The human body consists of about ten trillion cells, but did you know that it contains one hundred trillion microbes? These good bacteria, primarily found in our digestive tract, weigh close to three pounds1. Up until recently, we haven’t really appreciated the role these bacteria play in our health. These healthy gut bacteria compete for digestive tract real estate with potentially harmful microbes that can cause a variety of illnesses from intestinal diseases to colds and flus. Probiotics also produce antimicrobial compounds that destroy harmful microbes in the digestive tract. And they help the immune system function properly (in a variety of complicated ways that would overwhelm anyone who doesn’t have a firm grasp on immunology–suffice it to say that probiotics help multiple aspects of the immune system from T cells to antibody producing B cells). Promising research has found that a diet rich in probiotic containing foods, or supplements, can help you avoid colds and flus by increasing your white blood cell count. If you do get sick, you’re symptoms will short lived. A probiotic-rich diet may also improve digestive function, prevent and treat Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), treat traveler’s diarrhea, reduce allergies, help with asthma and eczema, treat yeast infections, protect against colorectal cancer, prevent cardiovascular disease (by controlling inflammation), prevent colic in infants (when a breastfeeding mom consumes them or the formula is supplemented with it), and even help with bad breath1.
Does this all sound too good to be true? Well, it gets even better. Probiotics have a great safety record. You can consume them in large quantities without any adverse affects, except maybe a little gas. So even if the research isn’t entirely conclusive yet, it doesn’t hurt to make dietary changes, or even start supplementing, now. Food sources of probiotics include yogurt, cheese (not mozzarella), kefir (fermented milk drink), kimchi (Korean condiment), and miso (fermented soybeans, grain and salt). You can also take a supplement. For maintenance of general health, choose one with a dose of at least 3 to 5 billion CFU (colony-forming units). Up to 30 billion CFU can be taking for those trying to treat a health condition. It’s best to choose a supplement that provides a variety of probiotics, particularly Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium groups. Try to purchase supplements that are refrigerated (probiotics can survive out of the fridge at no more than room temp for 1-2 weeks). Brands recommended by Gary Huffbagle, Ph.D., include Culturelle, Florastor, Jarrow-dophilus (the brand currently in my fridge), Fem-dophilus, Theralac, and VSL #3. You can also try a probiotic shot from Activa or DanActive. Supplement capsules can be opened and the powder put straight in your mouth. Probiotics don’t taste bad and this delivers healthy bacteria to your mouth (to help with bad breath), to your throat and sinuses (to help fend off colds and flus), and to your entire digestive tract. You can also give probiotics to children by sprinkling them into their food. My 2 year old son thinks that probiotics are a special topping to be added to his yogurt. To get the most out of your supplement, drink plenty of water with it (to help rehydrate the bacteria), consume it with calcium (which help probiotics adhere to the intestinal wall), and consider consuming foods that help support your friendly bacteria. These foods are called prebiotics, and include fiber (especially soluble fiber, found in oats, barley, fruits, vegetables, and legumes), phenols (antioxidants found in beans, peas, lentils, herbs, spices, fruit with skin, berries, tea, red wine, dark beer, dark chocolate, and coffee), and milk proteins. Avoid foods that support unhealthy bacteria, such as refined white flour products and sugar.
I want to end with the reason why I started to really believe in the power of probiotics. One of my favorite foods is Greek yogurt. It’s thick, creamy, and tart and I love topping it with honey and nuts. A neighbor lent me a book with a recipe for how to make your own yogurt and we started trying it, using Greek yogurt as a starter. It is to die for! You can control the thickness and tartness based on how you culture it, and it’s a lot easier to make than you might think. The fall and winter that we started making our own yogurt weekly, no one in my family (not even my infant son) got sick until February. Then we only caught one cold. And this was in a sleep-deprived family with a baby. I have always gotten sick fairly easily in cold and flu season, but that year was one of my healthiest. And what a way to stay healthy–by eating something as delicious is yogurt!
1. Huffnagle, Gary. The Probiotics Revolution. Bantam Bell: New York, 2007.