The food industry, eager to capitalize on the latest health food trends, has introduced more than 150 probiotic and prebiotic (nutrients that feed probiotics) food products in 2007, compared with 100 in 2006 and just 40 in 2005.
You can now buy probiotic pills, yogurts, snack bars, baby formulas and even chocolate, all of which claim to “regulate your digestive health” or “strengthen your body’s defenses.”
The National Institutes of Health has even designated the research of gastrointestinal bacteria and probiotics as a major initiative, and other studies have already been completed or are underway, such as:
- A Canadian study that found fermented milk containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus caseii could help prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea.
- A study from Finland that found an oat drink containing Bifidobacterium lactis bacteria helped bowel function in nursing home residents.
- A study by researchers in Argentina, who are investigating whether milk fermented with lactic acid bacteria can reduce amounts of cancer-causing substances in your intestine.
U.S. retail sales of probiotic-containing foods and supplements totaled $764 million in 2005, and are expected to reach $1 billion in 2010, according to BCC Research.
Fermented yogurt drinks, which are full of probiotics, have been used since ancient times to cure intestinal illnesses and promote longevity. Probiotics are one of only two supplements that are recommended to all new patients who come to my clinic, The Optimal Wellness Center (the other is omega-3 fats). It has been my experience that most people are deficient in these two important and vital elements, and seem to benefit from supplementation.
Your gut flora has incredible power over your immune system, which, of course, is your body's natural defense system that keeps you healthy.
You might not realize that there are about 100 trillion bacteria in your gut (that’s more than the number of cells in your entire body), some of which are good and some bad (illness-causing). Ideally, your intestinal tract should be lined with 85 percent good bacteria and just 15 percent bad, but there are many things that can allow the bad bacteria to get a larger foothold.
Antibiotics, sugar, stress, chlorinated water and many other factors can all reduce the amount of probiotics in your gut, which may predispose you to illness. Certain studies have proven that probiotics, on the other hand, may help with the prevention or control of:
- Food and skin allergies in children
- Bacterial vaginosis
- Premature labor in pregnant women
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Recurrent ear and bladder infections
- Chronic diarrhea
- Produce B vitamins and vitamin K
- Promote mineral absorption
- Support protein and carbohydrate digestion
- Aid in metabolism and the breakdown of toxins
Unfortunately, the food industry has tapped into the health-supporting properties of probiotics, and they’re looking to cash in. Dannon's Activia yogurt, for instance, has generated more than $100 million in first-year U.S. sales alone.
But you really need to know what you’re looking for when it comes to probiotic supplements. The pasteurized “probiotic” yogurts that have become so popular this year are NOT a good choice because they are pasteurized, and will be associated with all of the problems of pasteurized milk products.
They also contain added sugar, fructose syrup and artificial sweeteners, which you are better off avoiding. It is far better to seek out fermented foods to get your probiotics. My favorite one is natto, which I eat nearly every day, but it is a challenge for most people to get down. I use mustard, onions and some Himalayan salt and that works well.
There are many other food products that are excellent choices for natural probiotics, but you won’t find them in fancy packages at your supermarket. They are traditionally fermented food products -- things like sauerkraut (that you make at home in a crock) and other fermented veggies, and kefir, a fermented milk drink made from RAW milk, are truly superfoods that will fortify your gut with plenty of good bacteria.
Probiotic supplements can be very beneficial as well. As I said, these are one of only two supplements that are recommended to new patients at The Optimal Wellness Center.
But you must be sure you are getting a high-quality variety. Here’s what you need to look for in a probiotic supplement:
- The bacteria strains in the product must be able to survive your stomach acid and bile, so that they reach your intestines alive in adequate numbers.
- The bacteria strains must have health-promoting features.
- The probiotic activity must be guaranteed throughout the entire production process, storage period and shelf life of the product.
Another great trick to add to your natural health arsenal is to ALWAYS bring probiotics with you when you’re traveling (especially internationally). They’re one of the best ways to manage travelers' diarrhea I have ever seen (and they’re tough to find when you’re on the road, so I recommend always keeping them on hand).