The friendly bacteria, probiotics bolster healthy digestion through numerous supplements and dairy products.
Most of us think of bacteria as something that makes us sick. Yet the average healthy adult has 10 times more bacteria cells living within her body than actual human cells, according to the 108th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Boston. You might even be surprised to learn that not all bacteria cells are bad.
Probiotics are microorganisms known as good or friendly bacteria; the words pro and biota literally mean for life. Found in dietary supplements and certain dairy products with live enzymes, such as yogurt, probiotics are known for having a range of positive effects on the body, including supporting digestive, heart, immune and womens health. Dietary probiotics are an important part of diets in Northern Europe and Japan, and the trend toward consuming more of these friendly bacteria is on the rise in the US mostly because people are seeing such positive results from the addition of probiotics to their diets.
If you’re thinking of adding a probiotic to your dietary regimen, here are some of the ways it may support your health:
A normal, healthy bowel contains an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms representing more than 500 different species, according to The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide. Along with providing other benefits, those good bacteria may help reduce the symptoms of diarrhea (particularly when caused by antibiotics), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohns disease, lactose intolerance and ulcerative colitis. Furthermore, probiotics aid digestion, which supports nutrient absorption; the more nutrients your body is able to absorb, the healthier you will be.
Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of both men and women, claiming about 600,000 lives annually in the US alone. It’s no surprise science is constantly looking for ways to support the health of the heart, and probiotics may offer at least a partial answer. Along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, studies of probiotics suggest that the good bacteria may help support healthy cholesterol, which is a key marker in heart health.
A study presented at the American Heart Associations Scientific Sessions 2012 showed that two daily doses of a probiotic lowered key cholesterol-bearing molecules in the blood as well as bad and total cholesterol. And since healthy cholesterol supports vascular health and function, this is good news for people looking to support the health of their hearts.
While humans are constantly being bombarded with disease-causing pathogens, healthy adults will only get sick on occasion. That’s because the friendly bacteria in the gut respond to those pathogens and fight infection. As such, healthy immune function depends on maintaining a delicate balance of bacteria within the body, with enough good bacteria present to ward off disease.
Dietary probiotics may help maintain this balance. Consuming the friendly bacteria may be especially effective in people taking antibiotics, since the medication can impact immunity by offsetting this balance of good bacteria. Additionally, healthy bacteria in the gut may reduce the risk of allergies by supporting immune function. A meta-analysis of existing research published in the journal Pediatrics found that supplementing with probiotics during pregnancy and infancy reduces the risk of atopic sensitization, a condition that predisposes children to allergies later in life.
Nearly 75 percent of women have had at least one yeast infection in their lifetimes, and there is more than a 50 percent chance that a woman will develop a urinary tract infection (UTI) at some point in her life. Probiotics may help support women’s vaginal health by maintaining a healthy pH and an optimal balance of good bacteria to help suppress or fight off harmful bacteria, viruses or other microorganisms; probiotics also support urinary tract health. And if your doctor ever instructed you to eat yogurt while taking antibiotics, that’s because dietary probiotics may also be helpful in reducing the likelihood of a vaginal yeast infection while on the medication.
Remember, your body is full of bacteria, and part of staying healthy is making sure there are plenty of friendly bacteria to ward off illness and disease. In combination with a healthy lifestyle, probiotics can be an important measure to support total wellness.
5 tips for choosing probiotics
Looking to add probiotics to your diet? Try these five tips:
- Know your options. Probiotics come in a number of forms, from food sources (yogurt, certain cheeses, miso soup, kombucha tea, sauerkraut, fortified cow and soy milk) to supplemental options (capsule, powder, liquids, nutrition bars).
- Consider your lifestyle. Will you remember to take a capsule every day, or would it be easier to mix a powder into food? Do you like yogurt, or would you prefer to eat a nutrition bar?
- Target your needs. Do you have a specific health concern? Different probiotic products can offer specialized support based on your needs, whether you’re looking to support digestive health, vaginal health or another area of wellness.
- Check the potency. When selecting yogurt or other probiotic-rich foods, look for phrases like live cultures or active cultures in reference to probiotics. When choosing a supplement, look for dosages ranging from around 5 to 10 billion live cells; potency can vary. Be sure to use supplements by the expiration date for maximum potency.
- Follow the directions. Talk with your health care provider to determine the right probiotic regimen for you, and follow the packaging directions (or doctors orders) for supplemental probiotics.