Gut Check -- Probiotics and Your Health

In our germ-conscious culture, bacteria often are associated with illness and uncleanliness. We carry around bottles of antibacterial gel, wash our hands and bodies with antibacterial soap and clean our kitchens and bathrooms with antibacterial wipes to ensure we and our families are the healthiest we can be.

Yet, while protecting ourselves against harmful bacteria, we’re forgetting that many bacteria help us and can even make us healthier. That’s right – healthier.

A new batch of scientific and medical research over the past decade has uncovered that bacteria living in our bodies, especially in our intestines, have profound effects on our overall health. Food products and nutritional supplements boasting “probiotics” have emerged in our grocery stores and pharmacies, and suddenly, we can’t get enough of these beneficial bacteria.

In November, the World Journal of Gastroenterology published an overview of key findings related to the use of probiotics to manage or treat certain diseases or conditions. Overall, the studies show that when good bacteria are absent from our guts, our health suffers.

The Benefits of ‘Good Bacteria’

Baptist Health Medical Group’s Patricia Feito, M.D., a Baptist Health Primary Care family medicine doctor has followed these developments, especially those related to gastrointestinal conditions.

“While much of the research currently being conducted is, so far, inconclusive, previous studies are extremely suggestive that probiotics help people who suffer from diarrheal illnesses and lactose intolerance,” she said. “There’s also some indication that these good bacteria may play a definitive role in preventing autoimmune inflammations that can lead to Celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis and allergies, like eczema, that present symptoms elsewhere in the body.”

An article published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal in 2008 suggests that preliminary data from studies indicate probiotics may even help prevent tooth decay.

And researchers are studying whether a reduction of good bacteria in the intestines can lead to obesity, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer, especially in the colon and bladder.

“When we upset the normal amount of bacteria in our intestines with antibiotics, which kill all types of bacteria, and through poor nutrition, which inhibits the normal growth and function of these beneficial bacteria, we impair our bodies’ ability to ward off bad bacteria and disease,” Dr. Feito said.

So how do you restore balance?

Added Sugar and ‘Bad Bacteria’

Baptist Health’s Chief Wellness Dietitian Natalie Castro says the safest way is through our food intake, but she warns that some foods claiming to have probiotic benefits may not have enough of the good bacteria and may also have too much added sugar. That added sugar can actually lead to the growth of bad bacteria, causing other complications. Even those foods with artificial sweeteners are problematic. Ms. Castro says to choose foods that are made with real food ingredients, like plain, low-fat yogurt with a range of only 12-20 carbohydrates per serving once a day.

To know if your yogurt is a good choice, Ms. Castro recommends reading the ingredients and looking for bacteria strains such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria bifidum. Or, just look for the National Yogurt Association’s Live Culture seal.

For people unable to tolerate dairy products, Ms. Castro suggests the following foods:

• Raw sauerkraut
• Kombucha
• Miso
• Kimchi

But she warns anything sitting in a jar on a shelf likely has been heat treated, which kills the live bacteria you’re trying to take in.

She also advises eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains. “These are known as prebiotics, and they not only provide us with necessary healthy nutrients, they also nourish the good bacteria living in our gut,” she said.

As for our cultural aversion to consuming these bacteria, Dr. Feito has this warning:

“There is a great deal of research suggesting that limiting exposure to bacteria, parasites and viruses early in life can increase children’s risk for developing allergies, asthma and other autoimmune diseases in adulthood.”

So while you seek a balance of bacteria in your gut for better health, so should you strive for a balance between exposure to germs and being too anti-bacteria.


Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 12 hospitals, more than 27,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 200 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.

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