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Dietitians Dish: Probiotics aid digestion, protect from infections

By By Lisa Hagan
Sept. 11, 2012 at 4:11 a.m.

Lisa Hagan

There are more than 500 different species of bacteria in the gut. Most have the potential to cause illness.

For every 100 harmful cells there are 10 protective cells.

The proper balance of these cells is important for the development of the immune system and protecting the body against infectious diseases.

In Roman times, fermented milk was used to treat stomach and bowel infections and restore balance. This ancient civilization noticed fermented milk's health benefits.

Today, we can see the organisms that produce fermentation with our microscopes. We call these friendly microorganisms "probiotics." They are live microorganisms that benefit the host.

Probiotics are found in yogurts, fermented and unfermented milk, such as kefir, miso, tempeh, some juices and soy beverages and probiotic supplements.

The health benefits depend on how often it is eaten, what type of probiotic strain is present, and the number of cultures found in the product. Some health benefits include aiding in digestion, making vitamins and protecting us from infections.

There is strong evidence that shows the use of probiotics can prevent or treat traveler's diarrhea, acute diarrhea and diarrhea associated with using antibiotics.

Some antibiotic therapy can kill friendly gut bacteria while clearing up the infection. In recent studies, adding certain strains of probiotics while on antibiotic therapy can treat or prevent antibiotic associated diarrhea, while different strains of probiotics would be more effective preventing acute diarrhea and traveler's diarrhea.

Because of the many variations in strains of bacteria, not all products that are labeled probiotics protect the gut and prevent harmful bacteria from growing. It is important to choose the right probiotic strain when the purpose of taking the probiotic is to improve health.

The effects of each probiotic food or supplement depend on the strain used at the dose that has been proven to be effective.

So, when purchasing probiotic foods or supplements choose a product that has been studied. Some probiotics that have been studied include S. boulardii, L. acidophilus and bifidobacterium difidum.

There are many more studies being done. Using probiotics to manage inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, look promising.

Some probiotic strains appear to protect the lining of the bowels by forming a protective barrier and reducing inflammation. Another study is being done on whether probiotics can prevent infections in day cares.

In general, probiotic foods and dietary supplements are recognized as safe in healthy people.

However, caution is recommended for infants, those with compromised immune systems or those with a major illness. These individuals should consult a physician before using them.

Additional information about these friendly microorganisms can be found at isapp.net, the website for International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics.

Lisa Hagan is a registered and licensed dietitian with DeTar Health Systems. Send questions or comments to dietitians@vicad.com.

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