When we're born, our gastrointestinal tract (our gut) is clean and free of bacteria. This doesn't last long. Our gut is rapidly colonized by 300-500 different bacterial species. During infancy, these creatures optimize their ability to aid in our digestive and immune systems. We quickly form a mutually beneficial relationship with the billions of bacteria in our bodies. Unfortunately, the balance of these “good” bacteria can be disrupted by antibiotics, infections, dietary issues, and stress.
Probiotics, much like these original bacteria, are living microorganisms from food or supplements that provide health benefits when ingested in sufficient quantities. Among the most commonly used and well studied probiotic organisms are the bacteria Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, and the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii.
Less is known about prebiotics. They are non-digestible dietary carbohydrates such as bran, psyllium husk, resistant (high amylose) starch, and inulin. As they pass through our intestines, they are fermented by the bacteria already present. This encourages the growth and activity of these beneficial bacteria–which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory benefits and reduce intestinal permeability, also known as "leaky gut"
In short: Probiotics are a way to supplement your gut with additional good bacteria. Prebiotics are nutrients that help nourish the good bacteria already in your gut.
WHY SHOULD I CONSIDER TAKING PROBIOTICS?
Research suggests that probiotics may be generally beneficial. They can assist in nutrient absorption and digestion, decrease “leaky gut” syndrome, and support a health immune system.
Probiotics may also be useful for prevention and treatment of:
• allergies (food or environmental) • antibiotic-associated issues (diarrhea often results from recent antibiotic usage) • women’s issues (recurrent urogenital infection, recurrent bacterial vaginosis) • gastrointestinal issues (inflammatory and irritable bowel disease, food intolerance, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s) • eczema (atopic dermatitis)
HOW DO I TAKE PROBIOTICS?
Sometimes it's best to use a mix of different bacterial strains, sometimes specific strains are need to treat specific conditions. Manufacturers differ in their recommendations on how best to take probiotic therapy, but most agree that in order to minimize exposure to gastric acid, probiotics should be taken on an empty stomach.
General health maintenance: Consider taking 3-10 billion colony forming units (CFUs) daily
Diarrhea: Use a good mix of probiotic strains, 10 billion CFUs daily, for 10 to 14 days. To prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea, take the probiotics as soon as possible until 7 to 14 days after the antibiotic regimen.
Irritable bowel syndrome: Bifidobacterium animalis DN-173010 (found in Dannon Activia yogurt) has been shown to relieve bloating and increase stool frequency in those with constipation predominant irritable bowel.
Ulcerative collitis: Try a the combination product VSL#3, it has proven beneficial in some patients.
Recurrent urogenital infections (esp. bacterial vaginosis): L. rhamnosus GR-1 and L. reuteri RC-14 show promise for prevention and treatment.
Atopic Dermatitis: Lactobacillus Rhamnosus GG (found in Culturelle supplements) may decreased the incidence of atopic dermatitis when used during pregnancy and early life.
WHICH FOODS CONTAIN PROBIOTICS AND PREBIOTICS?
Probiotic foods: Look for "live foods". Yogurt can be a useful way of administering live probiotics for general health maintenance, but rarely carry enough of the dose necessary to effectively treat the conditions mentioned above. A variety of other fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and miso have been part of the cuisine of traditional cultures for millennia. They may contribute to overall gastrointestinal health.
Prebiotic foods: Chicory root is the champion of prebiotic foods. Other prebiotic vegetables include chard, kale, artichokes, garlic, onions, and leeks. Fruits like berries and cherries, and whole grains such as oats and barley are also rich in prebiotics.
ARE PROBIOTICS SAFE?
Probiotics are generally considered safe, even when used with other medications or supplements. Infants, children, and pregnant and nursing mothers can use probiotics. Caution is advised in people with compromised immune systems from illness or cancer treatment, or in children with rare short-gut syndrome. Finding the right mix and dosage of strains is key for optimal health.