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The Question and Answer Guide to Probiotic Supplements

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Good bacteria, called Probiotics, are friendly to the human body, and actually are very important to have inside of us. While many of us have heard of probiotics some people are still unsure or even confused as to exactly what they are and what they do. The following is a Q & A of the most common questions about probiotics. These are some of the questions that I have been asked over the years. At the end I have provided a brief list of the main points to know about probiotics.

What are Probitics exactly?

Probiotics are bacteria that live in our bodies. Trillions of living cultures of actual bacteria. There are more of these bacteria living inside of us than there are cells that make up our body. An estimated 500-600 trillion live cultures of probiotic bacteria live inside the human body (the body is made up of an estimated 100 trillion individual cells).

Am I supposed to have bacteria living in my body?..

Yes. The word Pro-biotic is a contraction of the Latin – for (pro), and the Greek – life (bio), “for life.” Probiotic means “for life.” Probiotics are also referred to as friendly bacteria or intestinal flora.

Are these bacteria a part of my body?

No, probiotics are living organisms separate from our bodies but living within us. They have been there since birth and are supposed to be there. We actually need them.

Why do we have them?

Probiotic bacteria form a symbiotic relationship living within us. What they do for us is mainly two-fold. Probiotics are an important part of digestion where they perform the final breakdown and absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. Our body cannot effectively get nutrition without these bacteria. As well, probiotics are one of our body’s main lines of defense against colds and sickness. They fight and stop infectious pathogens such as viruses and harmful bacteria.

How do probiotics fight a cold?

Probiotics fight virus and bacteria in a few ways. One of the ways probiotic bacteria fight pathogens (infectious agents) is by crowding out the invader. Living organisms within the body must attach to living tissue to survive. They cannot simply float around in our bodies and live. An adequate supply of probiotic bacteria in the intestinal tract eliminates room for the pathogen to attach and grow.

Another way they fight virus and bacteria is that it is the nature of some pro-biotic strains to seek, attack, and destroy invading viruses and bacteria.

A third is, studies have shown that many strains of probiotic bacteria stimulate the production of IgA (immunoglobulan antibodies) a critical component of our body’s immune system.

Essentially; the gut, stomach, small and large intestine make up the main part of our body’s immunological organs. They contain seventy percent of all the IgA producing immune cells, which are critical for immune function.

Simply put, the health of the intestinal tract determines our overall health.

Do I need to/when should I take a probiotic supplement?

Though our bodies are being bombarded with viruses and bacteria everyday, probiotics and our immune system are at work all the time and successfully stop them from gaining a foothold and making us sick. There are times though when the probiotics in our body, and our immune system can be overwhelmed, either by too numerous or too powerful an attack. Taking a probiotic supplement at the first sign of a cold significantly enhances our body’s natural abilities to defend against invading pathogens. When the first signs of a cold come on, many in the nutrition field reach first for a probiotic and second to vitamin c, echinacea, and other anti-viral and cold fighting products.

Another time when it is very important to take probiotic supplements is after a round of antibiotics (looking back at question two, to what the word “probiotic” means, will provide an idea of what antibiotic means).

Antibiotics not only kill harmful bacteria but also kill the healthy friendly bacteria that we need. This destruction can wreak havoc on digestion and the absorption of nutrition from food. It is the reason people often get diarrhea when taking antibiotics. Since probiotic bacteria are a major component of our immune system, taking antibiotics also disrupts our body’s natural ability to defend itself against sickness or infection. Even against things that we would normally have beaten without any noticeable symptoms.

These conditions will remain until our gut ecology is re-populated. Taking a probiotic supplement can speed up this process geometrically. It also helps avoid the sluggishness often associated with taking antibiotics.

This all sound great but why haven’t I heard of probiotics before?

You have. But you may not have known what it was. The most well known probiotic is lactobacillus acidophilus. Most people are familiar with acidophilus as being one the “beneficial” ingredients in yogurt. This is actually a strain of probiotic bacteria.

I see on the supplement bottles “billions” of cultures, is this too much?

Billions seems like a lot. But remember that we have trillions in us right now. Depending on the need people can take anywhere from 1 billion to 100 billion cultures per day.

Can I overdose?

No. The body will get rid of what isn’t used. In extreme cases, or if mega-dosing, when hundreds of billions of probiotic cultures can be taken per day, gas and bloating can occur.

How do you take them?

It is typically best to take probiotics on an empty stomach. These strains of bacteria can be delicate and easily affected, reduced in number, or even destroyed during digestion before they even get to the intestines which is where they do their work. Take probiotics fifteen minutes before a meal (or even better a half an hour) or, at least a 30 to 45 minutes after a meal (or even better 1 hour). Some probiotic products are given a special outer coating called an enteric coating. This prevents the capsule from opening in the stomach where the pH is acidic, or harmful, but opens easily in the small intestine where the pH is alkaline, or safe. In this case taking it with food will not be a problem.

