Probiotics are live microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and yeasts, which may confer health benefits.
We have microbes on our skin, in our gut, and in other orifices; they’re usually ‘friendly bacteria’ involved in a healthy immune system and the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients. The varieties and range in numbers vary widely. We humans harbor nearly a 100 trillion bacteria that are essential for health, just in the colon and small intestine alone. Wow! That’s a lot of bugs.
Within the bodies of most healthy people the number of bacteria are regulated without ever doing anything. But if you take antibiotics, and sometimes you need to, you can get the good guys and the unfriendly guys all out of balance. Also, if you get a big dose of the unfriendly bugs, as in food poisoning or an infection, for example, you can throw off the balance. Yet another way of getting the balance out of whack is by ‘cleansing’; a popular new idea of cleaning out the colon – something that is designed to ‘clean’ itself without any help. But generally the good belly bugs, just crowd out the bad bugs and everything stays nice and healthy.
Why do we need them? They help us digest foods and in the process we actually get nutrients. They are involved in our immune system, but it is not completely clear how that happens.
There is some early stage evidence that probiotics may have some benefits in certain medical situations; but in these situations the patients are usually in the care of a physician. Some examples are: diarrhea from rotavirus, female genital tract and urinary tract infections, irritable bowel syndrome, recurrence of bladder cancer, Clostridium difficile (a bad, bad bug), eczema in children and follow-up for colectomy (removal of part of the colon).
In addition, researchers are learning that our very clean, very sterile environment may not provide all the bacteria that would be beneficial. Part of the situation is that many foods that were traditionally prepared by some type of fermentation are now thoroughly ‘cleaned’ through pasteurization. And some of the animals are fed antibiotics to be sure that they don’t get sick; but the beneficial microbes are killed too. Milk is a great example; we feed the cows antibiotics and pasteurize the milk, but then some products like cheese, sour cream, and yogurt have bacteria added back into the process.
To further complicate the issue, each person has at least 160 different kinds of gut bacteria (study published in March 2010 in Nature – analysis from countries all over the earth) – some have more and some less of the various varieties. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found links between gut bacteria and weight and metabolism. Some types of bacteria are more effective at squeezing every last available calorie out of the food we eat, providing energy to their host, than other types of bacteria. That’s not so great, for those of us that struggle to maintain normal weight. Another connection of weight and bacteria is related to the metabolic syndrome; it may be related to bacteria-caused inflammation. The inflammation may alter the body’s sensitivity to insulin and if insulin doesn’t tell the brain ‘that’s enough – stop eating’ the vicious cycle of weight gain and diabetes gets rolling.
Before you run off to find supplements to help you lose weight by adding more bacteria to your gut, you may want to consider that fact that bacteria can actually give you energy (calories) as their ability to metabolize fiber, that your body can’t metabolize by itself. Some bacteria seem to be better at helping us lose weight and some are not at all helpful. In the history of mankind, before the plentiful food stage (which is relatively recent) that energy would be very welcome; but today we have different problems.
Just like so many newly researched issues that begin to show us possibilities, probiotics are off and running. Companies are selling all sorts of probiotics and there are some issues to be aware of:
- Although some microorganisms have a long history of safe use, there is no blanket safety for all. We’re still in the testing phase for safety; most especially with children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.
- They can cause gas, bloating and diarrhea and that can be dangerous in those with compromised health.
Yogurt is a centuries-old food that humans have safely consumed. It is likely a safe way to keep healthy bacteria in our tummies.
Some strains of active culture (probiotics) in yogurt may help with:
- Lactose intolerance
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- H. pylori infection (bad bug that can cause ulcers)
I notice that the regular Greek yogurt that I use has five live active cultures: S. thermophilus, L. gulgaricus, L. acidophilus, Bifdus and L. casei. (One cup has 23g protein; 130 calories, none from fat, and 30 % of the Daily Value of calcium. The ‘Greek yogurt’ that I use is made in California; the term Greek yogurt has to do with the type of bacteria that are used to make it and the process.) If you haven’t discovered Greek yogurt, it’s a really nice option. Just last night, I served it to guests, over Dr. Grandma’s Strawberry Shortcake Muffins and raspberries and blueberries. It’s really nice to feel good about serving a healthy dessert.
If you keep unsweetened Greek yogurt in the fridge as a staple, you can use it in many different ways. It can be used, without breaking down in recipes that call for sour cream. Try yogurt and chives on a baked potato. We sweeten it and use it on top of pancakes. It’s also really good in parfaits.
If you decide to try an active culture yogurt (probiotics), you may want to skip the sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS); consider sweetening it yourself. If you don’t care about artificial sweeteners, you’re set; there are many yogurts made with artificial sweeteners. Don’t forget as a natural sweetener option with zero-calories, erythritol (found in fruits and vegetables and fruit extracts) can sweeten your yogurt without adding calories or sending your blood sugar up. In addition, you may want to choose a fat free version of yogurt.
Much more scientific evidence and knowledge is needed about probiotics, including information about their safety and appropriate use. The scientists don’t yet know which microbes to use to formulate a cocktail that will produce a lessening of diabetes or for weight loss. For now, we need to sit tight and just eat foods that naturally contain healthy bacteria and wait for science to learn the necessary information to provide us with a safe cocktail of belly bugs. We know quite a bit about managing overweight with exercise and diet. But there’s still a world to learn about in genetics; and now, we can add the world of belly bugs.
Refreshing Cucumber Salad
Do you have more cucumbers than you can easily use? This is one way to make a quick salad and use your cool cucumbers at the same time. The yogurt offers a natural way to eat probiotics.
2 large cucumbers, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 cup non fat Greek yogurt
2 – 3 tablespoons fresh dill, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt, or a little more to taste
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Stir to combine all ingredients, until cucumbers are coated.