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Probiotics: bacteria that are good for your gut -- and your health

Did you realize that you have trillions of live, beneficial bacteria and yeast living inside you at this moment? They are called probiotics and yes, they are actually alive, performing critical functions inside our digestive tract. Many of us think that bacteria are bad for us. So, why would we consume anything that has live bacteria in it?

That's because, some of the bacteria that normally live inside our colon (part of the large intestine) and small intestine are bad or merely harmless -- but on the whole, most are beneficial. Ideally, they all keep each other in check. Antibiotics, eating disorders, compromised immunity or severe illness, however, can disrupt this harmony, allowing the harmful ones to grow out of balance. Our diet and environment also play a role. (For instance, our gut's natural probiotic mix today is far different than what it would have been generations ago when people ate differently and had different hygiene practices.)

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The many strains of probiotics, are each believed to provide somewhat unique benefits. In total, however, research suggests that probiotics may have the potential to:

Probiotics and Inflammation

Scientists continue to investigate whether probiotics aid in fighting inflammation. The Arthritis Foundation completed recent research which revealed the anti-inflammatory properties of probiotics in reducing arthritis symptoms.

Another team of researchers has announced a "pivotal advance" regarding the influence of probiotics on immune responses to inflammatory triggers in Celiac diseases, such as Type 1 diabetes and various autoimmune disorders. The study suggests that "this opens up a line of research into new therapies that may be as accessible as a grocer's shelf."

Our digestive system is the primary way we take in energy to fuel our lives. And, since they are generally considered to be without risk, supporting our gut with the help of probiotics -"friendly" bacteria, may make good sense.

Good probiotic food sources

Cultured dairy products, such as yogurt and kefir, can be excellent sources of acidophilus and other probiotic bacteria. Just be sure the label lists "live" or "active" cultures since some yogurts are pasteurized after culturing, which kills the beneficial bacteria. Frozen yogurt also lacks any live, beneficial bacteria and be aware that many flavored yogurts are loaded with added sugar. Grocery stores and natural food stores may also carry milk products that contain live acidophilus.

Other food sources of beneficial bacteria include:

  • mother's milk (which reinforces support for breast feeding)
  • sauerkraut: fermented cabbage
  • tempeh: traditional Indonesian cultured and fermented soy product
  • miso: traditional Japanese paste made from fermenting rice, barley and soybeans and fungus, used in soups, sauces and spreads
  • Yakult: a popular probiotic drink in Japan

Probiotic supplements

Available at supermarkets, health food stores and pharmacies, probiotic supplements may be a convenient way to replenish the beneficial bacteria that naturally live in our body.

A word of caution: Not all medical conditions respond to probiotics and every over-the-counter probiotic product is unique in the bacteria strains and amounts they contain. Also, the production process, age of the product and how it is stored can determine what, if any, health benefits it may provide. To learn more about the research behind each of the many bacteria strains, you may want to start your search at

Sources include:

The Power of Probiotics: Improving Your Health With Beneficial Microbes by Gary W. Elmer, PhD, Lynne V. McFarland, PhD, Marc McFarland

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Join the conversations:
Showing comment(s)
September 26, 2013
I've been hearing of "prebiotics" lately. Are they important or just a health food fad?
Maria at
September 28, 2013
The fermented foods that many of us think of, such yogurt and kefir, miso soup, tempeh, unpasteurized sauerkraut, kombucha tea, certain cheeses, etc. are all probiotics - or good, live bacteria - which work mainly in the small intestine. Prebiotics, on the other hand, are ingredients (usually fiber) in foods which support good bacteria. Prebiotics are effective in the large intestine only, where they're finally digested. While probiotics are easily killed off by cooking, this is not true of prebiotics. Examples of prebiotics include soybeans, beer, onions, honey, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, chicory root, burdock root, and raw oats, and whole grain wheat and barley. And, in addition to supporting probiotic activity and proliferation, prebiotics may also inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and promote healthy bowel movements (preventing constipation as well as diarrhea).

When products, or foods like yogurt, are rich in both probiotics and prebiotics, they may be called symbiotics.
June 14, 2015
Here is somewhat concerning news for those of us who drink diet sodas.... artificial sweeteners may be screwing up our gut bacteria balance and contributing to glucose intolerance (which I suppose could be setting us up for diabetes):
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