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The Natural Way To Cure Stomach Problems

Probiotics are being credited with improving a laundry list of maladies—from yeast infections and stomach ailments, to heart disease. Here's what you should know about this "good" bacteria.
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Your belly is full of bacteria. That’s not an insult. That’s a fact. Helpful bacteria live in our guts, warding off disease and keeping our system in balance. But from time to time, the bacteria get out of whack in the form of everything from diarhhea and bloating, to constipation, dry skin, and excessive gas. What researchers are now learning is that probiotics, substances made of so-called “good” bacteria, can help get your gut and your body, back on track.

What are Probiotics

Literally defined “friendly bacteria”, probiotics offer health benefits when you ingest them in sufficient quantities, says Isabel Maples, a Registered Dietician and spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “Even back in the 19th century, doctors noted that people who ate more fermented foods seemed to live longer,” Maples says. 

Found in fermented foods like buttermilk, sauerkraut, yogurt, sourdough bread, kimchi and kefir, probiotics can do a couple of things:

Restore bacterial balance to the digestive system, especially after that balance has been compromised by illness or, ironically, by medicines like antibiotics. Andibiotics are taken to ward off sickness, but they also kill off good, as well as bad, bacteria in your belly. That is why sometimes when you take an antibiotic you may develop diarrhea or experience an upset stomach—your good bacteria have been decimated.  

Lower the amount of bad bacteria. Probiotics work by entering your gut and taking up living space, leaving less room for “bad” bacteria, which get chased from your system. However, each person has a unique system of bacteria in his or her gut, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to using probiotics for general gut health.

“There is a tremendous potential for probiotics,” says Sridhar Mani, M.D., professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine where probiotics are being studied in his lab. “A lot more research needs to be done. There isn’t clear evidence that taking probiotics routinely will maintain good health. But there’s no contrary evidence that it will not. The side effects are virtually nil so there’s no harm in taking them.”

Promising New Research

“In diseases like ulcerative colitis or diarrheal illness, probiotics are remarkable cures. Some patients really get significant benefit,” Dr. Mani says, noting that the duration of the diarrhea is shortened. Probiotics also help people with lactose intolerance enjoy dairy foods. Effectiveness hasn’t been proven for every condition. For example, researchers expected probiotics to be of similar help to those with Crohn’s Disease, but the studies did not show significant results.  

Beyond helping your stomach stay healthy, studies on the power of probiotics suggest that these substances could be health superstars that can ease childhood eczema, reduce food allergies, combat bladder infections and urinary tract infections, reduce inflammation in the body, and maybe even prevent heart attacks and strokes. Some studies speculate that they can defend against Type II Diabetes and even improve your aging skin. That’s potent stuff.

But more research needs to be done. “The field needs to be studied more. It’s only now evolving,” Dr. Mani says. “The scientific evidence is not there, but yes, there is great promise.”

Still there’s nothing wrong with getting some good bacteria into your gut while we wait for scientists tell us why that will make us better. (Doctors say there is no harm from taking probiotics, unless you are someone with a compromised immune system. In that case, check with your physician.) 

How to Use Them

Probiotics can be ingested through food or in pill form. Probiotic pills, capsules, and packets to be mixed in liquid are available at health food stores, pharmacies, and even in the health aisles of some supermarkets. (Note that many probiotics are sold in the refrigerated section of your local health foods store or pharmacy since they are live cultures.) Such brands as Culturelle, Health Origins, and Dr. Mercola Complete Probiotic have been rated as effective. And to ensure they take up residence in your body, they should be taken on a daily basis, says Maples, especially if you are on antibiotics. She offers some other advice on using them:

  • It’s only a probiotic if it offers a health benefit. Read the label to find out if what you’re about to buy will help with the problem you wish to solve. Maples says that probiotics need to pass through the digestive system alive to be effective, which is why dairy foods make a good delivery system for them. Dairy items are kept cold and they protect the probiotics from the harsh stomach acids they encounter in your body, Maples says. 
  • The probiotic should name a specific strain of bacteria. The two most common strains are lactobacillus acidophilus, which works in the small intestine, andbifidobacterium bifidum, which works in the large intestine. 
  • If you’re eating yogurt for probiotics, look for the National Yogurt Association's Live & Active Cultures seal, which assures that the cultures will survive that journey through your body. Consumer Reports suggests that if your food boasts probiotics, it should have 1 billion units per serving of that strain, and promise that it is good through the end of the product's shelf life, not just “at the time of manufacture.” But, says Maples, in reality, the effectiveness level varies with the bacterial strain less can be helpful. “A yogurt might have from 100 million to 10 million CFUs” and still be an effective probiotic," she says. 
  • If you take a probiotic pill and you feel gassy or bloated, you could be ingesting too much, Maples says, which often happens when you begin to take it. Take less and see if your symptoms improve or try changing brands to see if you get a better result. 

There are many companies that make probiotics in various forms; the industry is not standardized, Dr. Mani says. So read labels carefully, looking for reputable manufacturers who have research studies to back their claims. For an independent list of the best probiotics, click here.

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