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A primer on probiotics

Probiotics is a term that we hear about much more often than we did even a couple of years ago. Pick up any magazine and you're likely to see an ad for probiotics. Why all the hype?

Research confirms that foods and supplements with probiotics may provide benefits for many digestive problems and may even help promote a healthy immune system. This is because probiotics are organisms, such as bacteria or yeast, which are likely to improve health.

I find it fascinating that our digestive system is home to more than 500 different types of bacteria. Digestive disorders can happen when the balance of friendly bacteria in the intestines becomes disturbed. This may occur after an infection or after taking antibiotics, especially if taken for a long period of time.

Probiotics come in many forms, such as powders, capsules and liquids, and even in numerous foods.

If you wish to increase your probiotic intake through food, here are some top sources:

  • yogurt with "live and active cultures"
  • unpasteurized sauerkraut and the Korean dish kimchi
  • miso (fermented soybeans)
  • some fermented soft cheeses, like Gouda
  • kefir, which is thick, creamy and like a drinkable yogurt
  • acidophilus milk or buttermilk
  • sour pickles naturally fermented without vinegar
  • tempeh, which is made from fermented soybeans

Probiotics in a supplement form may be more convenient than food and may also allow for targeting more specific microbes, including bacteria and yeast. Although they don't offer the nutrition that foods can provide, supplements may provide higher levels of probiotics.

Different strains of probiotics provide different benefits. When using probiotics for a specific cause, such as support of the immune system or for diarrhea associated with antibiotic use, it is important to get guidance from a health care provider.

For most people, probiotics are safe and cause few side effects. For hundreds of years, people world-wide have been eating foods containing live cultures.

Still, probiotics (supplements and foods) could be dangerous for people with weakened immune systems or serious illnesses. As with all nutritional supplements, probiotics should be taken according to the directions and with the guidance of a physician or health care provider.

Here's to eating more "friendly bacteria!"

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