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Probiotics – When Bugs Make Us Happy

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” the age-old adage by Hippocrates, is certainly not an obscure and loose dogma of early antiquity but the tenet of today. The new generation’s relationship with food is a mess, with many youngsters accustomed to a processed, unbalanced diet. We have become reliant on ready-to-cook meals, takeaways and off-the-shelf snacks. With poor nutrition comes poor health, often debilitating at a personal level and the cause of enormous social and economic expense.

Although we know benefits of eating good food, many of us just don’t do enough to make fundamental changes to our diet. Rather than eat more fruit and vegetables and a good balance of complex carbohydrate and protein-foods, we are increasingly turning to foods and drinks fortified with specific nutrients or ‘good’ bacteria -as a ‘magic fix’ for our unbalanced lives.

The healthy, human gut contains millions of beneficial bacteria. It’s a symbiotic relationship: Our intestines make a good habitat for the bacteria, and in return they help us digest our food, crowd out harmful bacteria (such as food-borne pathogens), strengthen the gut’s immune response, and even manufacture certain nutrients, such as vitamins B12 and K. Antibiotics, chronic illness, or a diet high in sugar or processed foods can disrupt the natural flora of the intestinal tract and create health problems such as indigestion, constipation, yeast overgrowth, and lowered immune function. With the growing interest in self-care and integrative medicine, recognition of the link between diet and health has never been stronger.

As a result, the market for functional foods, or foods that promote health beyond providing basic nutrition, is flourishing. Within the functional foods movement is the small but rapidly expanding arena of probiotics – live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. Probiotics beneficially affect an individual by improving intestinal microbial balance. Use of probiotic has been since time immemorial: from sauerkraut in Russia to cheese in Baghdad and vegetables buried in earthen pots by Native Americans, these foods have been prized since ancient times. However, we’ve lost our connection with these foods in modern days, so they often seem so foreign. After growing up with refrigeration and the fear of “germs”, it seems “wrong” to leave things on the counter to sour. The smell and taste is different from what we’re used to having.

The traditional sources for beneficial bacteria are fermented foods, which are made by culturing fresh foods like milk or vegetables with live bacteria (usually a lactobacillus). Almost every food culture features some sort of fermented food, such as miso, yogurt, kefir, fresh cheese, sauerkraut, etc. Traditionally, these foods would be eaten daily, in part, to keep the gut well-stocked with beneficial bacteria. In these foods and in probiotics supplements, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation. Most often, they come from two groups of bacteria, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Within each group, there are different species (for example, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus), and within each species, different strains.

Probiotics help maintain and restore the delicate balance of both “good” and “bad” bacteria necessary for a healthy digestive system. Without that balance, harmful bacteria can multiply and take over, causing gastrointestinal problems such as diarrhoea or abdominal pain. Most of us have taken antibiotics and suffered side effects of diarrhea or intestinal pain and distress. This is because some antibiotics destroy both good and bad bacteria in the digestive tract, thereby upsetting the balance. Stress can affect some people in this same way, by reducing good bacteria, thereby allowing harmful bacteria to multiply and take over.

Probiotics bacteria can help relieve the symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis and alcoholic liver disease. The probiotics bacteria may help relieve constipation by improving intestinal mobility. Various forms of lactic acid bacteria added when manufacturing yogurt, acidophilus milk and fermented milk products such as kefir can help lessen the effects of lactose intolerance. This inability to digest the sugars that occur naturally in milk affects nearly 70 percent of the world’s population.

There is also evidence that probiotics may help to prevent certain kinds of allergies because they have a beneficial effect on mucous membranes.

Although testing on humans is limited, preliminary evidence shows that probiotics can help boost the immune system. Studies of the effect of probiotics consumption on cancer appear promising. Animal and in vitro studies indicate that probiotics bacteria may reduce colon cancer risk by reducing the incidence and number of tumors.. Scientists have identified good bacteria already living in some humans that target and trap HIV and may protect against infection. “I believe every life form has its natural enemy, and HIV should not be the exception,” says Dr. Lin Tao, Associate Professor of the Department of Oral Biology, College of Dentistry, and University of Illinois at Chicago. “If we can find its natural enemy, we can control the spread of HIV naturally and cost-effectively, just as we use cats to control mice.”

What we need to know about probiotics:

Q:Is it better to get probiotics from foods or from supplement sources?

Foods are a better choice due to the synergistic effect between components of foods and probiotics cultures. The natural buffering of stomach acid by food also enhances the stability of consumed probiotics. Dairy products containing probiotics provide a number of high quality nutrients including calcium, protein, bioactive peptides, sphingolipids, and conjugated linoleic acids. Taking supplements, although convenient, has always posed the problem of long-term compliance, whereas incorporating foods containing probiotics into daily food choices can become a lifestyle habit.

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