As we are in the midst of the back-to-school season with the winter months ahead, now is a good time to start thinking about what we can do to keep healthy as the weather gets colder. People will start to spend more time indoors, becoming more susceptible to colds and flu. Probiotics, sometimes called friendly bacteria, might just be the vital component of a healthy lifestyle that helps ward off these ailments.
For centuries, lactic acid bacteria have been used in the preservation of food for human consumption. Indeed, fermented milk, vegetables, and meat products have historically constituted a vital component of the human diet for many throughout the world. The main objective of fermenting foods has been to preserve these precious substances which otherwise would deteriorate rapidly under ambient temperatures, long before the age of refrigeration. Yogurt is the most well known of these foods, being the result of the fermentation of milk by lactic acid bacteria.
Yogurt is one of the oldest and most popular cultured dairy products worldwide. Anecdotal health claims from regular consumption of cultured dairy products circulated for centuries without scientific proof. Then, in 1908 Russian professor Elie Metchnikoff, the Nobel Prize recipient who discovered phagocytes (white blood cells), provided scientific evidence that the probiotic microorganisms may be responsible for these health claims. Metchnikoff was enchanted by the fact that so many people in Bulgarian villages lived beyond 100 years, and he wanted to know why. The longevity of the Bulgarians, he found, could be attributed to their regular consumption of large quantities of yogurt fermented with lactic acid-producing bacteria, which inhibited pathogens and detoxified their system.
Research by many scientists has found a number ways in which probiotics can help us.
Control Digestive Problems>
Probiotics help to build up a healthy supply of good bacteria in the intestines and can be an alternative to harsh over-the-counter remedies. Constipation, diarrhea, gas, and bloating are all common problems that might be helped by taking probiotics. The use of antibiotics often causes diarrhea, since the probiotic bacteria are killed along with the pathogenic bacteria, and our digestion is disrupted as a result. Maintaining the probiotic bacteria in the gut can help ward off traveler’s diarrhea and mild cases of food- poisoning. Probiotic bacteria produce enzymes such as lactase, which helps metabolize lactose, the sugar found in milk, responsible for causing the gas, bloating and diarrhea problems many people experience from eating dairy products.
Enhances Weight Loss and Weight Maintenance Programs>
One key to maintaining ideal body weight is to make sure that your digestive system is functioning properly. Probiotics contribute to a healthy digestive system and bowel regularity, which increases energy and improves your metabolism. Probiotic bacteria also produce lipases, the digestive enzymes that help digest and eliminate fats.
Inhibit Pathogenic Bacteria>
Some probiotic bacteria produce small amounts of antibiotic-like substances that prevent harmful bacteria from growing. In addition, probiotic bacteria attach to the intestinal cell wall, and prevent pathogenic bacteria from attaching there instead. Since the pathogenic bacteria can’t stay in the gut, they pass through without causing us any harm.
Fight Yeast and Fungal Infections>
Probiotics stimulate the production of white blood cells in the body that combat candida yeast and fungal infections. Yeast and fungal infections are especially common after antibiotic therapy, and taking probiotics both during and after taking antibiotics can be very helpful in preventing these kinds of secondary infections.
Improve Immune Function>
Maintain intestinal health and enhance natural immune system response by stimulating the body’s production of NK- and T-cells.
Reduce Cholesterol in the Blood>
They aid in the digesting of fats that contribute to the levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol in the blood.
Produce B Vitamins and Folic Acid>
Probiotics increase the rate of metabolism, help maintain healthy skin and muscle tone, and enhance nervous system function. In addition, B vitamins help produce a feeling of well-being and can help alleviate stress.
Reduces Skin Problems>
Probiotics help alleviate skin problems such as acne, psoriasis, and eczema. It has been found that eczema patients have abnormally low numbers of lactobacilli in their gut, and that their symptoms were reduced with probiotic supplementation.
Help With Liver Function>
Detoxify the blood to help the liver to perform more efficiently and with less strain.
With the vast number of choices in probiotic supplements available today, it’s difficult to know which ones to take! Here are some guidelines that will help make a good choice.
Research is Key>
Ongoing scientific research is essential! It is important for consumers to look for products backed by quality scientific research. A few case studies or testimonials are not enough; manufacturers should be able to show consumers the real, peer-reviewed scientific research that stands behind their products. Nebraska Cultures, Inc., a leader in the probiotics industry for over 30 years, is one such company.
Probiotics are Alive>
A probiotic product should tell you how many live bacteria it contains per dose. If it doesn’t contain any live bacteria, or live bacteria that don’t number in the billions of CFU (Colony Forming Units, the scientific term for live bacteria that can reproduce), then that product can’t help you.
Store it Properly>
Probiotics need tender loving care. Keep them cool and dry so they will be alive when the get into your body. A good quality probiotic product should survive well at room-temperature for several weeks or a few months, but for best results and for long-term storage, most probiotics need to be kept refrigerated.
