Probiotics, a.k.a. gut flora, are those amazing bacteria that live in our intestines and provide great health to us. These good bacteria are mostly strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria, and Acidophilus. They support our immune system, about 80% of which is located in the digestive tract. They kill harmful bacteria and crowd them out so they cannot stay. They help increase antibodies and T cells, produce proteins to protect the mucosal lining of the intestines, and synthesize vitamins such as folic acid, thiamin and vitamin K.
Prebiotics are foods that help our probiotics thrive and grow.
About 70 million Americans suffer from digestive problems, and probiotics can improve these: Irritable bowel (IBS), Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, peptic ulcers, parasitic infections, malabsorption of foods, lactose intolerance, traveler’s diarrhea, food allergies. Yeast infections, environmental respiratory allergies, eczema, autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and even obesity can be eased with probiotics.
As emerging newborns, we swallow natural bacteria from our mother’s birth canal, and this begins our own storehouse of good flora. (C-section babies naturally absorb some flora from our environment.) However for the past few generations, due to processed food and modern medicines, we don’t get to inherit so many good flora.
Antibiotics, steroids, hormones, antacids, and anti-inflammatories like ibuprofen kill off our good bacteria. Processed food does them more harm than good (increasing yeast fungi, among other harms).
Raw vegetables and fermented foods help, but most of us don’t indulge in such things.
Our increasing digestive ailments, food sensitivities, allergies, poor immune systems, and autoimmune diseases are telling us our intestines need rebalancing. Probiotics are vital to this process.
Probiotic foods, containing mostly Lactobacillus but sometimes other strains, may include:
Kefir (fermented milk – which kept Marco Polo’s men healthy, centuries ago)
Sauerkraut (uncooked, not canned, not heated)
Miso sauce (not hot – heat kills probiotics)
Kimchi (Korean cabbage, like sauerkraut)
When purchasing any of the above prepared foods, check that the label says “live cultures” to make sure you truly are getting live probiotics. If you make homemade yogurt and/or sauerkraut, you’ll know you have live cultures.
Prebiotics are fiber foods that help probiotics flourish. So eat plenty of these too. In general raw vegetables are considered prebiotics, but the following offer the most benefit.
The prebiotic ‘inulin’ is found in onions, garlic, bananas, oats, and chicory.
Strong prebiotics are also found in raw dandelion greens, raw chicory root, raw Jerusalem artichoke, raw asparagus, raw leeks and raw wheat bran. Also beans, legumes, barley, flaxseed, whole wheat flour, and artichokes.
If you have serious health concerns (listed above in our opening comments), or just want to advance your health and strengthen your immune system, add probiotic supplements to your plan. In fact you might consider spending a few years taking high-dose probiotics to fully restore your flora.
Probiotic supplements – how to choose:
– Read the label to make sure the pill is encapsulated or has a coating to help the probiotic survive stomach acid until it gets deeper into the intestines and colon. Check the expiration date and see if the product needs refrigeration. Some do, some don’t. (They do work, either way.) Follow the label instructions on taking the dose before or after eating.
– Look at the number of CFUs, or colony forming units, per dose. Try for a dose of 5 to 10 billion, even 50 billion per day. Some sources recommend up to 200 billion spaced out through the day, depending on your health or illness situation.
– A good Probiotic contains several strains of bacteria including varieties of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. It is a bonus if they also contain prebiotics like inulin, oligofructose, lactulose, or certain saccharides (FOS, GOS, XOS). (Although there is debate about whether they can contain enough prebiotic: 2-3 Gm per day. The word is, you still need plenty of raw veggies, beans, onions, garlic, hooray!)
Important: Heat destroys probiotics, so do not drink hot beverages or soups for about an hour after taking probiotic foods or supplements.
If you’re taking an antibiotic, take probiotics at the opposite time of day (not in the same gulp with the antibiotic pill); and continue high-dose probiotics for two weeks after your antibiotic is finished. Also to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, start your probiotics two weeks before your trip and continue two weeks after your trip.
Also important: for most of us, there is no danger of overdosing on probiotics. High dose side effects may include bloating, abdominal cramps, and loose stools, but there is no real danger. If any of those things happen, simply lower the dosage.
However exercise great caution and consult your doctor before using probiotics with premature babies, organ transplant patients, HIV and other immuno-compromised people, or if taking chemotherapy or immuno-suppressants.
For most of the population, probiotics are a huge blessing on the road to better health. Researchers are now exploring their benefit in cancer prevention and treatment, heart health, blood pressure, longevity and mental health.