"The disruption of bowel flora is extremely common," says William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly Total Health. Although no one has devised a way to formally track its incidence, he estimates that up to 85 percent of Americans may be affected.
Bloating, gas, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea are common symptoms, but an imbalance of beneficial and harmful bacteria in our gut can also predispose us to colds and flu, bacterial infections, allergies, skin rashes, gum disease, weight gain, and unhealthy levels of blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood sugar.
When probiotics are used correctly, our gut can regain balance, sometimes very quickly. In the case of constipation, says Davis, "it responds within 24 hours, dramatically, to a high-potency probiotic."
Hey, You've Got Guts!
Our gut bacteria number in the trillions and consist of many different species that work together. While it's well established that antibiotics kill off beneficial bugs as well as harmful ones (which is why diarrhea can be a side effect), our diet and lifestyle also disrupt gut microbes.
"We know that when humans turned to grain, our bowel flora changed dramatically," says Davis. Recent studies have also found that artificial sweeteners, jet lag, and shift work disturb the natural balance of gut bacteria and upset blood sugar in a way that can lead to obesity and diabetes.
The problem doesn't end there. "If you remove some noxious stimulus, like an antibiotic, or you take the grains out," says Davis, "you don't fully repopulate all the healthy species you need." In fact, he has found that when people stop eating grains, they may experience gas and bloating, and he suspects that this is because they lack healthy gut microbes. The problem can be relieved by taking high-potency probiotics.
Miso paste is naturally rich in good-for-you bacteria.Try it in our recipe for 10-Minute Chicken Soup.
How to Use Probiotics
Depending on your needs, you can support healthy gut bacteria in a variety of ways:
To correct an imbalance of gut bacteria: Take a high-potency probiotic with 30-50 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) of a variety of beneficial bacteria. Davis has found that this amount relieves symptoms, for most people, when taken for eight weeks.
Davis also recommends eating foods that contain prebiotics, special types of sugars or starches that nourish beneficial bacteria. His favorites are raw potatoes and green bananas, which are rich in certain fibers but contain virtually no starch. Davis recommends adding either one of these (in the following amounts) to a smoothie made in a high-powered blender, such as a Vitamix, Blendtec, or NutriBullet:
- ½ of a medium raw potato, peeled. Avoid potatoes with green eyes.
- ½ of an unripe banana. Green bananas can be peeled, sliced, and frozen.
If you experience bloating, reduce the amount of raw potato or green banana. Other prebiotics, found in some probiotic supplements, include fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), inulin, and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS). (For more healthy-gut tips from Davis, visit wheatbellyblog.com.)
For maintenance: Probiotic supplements come in many forms, including pills, powders, liquids, and chewable lozenges or wafers, and many are formulated for specific age groups. Some are refrigerated, and others use special delivery systems to protect cultures from harsh stomach acid so that they can reach the intestines, where they do their job. When probiotic supplements also contain prebiotics, the combination may be called "synbiotics."
You can refrigerate all probiotics, even those not requiring it-some experts maintain that keeping all probiotics in the refrigerator helps to keep them fresh longer.
Food sources: Fermented foods and beverages, including yogurt or kefir with live cultures, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso (a fermented soy bean paste), and tempeh, naturally contain probiotics. Probiotics are also added to some protein and greens powders, nutrition bars, breads, snack foods, teas, and other beverages.
A few of our favorite probiotic-infused foods: Lifeway BioKefir in Vanilla; GoodBelly Probiotic Fruit Drink in Mango; and Sunbiotics Probiotic Chocolate Bar.
Probiotic Benefits Abound
- Probiotics cut the rate of antibiotic-associated diarrhea by almost half, according to a review of 63 studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
- For constipation, one specific probiotic, Bifidobacterium lactis, was especially effective, according to a review of studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Other studies have found that probiotics:
- Reduce the incidence of colds and flu;
- Increase weight loss in conjunction with a calorie-reduced diet;
- Relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome;
- Lower cholesterol and blood pressure;
- Improve gum health (with probiotic lozenges);
- Increase the effectiveness of an antihistamine for allergies
American Health Chewable Acidophilus and Bifidum Wafers (in yummy Natural Strawberry Flavor) are great for kids and adults.
Essential Formulas Dr. Ohhira's Probiotics is one of the bestselling brands on the market; fans swear by it for everything from acne to asthma.
ReNew Life Ultimate Flora Critical Care 50 Billion is designed specifically for people with occasional constipation, gas, bloating, and/or digestive discomfort.