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Probiotics: Beneficial Bacteria You Just Can't Live Without
We've all been told after a bout with the flu or a cold that we should eat our yogurt to help "balance our gut" or help put some of the "good stuff" back in our stomachs. But what exactly is that "good stuff" and what is it about yogurt that helps to "balance our gut"? Well, yogurt is only the beginning....
Unless you've been living under a rock, I'm sure you've seen all of the ads on t.v. or in magazines for yogurts and special yogurt type drinks laden with acidophilus, L. casei and/or bifidophilus that promise they'll help regulate the bowels. But what exactly are these things with tongue twisting names and why do we need our bowls regulated? Well, probiotics are actually defined as: "live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." (Microorganisms are tiny living organisms--such as bacteria, viruses, and yeasts--that can be seen only under a microscope.) Long story short, they're a few of the "good", beneficial bacteria that reside in our guts that we literally can't live without. And, although the majority of these bacteria live in our large and small intestines, they're also found in the mouth, esophagus, stomach, upper airway, skin and vagina.
Our intestines are actually host to over 395 different species of bacteria. (Truth be told, that's where scientists stopped counting. Nobody really knows how many different species of bacteria we truly host.) Aside from their well known job of aiding in digestion, they also perform a myriad of functions for us such as: preventing diarrhea in children, preventing traveler's diarrhea, reduces symptoms of lactose intolerance, stimulates and strengthens the immune system, alleviates atopic eczema, lessens symptoms of IBS, induces satiety and the list goes on and on. But remember, not all probiotic strains are the same, nor do they all perform the same function.
Just as we need to eat, so do the microorganisms. But what do probiotics eat? Prebiotics. You know, Fructooligosaccharides. Otherwise known as FOS, these are naturally occurring sugars found in a number of edible plants such as Jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, garlic, banana, onion and other foods. Such foods are what the probiotic microorganisms thrive on and where they get their strength from to perform their assigned function.
If you go looking for probiotics, keep in mind that they're normally kept in a refrigerated part of your stores cooler. Because probiotics are live strains, they need to be kept cool or above a certain temperature so that they don't die or lose their potency. I recommend purchasing your probiotics from your local health food store. There, you'll find higher quality brands and you can normally ask for help and have somebody help you choose the best probiotic supplement that best suits your needs. If you're going to do your own research, make sure you acquaint yourself with some of the strains and what they do, so if you have any special needs (like alleviating IBS; you'll want to make sure your probiotic supplement contains Bifidobacterium infantis, and perhaps some Lactobacillus plantarum.) Do your homework and make sure you know what you're buying.
At times you might also find probiotics in a non-refrigerated area, sitting on the shelf in the supplement section of your health food store. Probiotics can be sold off the shelf, but if it's going to be non-refrigerated, it needs to be an "enteric coated" product.
This simply means that the casings of the probiotics have a special coating on them so that they can remain stable on the shelf and also, so that it passes through the stomach and breaks open in the lower part of the intestines, by-passing the stomach acid that could possibly kill the live strains of microorganisms.
When taking probiotics, most brands recommend taking it on an empty stomach or before a meal. (I also, prefer to take at least one before bedtime. That way, it can run through the digestive system, undisturbed.) If you're on any long term use prescription/antibiotic medications, be sure you take the probiotics on an empty stomach and with at least an hour leeway. Why is that important? It's all in a name: ANTIbiotics= against life, PRObiotics= for life. Make sense? Basically, prescription/antibiotic meds tend to kill off and wipe out most of our intestinal microorganisms, while the mission of the probiotic is to re-colonize it. It's all better done without resistance.
Give probiotics a try. You have nothing to lose. Even if you don't feel you need probiotics, you might find yourself with an extra spring in your step, anyhow.