But what exactly are these so-called friendly bacteria? The word probiotic is derived from the Latin preposition pro, meaning for, and the Greek word for life, or bios. According to the World Health Organization of the United Nations, probiotics are “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” Most of the bacteria called probiotics belong to two groups of lactic-acid producing bacteria (LAB), lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacterium longum are some of the strains of probiotic bacteria that have been highly researched and are used in food and food supplements today.
Didn’t our mothers tell us that germs are bad for us? Generations of us have grown up believing that all bacteria are bad, and entire industries have been built on the eradication of bacteria from our food, water, and environment. Well, mom wasn’t entirely wrong; there are lots of pathogenic bacteria that can potentially cause us harm. But there are many species of bacteria that are not only harmless, but actually essential for maintaining our good health and possibly prolonging our lives. Unfortunately, most of us no longer get the probiotic bacteria we need in our food supply, and we do things that discourage the proliferation of the good bacteria in our bodies. We eat highly processed over-cooked foods, drink purified and sterilized water, and take lots of over-the-counter and prescription medications, all of which can have a detrimental effect on probiotic bacteria.
A major cause of the deficiency of probiotic bacteria in our bodies is the use and over-use of antibiotics. It is important to realize that antibiotics, which can be very effective in the treatment of bacterial illnesses and infections, also kill friendly bacteria. Sometimes antibiotics are prescribed if there is a suspicion of infection, and this can lead to the over-use of antibiotics. In addition, antibiotics are also added to the feed of animals raised for food, so we are often consuming antibiotics without even realizing it.
Each and every person alive naturally has trillions of bacteria in his or her intestines. In fact, there are more bacteria on and in us than there are human cells that make up our body! These bacteria fall into three groups:
1) bacteria that are definitely bad for us, called pathogenic bacteria,
2) bacteria that don’t seem to have any discernible purpose for being in us, and
3) bacteria that have been shown to have a positive or health-giving effect on us.
This third group contains the probiotic bacteria. Most of the probiotic bacteria we have live in our intestines, or gut. Pathogenic bacteria are always there too, but because they are kept in check by the probiotic bacteria, they don’t have a chance to multiply in great numbers and take over. Under favorable, healthy conditions the probiotics are present in large numbers, but in an unhealthy or diseased situation, the pathogenic organisms dominate.
Friendly bacteria do not just take up residence in the gut and do nothing in return. They perform many important functions in the body, such as helping us to digest food by producing enzymes like lactase, producing B vitamins and folic acid, and preventing the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria. They live in symbiosis with our bodies. As long as we provide the bacteria with a healthy food supply and as long as they stay healthy, these bacteria perform important services in return. It is important to know that not all these probiotic bacteria take up residence in our gut permanently. While some species may remain permanently in the gut, many species are transient bacteria, meaning that after they are ingested, they stay in us for awhile, doing the good that they do, and they either die off or pass through us. Some of these transient bacteria stay for as little as a few days, while others can persist for weeks. It depends on the particular strain and on the physiology of the individual person.
In fact, the various strains of bacteria and their numbers present in the human gut vary quite widely from person to person, and are highly individualized. It is said that the gut microbiology of an individual is almost like a fingerprint; being unique to that person in most cases. Two people living in the same household, eating the same food, and living a similar lifestyle might have very different gut microflora composition. This can help explain why one person might succumb to a mild bout of food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea while another person eating the same food or drinking the same water isn’t affected.
Dr. Khem Shahani conducting research.
Lactobacillus acidophilus, commonly called just acidophilus, was one of the first of these kinds of bacteria to be studied for its health- giving benefits. At the University of Nebraska, research on Lactobacillus acidophilus was started as early as 1925, then in 1959 Dr. Khem Shahani isolated and started studying a particular strain of L. acidophilus that was hardier and faster-growing than any of the others he had studied. It also had certain properties that Shahani found made it especially beneficial. He called this strain “DDS-1” for the Department of Dairy Science number 1 strain. Shahani has often been called the “Probiotic Pioneer,” and his research on the DDS-1 strain laid the foundation for much modern research on probiotic bacteria. Shahani also founded Nebraska Cultures, Inc., to commercially produce probiotic bacteria as raw materials to be used in functional foods and food supplements.
Retail probiotic products vary drastically. Some products might not have sufficient numbers of live bacteria in them to make them effective. Also, some products might not be well cared-for, and the number of live bacteria on the label might not be correct. It is important for consumers to look for strains of bacteria that have been researched and have a proven track record of stability and efficacy.
The bottom line? You might benefit from taking a good quality probiotic supplement! With the cold and flu season fast approaching, we’re all going to need all the help we can get to keep from getting sick. Maintaining the probiotic bacteria in your body is one way you have of helping make sure you stay healthy this year, and for many years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Shahani serves as the Director of Operations at Nebraska Cultures, Inc. He oversees all aspects of manufacturing, new product development, customer service and marketing, as well as coordinates all scientific resources and activities for the company.
Michael obtained his B.M. from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, M.A. from the University of California at Davis and D.M.A. from the University of Hartford, and worked for his father in business development for several years prior to formally joining Nebraska Cultures, Inc. full time in 1996. He is currently an Executive Committee Member of the International Probiotics Association Board of Directors.