All humans have millions and millions of naturally occurring bacteria in their bodies. Normally, bacteria get a bad rap, but the right types of bacteria, specifically lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, can keep you healthy and even prevent disease. More specifically, these bacteria support the immune system, keeping it strong and better able to fend off disease and illness. Other benefits include:
Anti-inflammatory effects in the gut that can be helpful in treating constipation, diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease, and irritable bowel syndrome
Facilitation of nutrient absorption as food passes through the digestive tract
Assistance in preventing invasion of pathogens and eradicating those that sneak into the body
A reduction in the risk of developing allergies
Possible reduction in the risk of colon cancer, infection with the Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that causes most ulcers and many types of chronic stomach cancers, and urinary tract infections
Ideally, your bowels contain about 85 percent “good” bacteria and only about 15 percent “bad” bacteria, but modern life has thrown off this balance for many Americans. The processed food supply and overuse of antibiotics has reduced the colonies of good bacteria in the gut, but thankfully there is a solution.
Ways to Keep Your Gut Happy
You can help good bacteria flourish by consuming foods that contain high concentrations of healthy probiotics (“for life”) such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. Fermented milk products such as yogurt, kefir, and some soy-based beverages will increase the probiotic bacteria within your body. Look on the label for the statement “live and active cultures” to ensure that you are increasing your consumption of probiotics.
You can also search for the National Yogurt Association's seal, which identifies products that contain a minimum of 100 million live lactic acid bacteria per gram of yogurt. This is important to look for since not all brands of yogurt contain live, active cultures.
Miso, a Japanese condiment consisting of fermented soybean paste, can also augment beneficial bacteria, but keep in mind that miso is also high in sodium. Another option is to increase your intake of prebiotics. Prebiotics are the nondigestible nutrients, primarily soluble fibers, that are used as an energy source by the bacteria (probiotics) that live in your intestines.
Food products such as whole grains, onions, bananas, garlic, artichokes, flaxseeds, and a variety of fortified foods, beverages, and dietary supplements naturally contain prebiotics. These foods can be fermented by bacteria in your intestines, which allows good bacteria to prosper. Implementing these dietary interventions will not only keep your digestive tract happy, but will affect all of your bodily systems in a positive manner.
Probiotics in a Pill?
The jury is still out on the potential benefits of dried probiotics administered via powders, capsules, or tablets. First, supplemental probiotics must contain significant levels of live bacteria to be useful, but standardized dosage levels that provide health benefits have not been identified. Second, there are numerous strains of probiotics, and helpful strains of “good” bacteria are still being identified.
Finally, probiotic supplements must survive the high acid levels of the stomach and exposure to other digestive enzymes, which can lead to destruction of the probiotics found in pill form. On the other hand, foods such as yogurt can help buffer stomach acids, increasing the chance that the “good” bacteria will survive.