The health benefits of probiotics

nutritionist-expert Lisa Petty ROHP


Why am I suddenly reading about the benefits of probiotics?  Is this something I need?

Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria that occur naturally in your digestive tract. They’re important for helping you digest food and producing certain vitamins, including vitamin K and B vitamins. We’ve known for some time that probiotics play a crucial role in maintaining the health of the mucosal immune system, as well as producing antibodies to bacteria and viruses.

You’ll be hearing a lot more about probiotics, as researchers are investigating their role in such disparate concerns as preventing dental cavities and calming the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. Research shows that women with frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs) may decrease recurrence rates by taking a daily probiotic. Probiotics also help to protect us from cancer, possibly by suppressing the growth of bacteria that promote carcinogenesis (creation of cancer).

While you may have only recently heard of probiotics, we’ve been enjoying the health benefits of live bacterial cultures in our foods for thousands of years. The best-known probiotics are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium, found in the fermented dairy foods yogurt and kefir.  But bacterial cultures are added to create other fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchee, miso and some pickled vegetables. Today, modern food manufacturers often omit the live bacterial cultures or add chemicals and heat that can destroy bacteria, so these sources may no longer provide probiotic support. Look for the words “contains live [or active] cultures” on food packaging.

Stress, chlorinated water and antibiotics can reduce our beneficial bacteria, as well a diet that’s low in fructooligosaccharides, which are the fruit and vegetable fibres that feed the bacteria.

Although there isn’t a dietary reference intake (DRI) for probiotics, it’s a healthy idea to include them in your day. Along with fermented foods, consider probiotic supplements, especially during and immediately following a round of antibiotics.  Choose an active form of probiotic in your food, offering at least 10 billion colony-forming units, or in a supplement (an enteric-coated capsule that will protect the probiotic until it passes through the acidic stomach).  Always take probiotics with meals, unless otherwise directed.


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