Zaira Ahmad, MS, RD
Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when ingested in adequate amounts, can provide health benefits to the host. More simply, a probiotic is a good bacterium that promotes and helps restore microbial balance in your body. Bacteria are commonly associated with all things unclean, but the good bacteria in your body help protect you against illnesses and aid in your digestive health!
The human gut, or gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is home to diverse microbial communities, which include over 500 types of bacteria. These communities are also referred to as GI flora. The most common group of bacteria found in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria. The relationship between you and your GI flora is symbiotic; both you and the microorganisms you host are benefiting one another. Along your gut, bacteria have a nice, warm, safe place to live and grow. In return they act as a HAZMAT regulator for your body. Normal GI flora helps prevent infections and pathogen (harmful bacteria) overgrowth. They improve intestinal function and maintain the strength of intestinal lining. Probiotics also help fight the bacteria that causes diarrhea. The GI flora plays a significant role in production of vitamin K and certain B vitamins, synthesis of amino acids, and bile transformation (a process in the metabolism of glucose and cholesterol). Probiotics also have a direct impact on immunological health.
Probiotics are available in foods and dietary supplements. The most well known bacteria of the gut are Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, making them the most widely available probiotics for consumption. You can enjoy probiotics in fermented dairy foods such as yogurt, kefir, and aged cheeses. Look for food labels that read, “contains active cultures” or “contains live cultures.” More detailed labels will even list the type and name of the probiotic. Some non-dairy foods that contain probiotics are kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, and soy beverages. However, be careful of how these foods are prepared. When live cultures are exposed to high temperatures (like baking a pizza with fermented cheeses) the bacteria you are trying to eat is killed!
Interest in probiotics is growing and more dietary supplements are emerging. Dr. Javeria Chishty, PharmD of East Windsor, New Jersey, works as a retail pharmacist. She advises, “Probiotics supplements are beneficial in some cases but, as with all dietary supplements, they are not FDA [Food and Drug Administration] approved and should be used with caution. There’s no guarantee they’ll be effective.” Dr. Chishty observes customers most often seek probiotic supplements “when they are on antibiotics, to regulate their digestive system, or to combat irregularities such as excess gas or diarrhea.”
You may be wondering, which is better: probiotics from foods or from supplements? That depends on your specific needs. If you are a healthy individual looking to maintain healthy digestive function, obtaining probiotics from food sources is always the best choice. When consumed as food, the intestines better absorb them. However, in treating specific ailments or symptoms a supplement may be more helpful and convenient. For example, if you are suffering from diarrhea, you may not want to eat large amounts of foods. Halal certified supplements such as Forever Active Probiotic by Forever Living or Probiotics by 4Life might be a better option. For better absorption, the probiotic supplements should not be taken on an empty stomach. As with any dietary supplement, herbal remedy, or vitamin, if you take probiotic supplements you should inform your physician.
Recall that your gut maintains a natural flora. If this flora is disrupted in some way, increasing the probiotics in your regular diet can help restore your good bacteria. The natural GI floral can be thrown off by the use of antibiotics and some medications, abrupt diet changes, use of laxatives, or C. difficile-associated diarrhea. For the healthy individual, there is no need to seek out excess probiotics, assuming he or she has a balanced diet that includes the foods containing them.
Dr. Umair Ahmad, MD, a family medicine physician from Columbus, Ohio, says, “When I have patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome [IBS]; symptoms associated with IBS such as gas and bloating; and viral or bacterial GI infections, I include probiotics as part of their treatment.” Dr. Ahmad continues, “I always suggest probiotics to a patient on antibiotics. It doesn’t hurt to be proactive about maintaining gut health when someone is at risk of disrupting his or her normal GI balance.”
You may have heard these words that sound like probiotics before: antibiotics and prebiotics. Both of these terms interact with probiotics in different ways.
Antibiotics are powerful prescriptive medicines that fight bacterial infections. They work to either kill or stop further growth of dangerous bacteria in your system. When it comes to antibiotics and probiotics, Dr. Chishty explains, “Antibiotics aim to kill the pathogenic bacteria causing an illness or infection, but since they don’t differentiate against bacteria they also tend to kill off the good bacteria along with the bad.” She continues, “Probiotics can help restore and regulate the natural flora.”
Prebiotics are natural, non-digestible food ingredients that promote the growth of good bacteria in your GI tract. Prebiotics can be found in bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans, and whole-wheat foods. Prebiotics and probiotics work together synergistically. Jointly they are referred to as synbiotics. You can think of prebiotics as food for probiotics. Enjoying synbiotic dishes is easy. It’s as simple as adding sliced bananas to yogurt!
Since the probiotic concept was first introduced in 1908, the scientific community has been working to define probiotics and their uses. Most research on the topic, however, has been conducted within the past decade.
Improving, restoring, and maintaining GI health is well established concerning probiotics. Additional research shows that there are immunological benefits from probiotics, including reducing eczema. Probiotics can also improve lactose malabsorption by improving digestion and reducing symptoms of lactose intolerance. The use of synbiotics has been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer.
Much of the research is applicable to infants and children, as their GI flora is relatively new and more easily manipulated. In societies with strict hygiene, infants are exposed to fewer bacteria. As a result, they are more sensitive to illnesses and allergies as adults. Introducing probiotics through formulas such as Similac Advance STEP 2 GOS w/Probiotics can influence their GI flora and build stronger immune systems. Consult your infant/child’s pediatrician before supplementing your infant/child with probiotics.
The use of probiotics is more effective when “strain specific.” This means that a bacterium may be useless if it is the correct species but not the same strain as what your GI tract needs for balance. Although all people harbor a GI flora, not all are exactly the same as one another. Further research on probiotics is necessary before establishing additional benefits, further uses, and insight on strain specificity.
Though probiotics generally pose no harm, there are some risks to individuals. For those allergic to yeast, it is important to note that some probiotic mixtures contain yeast cultures. There are potential interactions with other medications, making it necessary to mention probiotic supplement use to your doctor. There is also the possibility for an increase in antibiotic-resistance.
It is important to read labels and know what you are putting into your body. Tahira Randhawa, MPH, a resident of Burlington, New Jersey, with a Master’s in Public Health, has a strong passion for health literacy and urges consumers to read food and supplement labels. The Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) states, “It’s common knowledge that probiotics help with digestion, but what specific bacteria are you putting into your system? Read the label, find the exact names, and then do the research. You can avoid any possible risks by taking an active role in understanding labels.” Randhawa suggests interested readers visit www.pubmed.gov for information on specific probiotics noted on food labels. When purchasing at your local pharmacy, Dr. Chishty adds that, when in doubt, “using standardized supplements labeled ‘USP [United States Pharmacopeia] verified’ tend to be a safer choice.”
Maintaining a healthy, balanced diet ensures a balanced GI flora as well. Keep your body on track by including foods rich in probiotics. You can find them in a variety of foods you most likely already enjoy. Remember to read labels and look for products that include “active” or “live” cultures. Keep in mind that probiotic supplements are most useful to those who are at risk of disrupting, or already have disrupted, the good bacteria in their GI tracts. Consult your physician if you are unsure about whether a probiotic supplement is right for you.
Zaira Ahmad is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist from Somerset, New Jersey. She also has her Master’s in Nutrition & Food Science with experience in clinical dietetics, nutrition education, and nutrition counseling.