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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It's What Bugs You

Bugs - I'm not talking about the creepy crawly kind of bugs, I'm talking about good bugs, the kind that live in your gut. Bacteria & yeast bugs - probiotics to be exact. Yes we are full of bugs, most of which are beneficial; as many as 1,000,000,000,000 per gram of intestinal content. These bugs (intestinal microflora) help us guard against infections, digest fiber and oligosaccharides, take out potential carcinogens and toxins, and produce vitamins we can't make ourselves.

Probiotic means "for life" and they are defined by the WHO/FAO as "live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health benefit on the host". (You would be the host.) Probiotics, also by definition, have to show documented benefits at the specific strain level (genus4species4strain), be recognized by the international culture bank, have undergone appropriate in vitro (lab) trials, be able to survive (viable) at sufficient levels in a product over the product's shelf life, and perhaps most important - be safe.

Most probiotics are lactic acid producers like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, but there are others. It appears from the research that has been performed that each strain has its own benefits and that those benefits are strain-specific. So depending on what you are trying to treat or prevent you will need to consume a different probiotic strain or multiple strains to achieve the function desired. Not especially handy if you were suffering from a laundry list of ailments!

While it is thought that probiotics protect you from pathogens (bad bugs), research is still ongoing to make those direct connections. Currently, research is being done to see what mechanism probiotics use to confer benefits. Some of the theories under investigation say probiotics out compete pathogens (competitive inhibition), others think they work by increasing IG-A plasma and/or T-lymphocytes (white blood cells). Preliminary studies are showing some good results using probiotics to treat Helicobacter pylori (causes stomach ulcers), dental carries (cavities) and diarrhea (including that caused by antibiotic treatments).

You will primarily find probiotics added to dairy products (yogurts, milk, cheese) right now, although some supplements are also available in health stores, since these are great habitats for the live cultures. Just like us, these critters need water & food to be happy and reproduce. And since we are moving to the topic of probiotic food, the topic of the next post will be their favorite - prebiotics!

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