House CallJune/July 2009 Issue

Probiotics and Prebiotics

When it comes to optimum digestive wellness, the latest buzz is bugs. Probiotics, those friendly microscopic organisms that live in your gut, are enjoying growing popularity with health-conscious consumers.
The recognition is well deserved. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that aid in digestion and also play an active role in maintaining a vibrant immune system. This is important news for people on special diets whose natural immunity may be impaired. 

Probiotics and Prebiotics

Much of our immune system, about 70 percent, centers in the gut. This is where our body comes in contact with infectious agents, like pathogenic bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi, from the foods we ingest. It’s also where we process various food allergens. Probiotics help keep the pathogens in check. They promote a healthy intestinal tract, helping to fight illness and even lowering sensitivity to allergens.

Experts estimate that we each can carry up to six pounds of probiotics in our intestines. There are at least 400 different species of these tiny organisms; the most common are lactobacillus acidophilus and acidophilus bifidus.

Primary dietary sources of probiotics are fermented foods like yogurt (with live, active cultures), sauerkraut, miso (fermented soy paste), kefir (a yogurt-like dairy drink) and buttermilk.

In addition, there are many probiotic supplements on the market. Generally, there’s no toxicity to these supplements if taken according to instructions. Some people may initially develop an increase in intestinal gas but the effect is usually transient. Read labels carefully as some supplements may contain dairy or gluten.

An excellent, cost-effective source of probiotics is homemade yogurt. The longer yogurt ferments, the more beneficial bacteria it contains. Most homemade yogurts ferment for at least 24 hours, making them a better choice than many commercial yogurts, which normally ferment for six to ten hours.

One way to boost the benefit of probiotics is to include prebiotics in your diet. Prebiotics (a fancy word for dietary fibers, the indigestible component in plant foods) promote probiotic colonization.

According to The Journal of Nutrition, Americans get 70 percent of their prebiotic intake from eating wheat products, with 24 percent from ingesting onions and 2 percent each from bananas and garlic.

Other prebiotic-rich foods include berries, chicory, Jerusalem artichokes, dark leafy greens, soybeans, flax seeds, brown rice, whole grains, lentils and beans. If you’re wheat-free or gluten-free, be sure to include these prebiotic-rich foods in your diet on a regular basis.

Research suggests that ingesting prebiotics can help reduce cholesterol, decrease risk of colon cancer, enhance immune function, reduce diarrhea and relieve constipation. Two forms of prebiotic fiber commonly found in yogurts and supplements are inulin and fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS).

Although there are thousands of research articles on the interactions between various strains of probiotics and the immune system, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the complex relationship our bodies enjoy with these bacteria. New studies suggest that probiotics can inhibit some cancers and postpone development of certain allergies.

Overall, food-allergic people and those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity would do well to regularly include prebiotic and probiotic foods in their diets. Doing so will provide healthy rewards, particularly to the immune and digestive systems. LW

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