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Probiotics: What’s all the Buzz About?

Molly C. Braswell

Suddenly it seems probiotics has become a household word we hear touted as an active ingredient in all kinds of foods and supplements. But how many of us really understand what they are and how they work. The name itself, probiotics sounds a little like a made-up antagonist to prescription antibiotics, and in a way, that isnt far from the truth.

Probiotics, the common name for the microscopic bacteria that are slowly rising to the proverbial surface as one of medicines trendiest avenues to a healthier lifestyle, actually means for life. And they can indeed have a beneficial effect on our lives.

Even if youre not consciously including probiotics in your diet in the form of a specific food or supplement, youre likely doing it without even knowing it, when you eat raw fruits and vegetables for example. Probiotic bacteria are similar to those naturally found in the human digestive tract and play an important role in how the body works. They help us digest food, fight bad bacteria and can even help train the immune system to work better.

Probiotics change the acidic environment of the intestine creating less than desirable conditions for harmful bacteria and preventing them from multiplying.

An unhealthy diet can ruin the community of balanced bacteria in our digestive tract, adds Dr. Joseph White, Internal Medicine Specialist of the Optimum Health Wellness Center in Jackson. When you eat healthy foods that are high in fiber, the small carbohydrates contained in the fiber actually feed the friendly bacteria and help them establish themselves in your body.

Our bodies need a wide variety of bacteria to function best and remain healthy. People who have been sick or whose diets don’t include a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables should consider incorporating probiotics into their diets.

These microorganisms are available without a doctors prescription and are relatively easy to find at a pharmacy, health-food store or even the local grocery store. Eating raw fruits and vegetables is an ideal way to boost your intake of probiotics, but some other foods that are extremely rich in probiotics are yogurt, sauerkraut, miso (a traditional Japanese fermented soybean paste used to make miso soup or added as a seasoning), and kimchi (a traditional Korean dish made from fermented vegetables).

If you pick up a cabbage, youll notice a white sheen on the leaves, says Patrick Jerome, produce manager at Rainbow Whole Foods Co-Op Grocery in the Fondren Business District. That white sheen is actually probiotic bacteria that are found naturally in cabbage and many other fresh foods.

Its important to note that probiotics cannot survive an environment hotter than 100 degrees, says Jerome. If you add foods such as kimchi or miso to a dish for their probiotics, cook the main dish first and then add the probiotic ingredient
after the rest of the dish has cooled.

Probiotics are also found in the yeast of many beers and wines. Your average light beer is not going to have it, says Jerome. They intentionally filter out the yeast. But a lot of your home brews and craft beers have it. If you take a beer and hold it up, and theres an unfiltered haze at the bottomthats the yeast. You wont find probiotics in liquors because they are distilled at higher temperatures, and the active bacteria cant survive the process.

Many consumers prefer to get their probiotics in the form of a daily supplement, although the best way to add them to your diet is in food.

To maximize the benefit of the supplements, choose one that contains as many strains of probiotic bacteria as possible or one created specifically for a particular group of people, such as seniors, infants or women.

Scientists have clinically documented more than 400 strains of probiotics, and they believe thousands more exist. As beneficial as probiotics can be for your body, they may have some unpleasant side effects, although they are relatively uncommon and may be related to pre-existing conditions, such as autoimmune disorders.

When taken after antibiotic treatments by someone who did not previously have a normal level of good bacteria in the digestive system, the individual might experience intestinal discomfort or severe flatulence. As with all dietary supplements, it is best to discuss the use of probiotics with your primary care provider before adding them to your diet.

We still dont know all the ways probiotic bacteria help the body function, but we do know that when taken properly, they can help boost the bodys ability to protect itself against harmful invaders. Probiotics are also being studied for their potential to fight cancer, heart disease and kidney stones.