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Commonly known as "friendly bacteria," probiotics have literally exploded in popularity in recent years. Media outlets from Oprah Winfrey to The New York Times have examined their health benefits. We've heard all the hype. But the question remains: How can we get the best that these tiny organisms have to offer? Better Nutrition asked David Holland, MD, an integrative physician in El Paso, Texas. Dr. Holland is board certified in family medicine and a diplomate of the American Board of Functional Medicine, a discipline that addresses the underlying causes of disease and includes nutritional therapy.
BN:Who needs probiotics?
Dr. Holland: Everyone who has taken antibiotics at any time-even if was only when they were infants or children-has experienced disturbed intestinal balance and will benefit by taking probiotics. Antibiotics kill helpful bacteria as well as harmful ones, and the negative effects can linger indefinitely unless they're corrected. And the longer you use antibiotics, the greater the damage to intestinal bacteria and the higher the risk of side effects.
Intestinal symptoms such as indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, constipation, and cramps are so common today that many people may not realize that they stem from an imbalance of gut organisms. Some of my patients have also had skin problems such as acne, eczema, or psoriasis, which are an external reflection of the internal condition of their intestines and overall health. Very often, such problems can reverse after the patient follows a probiotic supplement regimen. Time and again,
for instance, I have seen this happen in children with eczema.
Probiotic supplementation can lead to a 44-percent decrease in antibiotic-associated diarrhea and 71-percent less risk of what is often a life-threatening intestinal infection, Clostridium difficile (C. difficile), which may be a serious side effect of broad-spectrum antibiotics. In addition, high-quality probiotic supplements can be used to help protect patients suffering from severe, advanced liver disease from a fatal condition called hepatic encephalopathy
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BN:How do they work?
Dr. Holland: Our bodies contain somewhere around 27 feet of intestines. In order to maintain a healthy immune system, it's vital to keep our intestinal tract healthy because that's where 70 percent of our immune cells are.
Probiotics populate throughout our intestines, where they aid in the digestive process, manufacture some B vitamins that help our energy levels, and produce several beneficial byproducts. These include organic acids, which assist in normal bowel movement and function, and hydrogen peroxide, which helps control harmful intestinal yeast and reduce the number of disease-causing bacteria in our bodies. Probiotics also make us less susceptible to everyday colds and flu, as well as dangerous bugs such as E. coli and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). Without sufficient probiotics, our natural defenses are weakened.
BN:What steps can we take to increase the amount of beneficial bacteria in our bodies?
Dr. Holland: Don't run to the doctor to "nip your sniffles in the bud" with an antibiotic. Chances are, your problem isn't bacteria to begin with, and every time you consume an antibiotic, you're depleting your natural probiotic defenses. Chlorinated water can also be harmful, so I definitely recommend drinking filtered or spring water. Minimize the amount of grains and all forms of corn in your diet, because these are frequently contaminated with low levels of immune-suppressing, fungal byproducts called mycotoxins. Oats and brown rice are the least likely to be contaminated. And limit your sugar intake, because it feeds intestinal yeast.
Washing your hands reduces contact with bacteria. Regular exercise and adequate sleep support your immune system. And a daily cup of yogurt that contains live probiotic cultures can help you maintain levels of healthy bacteria. But to repair depletion caused by antibiotic use, you need the higher,
therapeutic amounts of bacteria that are found in probiotic supplements.
Is yeast comprising your health? "A majority of my patients have elevated levels of candida yeast in their blood," says Stefan Bajon, ND, RPh. "Candida develops rhizoids (plant like roots) that penetrate and attach themselves to the inside of the intestinal wall. Intestinal damage allows toxic material to seep into the bloodstream leading to autoimmune diseases such as arthritis. Anti-fungal probiotics kill yeast and restore intestinal integrity," he says. Bajon highly recommends Syntol Candida cleanse and a diet low in sugar and carbohydrates. Dr. Stefan Bajon is a nutritionist, pharmacist, and naturopath.
Arthur Andrew Medical Syntol features a blend
of probiotics, prebiotics,
and enzymes, all designed
to gently yet effectively
rid the body of yeast.
BN:What else should we know about probiotic supplements?
Dr. Holland: The degree of benefit that you'll receive depends very heavily on the quality of the probiotic supplement. Make certain that your product guarantees a minimum number of live bacteria per capsule (expressed as "colony forming units," or CFU) all the way through the expiration date on the bottle, not simply "at the time of manufacture."
Probiotics come in several different strains, and these strains can provide different benefits. The major ones for intestinal health are Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Lactobacillus bulgaricus. It's really best to take all three of them together, but if you only take one, Bifidobacterium bifidum is the best choice because it should be the most populous bacteria in our intestines.
Capsules are generally best form to take because they break down in the large intestine, where you really need the most beneficial bacteria. But if you have indigestion or heartburn, a chewable tablet probiotic with meals is best. And if you're suffering from severe diarrhea, take a powdered form, because a capsule may not be able break down in time to be of benefit in the intestines.
Probiotics are safe for adults, pregnant women, and children of all ages. For those who are too young to swallow capsules, powdered forms can be mixed with food or water. For infants, I recommend a powdered form of Bifidobacterium infantis, starting as soon as possible after birth.
If you're taking antibiotics, it's best to take probiotics at a different time of day. And after you've completed your antibiotic regimen, take triple the usual dose of probiotics until you feel like your system is back to normal.