Does brand matter?

Not generally. It seems that all major, or well respected, brands in the nutritional-supplement industry all get their raw material from the same few main suppliers of bacteria. Any reputable well known brand carried at a health products retailer should be fine.

There’s so much hype and advertising, how do I decide which one?

Some manufacturer’s have joined with probiotic researchers to learn what the different bacteria requirements of the human body are at varying stages of human development. They have often tailored their products according to the needs of a specific age or condition. This is excellent. Other manufacturer’s emphasize the number of cultures in the billions in each capsule of their product, and some the number of different strains. This is good. But, a product whose strains, and amounts, has been linked to a need or to an age range is even better.

Where should probiotic supplements be stored?

Probiotics are freeze dried before being manufactured and put in capsules, and the bottles are vacuum sealed. This means they are shelf stable until the seal on the bottle is broken. However, probiotics must be refrigerated once the seal is opened. Without refrigeration the bacteria will “come alive” due to the warmth and humidity in our homes. In the absence a food source and proper environment they will die off, and needless to say be of no benefit.

What are Pre-biotics?

Pre-biotics is a term used to signify a fermentable fiber called Fructo-oligosaccharides or FOS. This carbohydrate is often used as natural a sweetener and is a main source of food for probiotic bacteria. FOS’s are sometimes added to a probiotic supplement. Inulin is a common pre-biotic, or FOS, found in many natural and processed foods.

Are there any food sources of probiotics?

Yes. Probiotics are created during the fermentation process. Generally any fermented food will be a source of probiotics. Fermented foods include Yogurt and Kefir, Miso, Natto and Tempeh, Pickles and Sour kraut, Kimchi, Soy sauce, and some Cheeses, usually aged cheese (not processed or baked).

Do specific strains help certain conditions?

Yes. Some strains of probiotic bacteria are particularly beneficial to certain conditions. Lactobacillus Acidophilus for Candidiasis (yeast infections) and Lactobacillus Casei for Salmonella are two examples. In many cases simply getting a product with a mixed blend of bacteria strains will suffice. (A detailed analsys of which strains are best suited to which conditions is beyond the scope of this Q&A. A quick search on the internet will offer a lot in this regard; usprobiotics.org and stomachbacteria.net are good places to start.)

Probiotic Points to Ponder

  • Of the billions of bacteria in the world only a few hundred strains are known as friendly to the human body.
  • There are only 14 or 15 different strains used in probiotic supplements.
  • Eighty to ninety percent of our probiotics live in the intestinal tract, most of the rest live in the sinuses.
  • Colds and viruses start in the intestinal tract where they begin to propagate and spread. Probiotics can often stop them there.
  • Having a healthy gut ecology is principal to good health. Good health is proportional to the health of the gut ecology.
  • Probiotics are extremely beneficial in fighting yeast infections.
  • Probiotics are critical for gut stability and are therefore extremely helpful for conditions such as Chron’s and Colitis.
  • After a round of antibiotics our gut ecology is devastated. The antibiotics destroy good and bad bacteria indiscriminately. For this reason we often wind up with diarrhea. Probiotics repopulate healthy bacteria in the gut and stabilize our intestines.
  • According to many nutritionists taking a probiotic product should be the first line of defense at the first sign of a cold or illness.
  • CFU stands for Culture Forming Units.
  • Probiotics are typically delicate and can be harmed by digestive acids. Therefore it’s best to take probiotics on an empty stomach. Many manufacturer’s will provide enteric coating on their capsule to protect against digestive acids.
  • There are more bifido bacteria than lactobacilli in the body and nearly all stages of human development.
  • Lactobacillus Acidophilus (and L. Casei) seems to be among the most robust of probiotic strains and can survive digestion unprotected better than most other strains.
  • Lactobacillus Sporogenes has it’s own protective shell and so also survives digestion well without other protection.
  • When taking a probotic supplement it is best to take a product with a blend of bacteria strains and to take one that’s been made for an age or condition.
  • Taking a product product with only one strain of bacteria will nonetheless be beneficial to stabilizing the gut ecology, digestion of nutrients, and fighting infection.
  • Since the body has and needs trillions of cultures, products with only 1 billion or fewer cultures per capsule are significantly muted in terms of their ability to accomplish their job/s as described in this Q&A.
  • Most of the probiotic products available at the drug store and supermarket are simply too low dose to be of any noticable benefit or value to us.
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