Probiotics: The Good, the Bad and the Yummy
Before celebrities started pitching yogurt laced with probiotics to keep our digestive tract healthy, most of us didn’t think much about intentionally ingesting bacteria. Things have changed. Now there are probiotic yogurts, probiotic drinks and probiotic supplements. But what are probiotics? Simply put, probiotics (which means “for life”) are good bacteria that keep the gut healthy.
“There is a huge industry built around ‘my stomach doesn’t feel good,’” says Anna Toker, M.D., a board-certified colon and rectal surgeon with USMD Hospital at Arlington. Today, probiotics are big business—which may seem odd when you consider that a healthy bowel is inhabited by nearly 100 trillion microorganisms from 500 different species of bacteria!
“Every nook and cranny of the intestinal lining is naturally coated with bacteria. The challenge is to maintain a healthy balance of good bacteria and eliminate harmful bacteria,” Dr. Toker says. “Good bacteria digest food, release vitamins and help our bodies absorb nutrients that keep our immune system strong. In contrast, bad bacteria steal nutrients and create noxious byproducts.
“Good bacteria regulate our bowel habits, eliminate painful bloating and cramping and prevent infections in other organs, such as the bladder, vagina and ears. Bad bacteria contribute to malabsorption which leads to diarrhea. They promote gas production that causes bloating and cramping. And they can also promote the production of toxins that can lead to more serious problems, including possible carcinogenic changes in the bowels that can lead to colon cancer.”
So how can we keep our intestines teeming with good bacteria? Let’s start with the things you shouldn’t do. “Never, ever do a colon cleanse unless it is prep for a colonoscopy,” Dr. Toker says. “When you do a colon cleanse, you kill all the good bacteria that keeps you from getting sick.”
Be careful with antibiotics, and only take them when prescribed by your physician. Antibiotics not only kill bad germs, they also wipe out healthy ones. Artificial sweeteners kill good bacteria, too. Avoid diet drinks and foods sweetened with saccharin, aspartame and sucralose. Opt instead for natural stevia.
To ensure your gut is chock full of good bacteria, add cultured buttermilk and yogurt to your diet—but not the highly processed yogurt that is featured in so many television commercials. “You need the old-school, Bavarian-style yogurt that comes in a glass jar and tastes like sour cream,” Dr. Toker says. “I find it in the dairy section of H-E-B grocery store, but it may be available at other stores, too. If you don’t like the sour taste, sweeten it with fresh fruit and stevia.”
If you are lactose intolerant or prefer to take your bacteria in a pill form, Dr. Toker recommends taking probiotic supplements. “It’s an easy way to get good bacteria into your gut.” When patients ask Dr. Toker which over-the-counter probiotic supplements she suggests, she notes that Align—composed of Bifidobacterium Infantis, better known as Bifantis—has the most medical research behind it.
Among that research, studies are showing that the benefits of probiotics are helping people who suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Crohn’s Disease. Of course, if you are experiencing persistent diarrhea, constipation, rectal bleeding, intestinal discomfort or other symptoms, consult a board-certified colon and rectal specialist.