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In this anti-bacterial age, most people would never recognize bacteria as a good thing. But, in the right places and amounts, strains of beneficial bacteria exist that are valuable to our health and wellness. These beneficial bacteria, also called probiotics, are found mostly in our digestive tract and actually colonize within our systems just days after birth - especially if we were breastfed.
Under normal circumstances, friendly bacteria in our digestive system live in symbiotic harmony, but factors such as poor diet or medications such as the pill, antibiotics, and corticosteroids, can upset this balance and lead to a host of difficulties. Hence, the maintenance and protection of our healthy bacteria through proper nourishment and if necessary, supplementation, is very important to good health.
The Good News about Probiotics
All probiotics improve the balance of the intestinal microflora. Research has found these live microorganisms are cancer-protective, immune-enhancing and anti-inflammatory. Probiotics prevent infections and yeast overgrowth by blocking harmful bacteria from attaching to intestinal walls and by maintaining intestinal pH. They improve digestive function and assist with the production of a number of vitamins, including vitamins K, B12, B5 and biotin. Examples of the most abundant probiotic bacteria include lactobacillus and bifidobacteria species while saccharomyces boulardii is a common probiotic yeast. Bifidobacteria, the first probiotics to inhabit our digestive system, are present mostly in the large intestine whereas lactobacilli are normally present in higher amounts in the small intestine and vagina.
Bacteria Have Needs Too
For probiotic microorganisms to thrive, they must be given the proper environment and food sources. Prebiotics are non-digestible, oligosaccarhide (several types of sugar molecules linked together) ingredients in our food that are the food sources for probiotics. Often consuming these alone can assist with boosting probiotic bacteria. Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin are molecules of fructose and/or glucose linked together. They feed, nourish and increase probiotic bacteria, especially bifidobacteria. Both inulin and FOS can naturally be found in chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke and of course, in supplements, but FOS are also found in foods such as onions, asparagus, garlic, bananas, barley, wheat, rye, and tomatoes.
Prebiotics have benefits beyond the positive effects on digestive flora. They are cancer- protective as butyrate, a known anti-cancer compound, is produced when the bacteria break down the oligosaccharides in our digestive tract. Prebiotics lower triglycerides, but just exactly how is unknown. They also regulate blood sugars, possibly through two mechanisms. Firstly, through short chain fatty acids which are produced during the break down of prebiotics and keep sugar use to a minimum and maintain low insulin levels (this can also aid weight loss). Secondly, prebiotics increase bowel transit time which may allow for less sugar absorption.
Yogurt naturally contains probtiotics, but supplements may be more effective if you are looking for a concentrated source. On average, a good maintenance dose is one to two billion of both lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, once a day, away from food. During antibiotic therapy, you should increase the dose significantly and take the probiotic for twice the length of time of your antibiotic treatment. You may experience gas and bloating at the onset of treatment. Simply reduce the dose and slowly increase it as your body adapts. If you use prebiotics, the dosage of FOS and inulin ranges from four to 10 grams per day. Some supplements may contain both prebiotics and probiotics.
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