Probiotics: The “good” bacteria

Did you know you are an ecosystem? As humans we are naturally full of bacteria. Actually, trillions of them! Most are “good” bacteria that live in our intestines. These “good” bacteria help us to digest food. With over 500 species, these bacteria also crowd out the “bad” bacteria which cause infections.

These good bacteria are known as “probiotics” (in Greek, “pro” means “for” or “in favor of” and “biotic” means “life”). Probiotics can be found naturally in fermented dairy foods like: yogurt, kefir, and aged cheeses. Just look for “live culture” on the product label. Probiotics are also present in pickled vegetables, like sauerkraut and kim chi.

In northern Europe it is quite popular to eat probiotics for better health; there they traditionally eat yogurt and cheeses. In the U.S. interest in probiotics is growing, however the focus is more on supplements.

United States researchers are just starting to explore probiotics benefits. To this point there is evidence that probiotics may help with:

• treating diarrhea;
• digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome;
• preventing vaginal and urinary tract infections;
• boosting the immune system to help fight colds and flu.

Probiotics which are naturally found in food are generally considered safe for everyone. Probiotic supplements though the jury is still out on. Supplements focus on specific strains of bacteria. There is not enough known about which strains are best for which conditions. Also, dietary supplements are not held to the same standard of quality control and testing that prescription drugs are.

While there are no known side effects from probiotics, there is theoretical concern for those with immune system problems.  Introducing a lot of bacteria to someone on immunosuppressants, for instance, may not be the wisest idea!

Before you or a loved one takes a dose of probiotic supplements, talk with the doctor or registered dietitian.