Live Right Live Well: Digestion
Probiotics: Bacteria That’s Good for You
By Stacey Colino for Live Right Live Well
With all the money spent on antibacterial soaps and cleansers, you’d think bacteria were the bane of humanity. Not so! In fact, eating beneficial bacteria, known as probiotics, may actually protect your health. Common in yogurt, kefir (a drink made with fermented milk), acidophilus milk, tempeh, aged cheeses, and some juices and soy beverages, these healthy bacteria have been found to ward off intestinal infections (such as traveler’s diarrhea and food-borne illnesses), alleviate diarrhea that stems from antibiotics or cancer treatments, prevent stomach ulcers, improve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), reduce lactose intolerance and perhaps even ease inflammatory bowel disease. And evidence is trickling in that probiotics can improve health elsewhere in the body, including the skin and mouth, as well as respiratory, urinary and genital tracts.
What to Look For
“A probiotic is defined by its genus (such as Lactobacillus), species (such as rhamnosus) and strain (often a combination of letters or numbers),” explains Dr. Sanders. Most probiotic products on the market today contain strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus reuteri, Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium. But different strains of bacteria seem to benefit different health conditions. In other words, “just because one strain is good for antibiotic-associated diarrhea doesn’t mean it’s going to be good for IBS symptoms,” says Dr. Sanders. Complicating matters further, “different people may respond differently to different strains and different dosages,” says Dr. Clemens. “It’s not like a medication; one strain doesn’t fit all.”
If you have a particular health condition, like heartburn or like irritable bowel syndrome, ask your doctor whether you might benefit from consuming particular probiotic strains. If you want to bolster your overall health -- by promoting a healthy immune system, for instance -- it can’t hurt and it just might help to consume foods containing various strains of Lactobacillus and/or Bifido bacteria. “Consuming one probiotic-containing food per day could be useful as a precautionary measure,” says Dr. Clemens.
You can also buy probiotic supplements in health-food stores; however, some experts question their purity and stability, and there isn’t a regulatory system in place that monitors these factors. “Without standardization of these kinds of supplements, what’s on the label doesn’t always match what’s inside the package,” explains Dr. Clemens. “The microorganisms [or bacteria] may not be viable or in the amounts stated.” (Two brands that are reputable, say experts, are Culturelle and BioGaia.)
When buying foods containing probiotics, it’s important to read labels. It’s not enough for packaging to read “live active cultures,” notes Dr. Sanders. The label should tell you what strain of probiotic it contains, when the product expires, what the suggested serving size is, what the health benefits are and how you should store the product to ensure that it stays fresh and viable for as long as possible. That way, you can be sure you’re getting your money’s worth and that your body is getting the beneficial bacteria you want it to.
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.
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