Probiotics Primer

—by Ellen Sushak, HPC member and Registered Dietitian

You’ve been hearing a lot lately about probiotics, and you’ll hear much more in months ahead. If you’re curious to know what I’m talking about with that “probiotics” word, then read on for some up-to-date information that could improve your overall health!

According to the American Dietetic Association (ADA), “Probiotics are live bacteria that may promote health by improving the balance of good bacteria in the intestine.” Think of foods such as blue cheese, yogurt, kefir, kimchee and (natural, non-canned) sauerkraut. Eating these foods puts living organisms into your gut with the potential to alter the kinds and numbers of flora within your body! A Japanese microbiologist discovered that a daily helping of yogurt reduced halitosis (bad breath caused by germs) in 80% of volunteers.

Yogurt has always contained “active cultures.” Just like cheese, yogurt is made by organisms that transform plain milk into a special product. Usually, both cheeses and yogurts contain a mixture of many strains of organisms. Eating yogurt can not only improve your breath, it can help maintain your immune system and literally help you digest your food more fully. Truth is, you need to replenish the supply often, especially if you’ve recently had treatment with antibiotics. Antibiotics can — and usually do — kill off beneficial organisms as they destroy the unhealthy ones.

When choosing a probiotic food such as yogurt, look for a label stating it contains “active cultures.” Select one that has multiple different strains and includes Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus. As with any natural ecosystem, diversity enriches the outcomes. Hampden Park Co-op has many varieties of cheeses, yogurts, kefirs, and kim chee to choose from. Also, watch for Nancy’s cottage cheese with active cultures. Plan it into some summer meals and snacks combined with fresh fruit. It will supply benefits beyond good taste and texture.

Of course, people have been eating probiotic foods for ages, but it has recently become trendy, too. You’ll see a new yogurt in the big box groceries that promotes itself as “helping maintain regularity.” Many people are trying it these days, if my clients in the clinic are a representative cross-section. This new product joins a growing list of “functional foods” to be found in the grocery store, foods that support health in some way beyond basic nutrition. (Other functional foods include calcium-enriched orange juice, enriched grain products, and fiber-added cereals.)

But let’s get back to the probiotics — ”natural” kinds of foods that add certain strains of organisms to the gut. Fascinating research has recently been published about intestinal flora. (That’s a proper term for organisms living in your gut!) It seems that everybody’s internal ecology is a bit different. Here are some data to get your attention: On average, a typical person’s stomach is host to about 128 different types of bacteria. Moreover, the types vary a lot from person to person. Amazing that these little bits of life survive in such an environment! In addition, another recent study identified 395 species of microbes living in human colons. Here, they provide beneficial and detrimental effects, too.

Researchers are thinking that some of these colonic microbes play a role in irritable bowel syndromes, especially Crohn’s disease. That theory fits well with the fact that certain types of ulcers are the result of Heliobactor pylori, bacteria that live in the strongly acidic environment of the stomach. Getting more fascinating all the time, this research is now examining the bacterial communities living in the mouth, on the tongue, and so on.

As the strains of organisms in the gastrointestinal tract vary from person to person, they also vary within one person. The living organisms change depending on what has recently been eaten. What you ingest affects your intestinal flora in at least two ways. First, new organisms arrive with the food you eat. Some may die; some may ride through; and some may live on inside you. Secondly, colonies of organisms thrive or die depending on the supply of nutritional support they derive from your diet.

Certain foods help supply needed nutrition for beneficial gut bacteria to thrive. Technically, these foods are called “prebiotics,” defined by the ADA as “nondigestible food substances that may stimulate the growth and activity of health-promoting, or good bacteria in the intestine.” In the intestine, they provide nourishment to certain kinds of gut bacteria already established there. Bacteria digest and use the “indigestible components” that we can’t. So, they flourish and multiply when given the right organic materials, and the byproducts are beneficial to us as well.

One example of a familiar prebiotic is the fructooligosaccharides found in shallots. Fructooligosaccharides (FOS) are naturally occurring polymers of fructose. As undigested parts of shallots pass through to the colon, bacteria “eat” the FOS and make byproducts that benefit us in some way. Eating shallots — and garlic and onions — is linked to lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, and better gastrointestinal function. Researchers connect these benefits to gut bacteria. Chicory, a coffee substitute, is another example of a prebiotic. It supplies nourishment for bifidobacteria in the colon.

One note of caution: Some people should avoid probiotics — the foods containing living organisms — or use them only with specific directions from their primary care physician. Those with a compromised immune system — for example, anyone taking chemotherapy, or anyone with HIV/AIDS — will want to talk with their doctors before consuming probiotics.

Finally, as a dietitian, I recommend real food as a source of prebiotics and probiotics, rather than dietary supplements, which may not contain the advertised strains or may contain harmful bacteria. Besides, food tastes good and satisfies in countless ways that a pill cannot.

Happy, healthy eating!!