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Gut Check

Fresh Juice / May 2013

Probiotics are popping up in products all over grocery-store shelves

Two thousand years ago, Hippocrates said, “All disease begins in the gut.” He didn’t know about probiotics, but the father of medicine was onto something: balance your intestinal bacteria, a.k.a. “gut flora,” and better overall health is almost inevitable.

“Humans are made up mostly of bacteria; we’re essentially a walking organism,” says Gregor Reid, the director of the Canadian Research & Development Centre for Probiotics. It’s not quite dinner-party conversation, but 100 trillion microorganisms are currently having a fete of their own in your digestive system. More than 400 known species of live bacteria—good and bad—are in a constant struggle for body domination (OK, we called it a party, but really it’s more of a battle).

Simply put, probiotics are the living microorganisms often called “good” bacteria that keep your digestive and immune systems happy. To continue with this battle analogy, ingesting beneficial bacteria means you’re adding reinforcements to the camp that helps you improve digestion and reduce inflammation and constipation.

HOW PROBIOTICS HELP

Recent studies have suggested that probiotics may do much more than tame your tummy; they may also reduce the incidence of diarrhea caused by antibiotics and stave off weight gain and common colds. They may even help with lactose intolerance, lower cholesterol levels and decrease blood pressure. And since bacteria impact the biochemistry of your whole system, they may lower stress and anxiety.

“Good bacteria impact everything from how often we get colds to the amount of energy we have to whether we suffer from allergies or depression,” says Jennifer Keirstead, a holistic nutritionist in Nelson, B.C. “But if bad bacteria are overgrowing and outnumbering good bacteria, they sort of take over.” The result can include poor digestion, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome and bladder and yeast infections.

YOUR DIET AFFECTS THE BACTERIA IN YOUR GUT

Bacteria feed off of what we eat, and the good guys help us digest our food. But diets high in refined sugars and simple carbs provide food for the bad bacteria. This is compounded by the fact that processed foods don’t provide us with a source of good live bacteria, which further tips the balance—and sustaining the delicate ecosystem in your intestines really is about achieving a healthy balance.

WELCOMING GOOD BACTERIA

Not only do our refined diets provide an advantage for the bad bacteria but we also consume few sources of good bacteria that come from raw or fermented foods. The process of pasteurization, designed to kill dangerous microbial growth in food, also kills off many of the good guys. So there are fewer of them on our plates than generations ago. As the body of research has increased, over the past 10 years manufacturers have been adding probiotics to many food products, from yogurt to dark chocolate to granola bars. In the past decade alone, sales of probiotics have almost tripled.

PICK THE RIGHT PRODUCTS

You can get your microorganisms the old-fashioned way since ingestible probiotics are all over your local grocery store. Raw sauerkraut, raw kimchee, raw apple cider vinegar, raw kombucha tea, unpasteurized olives and pickles and other raw and unpasteurized foods may contain probiotics. Meanwhile, science continues to look at the addition of probiotics to products ranging from orange juice to sliced bread.

“A massive amount of probiotic products has flooded the market,” says Reid. While he believes most are beneficial, the research is far from complete. “There are hundreds of bacteria that could be probiotic, but there are just 10 or 15 that have been proven in clinical studies to have a benefit,” he says. When purchasing products with advertised probiotics, Reid advises savvy consumers to read labels carefully (look for words such as “lactobacillus” and “bifidobacterium”), then research to see any studies on the strain you’re eating.

If you’re thinking of popping a probiotic in pill form, head to the supplements aisle and speak to a pharmacist or a staff person knowledgeable about probiotics. “Ask them for their opinion on the best probiotic they offer and why,” says Keirstead. (Even in a bottle, probiotics are alive! For best results, store them in a dark jar in the fridge.)

Reid suggests you follow the recom¬mended dosage instructions and start with regular doses, three times a week. “Like anything, your body will tell you if you overdo it,” he says. If you go over¬board, you could experience cramping or diarrhea. Keirstead recommends starting with smaller amounts of raw foods, then working your way up from there. “When the body isn’t used to naturally probiotic-rich foods, they can be powerful if eaten to excess,” she says. “One tablespoon or less of raw sauerkraut a day is a good amount to start with.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

“If you think of the organisms in your gut changing as you get older, good ones and bad are constantly multiplying and turning over and being expelled from the body,” says Reid. “The question is, how do you replenish the good bacteria?” By embracing probiotic-rich foods or a supplement, that’s how—no matter how gross “live bacterial microorganisms” might sound.