April 9, 2008

Catching the Beneficial “Bug”: Pros and Cons of Probiotics

By Carolyn Reiner, Dietetic Intern, Bay Pines Health Care System
Pinellas County Extension, Families & Consumers

You may have heard advertisements for products that "help strengthen the body's defenses," "help naturally regulate your digestive system" or "help kids stay healthy." You may have also heard that "live and active cultures" in yogurt are helpful. What you might not know is that these live and active cultures contain helpful bacteria called probiotics- active cultures that help your digestive system. From yogurt to smoothies to cereal, products that contain probiotics are becoming very popular at the local grocery store.

Probiotics are “good” bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of microorganisms in the digestive tract. Our digestive tracts already contain about 400 types of bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful microorganisms and promote a healthy digestive system. Probiotics microorganisms have been around for years, but recent research suggesting they fight digestive disorders and help boost our immune system have got health conscious consumers going crazy for these beneficial little “bugs”. But are probiotics as effective as producers claim? And are they worth the money? While much more scientific knowledge is needed, including safety and appropriate use, current research supplies some promising leads.

Potential benefits of Probiotics: The main reason most people use probiotics is to prevent diarrhea caused by antibiotics which kill beneficial bacteria along with the bacteria that cause illness. A decrease in beneficial bacteria may lead to diarrhea. It may also lead to other infections, such as yeast and urinary tract infections.

Studies suggest that probiotics may help:
  • Reduce diarrhea and bloating from lactose intolerance and other causes.

  • Prevent relapse in diarrhea associated with antibiotic use.

  • Prevent infections in the digestive tract (e.g., Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that causes most ulcers and many types of chronic stomach inflammation).

  • Control immune response (inflammation), as in inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease).

Should you take Probiotics? You don't need probiotics to be healthy. However, a probiotic food product or supplement may assist with digestion or help protect against some harmful bacteria. If you want to give them a try, it’s better to get your probiotics from foods rather than supplements, which aren’t closely regulated and don’t always deliver what they promise.

yogurt food productsYogurt is a particularly good source of probiotics. Some popular probiotic yogurt products include Activia™, DanActive™, and Danimals Xtreme™; Silk Live!® soy yogurt; and Stonyfield Farms® yogurts. When buying, look for the words “live and active cultures” and check the expiration date to ensure it is fresh: the longer a probiotic-containing product sits on shelves, the more beneficial bacteria die.

While probiotics won’t help everyone, studies suggest that even healthy people may benefit from regular consumption. Probiotics are safe because they are already part of the normal digestive system and may be used everyday.

For more information on probiotics check out this website:

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