrointestinal issues may also benefit from a probiotic.
Eating for health
Of the all the bacteria species available in the gut, the families of Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus are the best studied and most widely available through supplements and food products. High-quality fermented dairy products such as yogurt and kefir contain both of these good bacteria in beneficial amounts. Other fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha tea have some amount of probiotics, although Davis cautions that many commercially available foods are often pasteurized, killing beneficial bacteria. Pasteurized dairy products are able to still maintain the probiotics.
“Probiotic supplements in pill form are an option, but we prefer people to get their probiotics from food,” said Davis. “When you take your probiotic as a food, it also contains a prebiotic, which is the food that probiotics eat. This keeps the good bacteria alive long enough to get into your system.”
Davis recommends looking for yogurt or kefir products with the most live and active cultures you can find, such as the brands Nancy’s, Danactive or Tillamook.
Maintaining the benefits
According to research published in The BMJ, probiotics don’t permanently take up residence in your gut, so you need to consume them regularly for ongoing health benefits.
For those who enjoy good health and don’t suffer from chronic gastrointestinal problems, the benefits of probiotics may be less dramatic but no less important.
“If you’re otherwise healthy, probiotics may help to prevent a bacterial infection and regulate bowel movements,” said Davis. “And really, who couldn’t use help with that?”
For travelers, probiotics can be taken two weeks before you leave on your trip if you are not taking them already. While scientific studies are limited, it is believed probiotics help build immunity from illnesses. Continue them through your trip and two weeks after you are home.
“When you travel, you could be exposed to a variety of bacteria from food and water in an environment you may not be used to,” said Davis. “Probiotics may help you resist gastrointestinal illness or diarrhea, which are common travel ailments resulting from bad bacteria.”