The human body is teeming with some 100 trillion microorganisms — 10 times the number of human cells — and they include the beneficial bacteria or "good bugs" that help us absorb nutrients from our food, produce essential vitamins, regulate our immune systems and fight disease-causing "bad bugs."
The problem is this: the diets we've chosen, the lifestyles we've led and many of the medicines we've been taking since the mid-20th century are upsetting the balance between good and bad bacteria in our bodies, triggering a steep rise in a wide range of illnesses.
The good news is that we can replenish much of our lost good bacteria with probiotic-rich foods, dietary supplements and a healthier lifestyle.
A rapidly growing body of research is discovering how important these beneficial bacteria are to every aspect of our health. Obesity, malnutrition, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcers, diarrhea, constipation, skin infections, certain allergies, sleep disorders, depression and anxiety are among the many conditions linked to the diminishing reservoir of good bacteria.
Substances aggravating that effect include processed foods, refined sugars, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, additives, pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Widely taken medicines, such as antibiotics, contraceptive pills, stomach acid reduction drugs and anti-inflammatories, like aspirin and ibuprofen, also are factors, as are the rise in C-section births, the decline of breastfeeding, lack of exercise and an overall increase in daily stress.
Scientists are learning we can boost our resilience against such conditions with probiotics — live bacteria and yeasts which help keep our digestive systems in peak working order.
Foods that contain probiotics naturally include yogurt, buttermilk, certain cheeses like Gouda, mozzarella, cheddar and cottage cheese; tempeh, a fermented soybean product; kefir, a fermented milk; kombucha, a fermented black or green tea; kimchi, a Korean side dish; miso, a Japanese seasoning; sauerkraut and many types of pickles. Certain high-fiber foods, often called "prebiotics," serve as food for probiotics. They include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, apples, flaxseed and Jerusalem artichokes.
Other things that promote a healthy gut may be surprising. Research has shown that exposure to dirt, pets and everyday germs is actually good for the body, creating a stronger immune system, fewer allergies and better digestion.
These are available in powder, capsule, tablet or packet form, and each contains a very specific type and volume of probiotic. The two most common types used in the U.S. are members of the bacterial families Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. The yeast Saccharomyces boulardii is also widely used. Different probiotics have different functional benefits.
Probiotic supplements are available at health and natural food stores, vitamin shops, pharmacies and other stores. It is strongly recommended that consumers seek probiotics sold from refrigerated displays. That way, you're more assured it has been properly formulated; products on unrefrigerated shelves tend not to be as reliable. Read the ingredients to make sure it has the right type and volume of probiotics. Research suggests that when taking antibiotics, supplements should have at least 10 billion active cells. They should be taken two hours apart from antibiotics so that the live bacteria aren't killed.
The U.S. government does not review dietary supplements before they are marketed. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure their products are safe and that label claims are truthful. So, it's important that you do plenty of online research, talk to your doctor and confer with in-store specialists when choosing what probiotics are right for you.
Probiotics are not a magic bullet. They are one tool in a toolbox that should include a healthy, active lifestyle and a diet of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, sustainably raised animal-based protein and fat sources, and other nutrient-rich, low-sugar, unprocessed whole foods.
Hayden Kuhn, PharmD, RPh, is a pharmacist at Berkshire Community Pharmacy at Berkshire Medical Center.