The Truth about Probiotics
Probiotics have been getting a lot of press in the past few years. The number of American's using probiotic supplements has more than tripled from 1994 to today. Some people claim that probiotics can do everything from promote healthy bowels to cure or prevent certain types of cancer. Are these claims true? And where can you find foods that contain probiotics?
What are Probiotics?
What are probiotics? Probiotics are bacteria that are naturally found in the human gut and intestinal tract. Probiotics are often called "friendly" or good bacteria. These microorganisms do a lot of good for our bodies, helping us process food, fight off infections of "bad" bacteria, and may generally maintain good digestive health.
Some people believe that we should supplement our natural probiotic organisms in order to maintain or increase our health. Naturally occurring beneficial microorganisms can be reduced or damaged in a lot of ways. The most common is the use of antibiotics to fight off harmful infections. The drugs kill bacteria indiscriminately, beneficial and harmful alike. These infections themselves can also reduce the number of friendly bacteria in the gut. Excessive alcohol use, stress and poor diet can also affect the levels of probiotics in our systems. Supplementing with probiotics found naturally in food or in man-made supplements may restore the natural balance of bacteria in the body.
Probiotics in Food
Food that contains probiotics has been around for centuries, and many cultures have created probiotic rich foods without even realizing they were doing it. In general, food that involves some sort of aging or fermentation contains probiotics. The most common sources are yogurt, aged cheese, some beers and wine, kefir, miso, kimchi, brined pickles (without vinegar), cottage cheese, sauerkraut and shoyu.
However, even if you ate a lot of these foods every day, you probably wouldn't ingest enough of a single strain of probiotic to make and measurable difference in your health. For this reason, probiotic supplements are becoming more common. Probiotic supplements come in pill, capsule and powder form. Some of them can be added to foods and others are swallowed whole.
Medical science is still uncertain about the benefits of probiotic supplements. Recent studies suggest that some forms of probiotics can have significant health benefits such as reducing diarrhea, treating lactose intolerance, relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other stomach problems, preventing urinary tract infections and possibly even reducing the risk of recurring bladder cancer. It's important to note that many of these studies focus on a particular strain or type of probiotic and their results don't apply to probiotics in general. In other words, all probiotics are not created equal. Some types will be better at treating certain conditions than others, and some may not offer any benefits at all.
If you've been thinking about taking a probiotic supplement, be sure to talk to your doctor first. While the side effects of probiotics seem to be limited, they haven't been studied extensively. Your doctor may have advice or information to help you decide if probiotics are right for you.