Probiotics are a hot topic in the world of health and nutrition—but what are they, and what do they do?
“Basically, probiotics are live microorganisms—bacteria or yeasts—that exert beneficial effects on our health,” says Susan Bowerman, MD, RD, co-director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA. “Probiotics are believed to affect human health in many ways, including supporting gastrointestinal health, skin health, and immune function. In addition, certain probiotics are able to synthesize vitamins, most notably, vitamin K.”
We usually think of bacteria as harmful, but, in the case of the “good” bacteria that are probiotics, they can help your body function properly by helping to maintain the correct balance among the many living microorganisms in your gastrointestinal tract.
Many benefits Thus far, the majority of clinical studies done on probiotics have focused on the effects they have on the intestines—the lower section of the digestive system.
“Although more research is needed, there’s encouraging evidence that probiotics may help in the treatment of diarrhea, especially if the diarrhea occurs after an individual has been undergoing antibiotic therapy,” says Bowerman. “Probiotics also may be beneficial in treating irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease.”
Probiotics may aid in the prevention and treatment of vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections in women and of eczema in children. Bowerman adds that they also may help to reduce the severity of colds and flu due to their action in supporting immune function, and they may inhibit the growth of H. pylori bacteria in the stomach, which is the microbe that causes stomach ulcers.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
- Probiotic strains commonly used in in Msupplements and foods in the U.S. include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. There are many types of bacteria within each of these two broad strains, and health benefits associated with one type may not hold true for others.
- Refrigeration may help keep the beneficial bacteria in probiotics alive.
- Check the number of bacteria a probiotic food or supplement contains, typically expressed as colony forming units, or CFU—look for five to 10 billion per serving. To get the “live and active
cultures” label, yogurt must have 10 million living microorganisms per gram.
Sources of probiotics Fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, buttermilk, and kefir, are the foods that most people associate with natural probiotics. However, during the fermentation process of many foods, beneficial bacteria can multiply.
“Pickles and pickled vegetables, such as sauerkraut, supply probiotics, as do fermented soy products such as miso (fermented bean paste) and tempeh (fermented tofu),” notes Bowerman. “And kombucha beverages, which are becoming popular, also contain probiotics; they are made from lightly sweetened teas or fruit juices that are fermented with a combination of bacteria and yeast.”
Some products, such as yogurt, dairy drinks, and soy milks, have probiotics added to them; look for labels that include the term “live and active cultures.”
“As interest grows in the benefits of probiotics, I expect we will see more foods with these live, beneficial microorganisms added,” says Bowerman.
In addition, probiotics are available as dietary supplements, including capsules, tablets, and powders. They can be found in health food stores, and many pharmacies and supermarkets now carry them, too.
More details There are many different strains of probiotics, and they may work differently on different people. Probiotics can be taken daily or as needed for symptoms. Be sure to consult your doctor before you start taking probiotics to discuss potential interactions with other supplements or medications.
Generally, probiotics are well tolerated, and there are no known safety concerns, although some people report abdominal bloating during the first few weeks of taking them.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any health claims for probiotics. Depending on a probiotic product’s intended use, the FDA may regulate it as a dietary supplement, a food ingredient, or a drug.
“We are likely to see much more information on probiotics in the future. There is a significant amount of research currently being done on the many effects that probiotics have on the ‘microbiome,’ a term used collectively for all of the microorganisms living on and within the body,” says Bowerman.
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