Probiotics: The Bugs That Are Our Friends (Part 1)

We’re a country that shuns bacteria. From antibacterial hand soap to stories in the news about contaminated food to frequent calls to the doctor asking for antibiotics, the thought of germs invading our bodies, our food, or our homes is enough to make us shudder. So it’s probably hard to imagine that there are bacteria that are really quite friendly — so friendly, in fact, that they work hard at keeping us healthy and keeping illness and disease at bay. Where are these bacteria, you ask? Right inside you. In your digestive tract, to be exact.

Some Respect, Please
I know, it sounds like something out of a horror movie, but we have about 500 different types of bacteria that live on our skin. And close to 100 trillion microorganisms living in our gut (that’s about three pounds worth!). Our large intestines are teaming with bacteria, thanks to the time it takes for digested food to travel through the intestine. But, for the most part, unless things are out of whack, the bacteria in the large intestine are truly friendly in that they protect us from the harmful bacteria, as well as help with digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune function.

Check out a container of yogurt and you may see the word “probiotics.” Probiotics means “for life.” According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”

Probiotics, or “friendly bacteria,” are actually found in many different foods and beverages, as well as in dietary supplements. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved health claims for probiotics, meaning that a manufacturer can’t claim that taking a particular strain of probiotic could treat a particular condition or disease, but more and more research is pointing towards the benefits that these friendly bugs have to offer. And you might be interested to know that the more probiotics you have in your gut, the better off you are in terms of being protected against sickness.

Bugs With a Past
Probiotics may be new to you, but they’ve been around for centuries. Sour milk, a source of probiotics, is mentioned in the Bible, and the Romans recognized the value of fermented milk to treat gastrointestinal disorders. King Francis I of France ate yogurt in the 1500’s, also to treat an illness. In the early 1900’s, Elie Metchnikoff, a Russian microbiologist and Nobel Prize winner, studied people in Bulgaria who lived to a ripe old age. Their longevity, he believed, was due to the yogurt that they ate. He named the microbe in this yogurt Lactobacillus bulgaricus.

These Bugs are “Bad”
OK, I’m using the word “bad” to mean “good.” The thought of bacteria living in your gut and hanging out in some of the foods that we eat may be a bit hard to swallow, but once you learn about all the good things they can do, you may feel differently. Here’s a rundown of the power of probiotics:

They can counteract antibiotics. Antibiotics may be overused in this country, but the reality is that they’re needed for bacterial infections, such as strep throat. While effective, these potent medicines can have some rather unpleasant side effects, including diarrhea and yeast infections in women. The problem is that they eradicate the good bacteria in your gut and reproductive tract, along with the bad. Taking probiotics along with your antibiotic can greatly lessen the chances of a secondary infection or diarrhea from cropping up as well.

They can help you digest milk and other dairy foods. If you’re one of the 50 million Americans who has lactose intolerance (the inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in milk products), you’re not alone. But a lot of foods contain milk or lactose and you may inadvertently end up ingesting lactose. Symptoms of lactose intolerance include gas, cramping, nausea, and diarrhea. The Lactobacillus strain of bacteria, found in yogurt and acidophilus milk, helps you break down the lactose, so you don’t have those uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating symptoms.

They soothe irritable bowel syndrome. I’ve written[1] about[2] irritable[3] bowel[4] syndrome[5] (IBS) before, and for those of you who deal with this, you’re not alone. IBS isn’t a disease, but it sure can be uncomfortable, with symptoms including cramping, pain, diarrhea, constipation, and bloating. IBS can be tricky to manage, but the probiotic strain Bifidobacterium infantis may help.

They bolster your immune system. Are you someone who seems to constantly catch a cold or is bedridden with the flu every year? If so, your immune system might need a little help from certain strains of probiotics that can give immune cells a helping hand to fight off invaders that can cause the flu, a cold, or respiratory infection.

I’m out of room for this week, but I’m not done yet! Probiotics provide even more benefits, so stay tuned. Also, learn which foods contain these friendly bugs. Your homework? Find a food or two in your fridge that contains probiotics!

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

Disclaimer of Medical Advice: Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information, which comes from qualified medical writers, does not constitute medical advice or recommendation of any kind, and you should not rely on any information contained in such posts or comments to replace consultations with your qualified health care professionals to meet your individual needs.