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Would it surprise you to know that there are about 300- 500 different kinds of bacteria living in your gut right now? Would it surprise you even more to know that there are about 10 times more bacteria in your gut than your own cells?
Well—be surprised, because all that is true!  What’s even more surprising is how important to our health those bacteria are: they are absolutely vital in the normal absorption of nutrients, in maintaining the integrity of the intestinal walls and an important arm of our immune systems.


The healthy balance of bacteria in our guts also helps prevent disease-causing bacteria to get a “foothold”. Think of the gut as a “tube within a tube”.  Essentially, the insides of your gut are “outside” your body—so the bacteria the live there provide a first line of defense against disease causing bacteria and help educate the immune system regarding what is “foreign” (and needs to be removed) and what is “self”.  (When the immune system gets “mixed up” about what is self and what is foreign to it—autoimmune disease can be the result.)

What are prebiotics and probiotics?

Prebiotics are defined as un-digestible foods that can stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial species of bacteria in the small and large intestines—the gut. Prebiotics are fermented in the gut, and these fermentation products (which, yes, can produce gas) can help feed the healthy bacteria.

Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin are examples of prebiotics. Prebiotics are found naturally in most high fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables, vegetable greens and legumes such as beans and lentils. The bacteria in the gut take these prebiotics, ferment them and feed off the prebiotics in order to sustain their own healthy populations—and in that way, help sustain our health.

Probiotics, on the other hand, are mixtures of bacteria and yeasts that our guts need to maintain health—these include species of Lactobacillus (L. acidophilus, L. rhamnosus, L. bulgaricus, L. reuteri, L. casei), species of Bifidobacterium and Saccharomyces boulardii, a yeast that does not cause disease. When we are born, there are no bacteria in the gut—breastfeeding is the way the gut is “colonized” naturally—this is one of the biggest advantages of breastfeeding.

One of the best food sources of these types of bacteria is yogurt with active cultures. Probiotics are used to treat a variety of intestinal disorders such as antibiotic-induced and infectious diarrhea, irritable bowel syndromes, skin disorders and allergic disorders.

Can probiotics treat any disorders?

Some of the most research has been done in the area of using probiotics to treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Most studies have used Lactobacillus GG, L plantarum, L acidophilus and L casei, and most studies have shown improvement in symptoms such as bloating, excess gas, and constipation.

Positive results in treating chronic and acutediarrhea have been obtained as well. Many physicians are beginning to recommend that anytime anyone is on a course of antibiotics, they take probiotics as well, generally within 3 days of starting antibiotic treatment.

 

Many physicians also recommend probiotics for the treatment of eczema, particularly in babies. In this area, there is quite a bit of controversy as to which strains, or combination of strains may be the best—this is because there have been conflicting results in some of the studies. The frequency of food sensitivities also seems to decrease with the use of probiotics in children.  The use of specific probiotics was helpful in cases of ulcerative colitis as well.

Taking probiotic supplements may be very reasonable if you are taking antibiotics, have IBS or generalized abdominal discomfort or have food sensitivities. Eating a diet high in vegetable and fruit fiber along with a daily serving of yogurt should supply you with the healthy bacteria and prebiotics that you need.  For women—this is also a good solution to reduce the number of vaginal infections. 

If you have been taking antibiotics or have an intestinal disorder, talk to your physician about using probiotics and prebiotics as a supplement. There are no known contraindications and very few adverse effects with taking probiotics—these adverse effects were mainly gas and mild abdominal discomfort.

 

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