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Probiotics and Prebiotics
Parts of a Healthy Diet

by Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDE

Probiotics and health
Probiotics can benefit human health in a number of ways that are well established:

Boosting the immune system. If your immune system isn’t in tip-top shape, you’re more vulnerable to harmful microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and fungi) that can lead to illness. People with uncontrolled diabetes may have a compromised immune system, as constant high blood glucose levels have been shown to weaken immune defenses. But just as certain behaviors — not getting enough sleep, working long hours at a stressful job — can weaken your defenses, you can boost your immune system through proper rest and good nutrition. Researchers believe that including probiotics in your diet can help bolster the immune system to fight off disease.

How probiotics can help: Good bacteria may somehow communicate with immune cells in the digestive tract to launch an attack against harmful invaders. They may also “crowd out” harmful bacteria by taking up space and food, thus limiting the invaders’ ability to thrive.

Counteracting antibiotics. Antibiotics are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they help get rid of certain infections — including strep throat, tuberculosis, salmonella, and bacterial meningitis — by killing off harmful bacteria. On the other hand, they also kill off good bacteria throughout the body, including the digestive tract, the urinary tract, and reproductive organs. As a result, one infection may be swapped for another, such as antibiotic-induced diarrhea or a yeast infection in the mouth or vagina.

How probiotics can help: Taking probiotics has been shown to reduce antibiotic-induced diarrhea and may be helpful for women who get vaginal yeast infections whenever they take an antibiotic.

Alleviating lactose intolerance. Lactose intolerance — the inability to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in dairy products — affects up to 50 million Americans. This condition occurs due to a lack of lactase, an enzyme needed to break down lactose in the digestive tract. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include abdominal cramping or pain, gas, bloating, nausea, or diarrhea.

How probiotics can help: The Lactobacillus genus of bacteria (which includes many different species) converts lactose into lactic acid. This is why some people with lactose intolerance can eat yogurt or drink acidophilus milk without experiencing side effects.

Fighting irritable bowel syndrome. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is one of the most common digestive disorders and one of the most frustrating to treat. IBS isn’t a disease, but rather a general term to describe a malfunctioning digestive system. People with IBS may have different symptoms at different times, including cramping, pain, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. There are few medicines available to treat IBS. Some people find relief by making dietary changes, such as eating more fiber, cutting out caffeine and alcohol, and avoiding refined carbohydrates. Stress reduction, exercise, yoga, and massage may also help.

How probiotics can help: It’s a bit of a mystery how probiotics work to reduce IBS symptoms, but supplements that contain the bacteria Bifidobacterium infantis seem to help with bloating, pain, and bowel regularity. One study showed that a multibacterial probiotic reduced diarrhea in 84 people with IBS compared with those given a placebo (inactive pill).

Preventing urinary tract infections. Urinary tract infections, or UTIs, can be caused by a number of types of bacteria, including E. coli. UTIs are much more common among women than men. Women who have diabetes are also two to three times more likely to have bacteria in their bladders than women without diabetes. Having diabetes might make a person more susceptible to getting a UTI in part because the white blood cells — part of your immune system — don’t work as well to fight off bacteria. It’s also possible that in some people with diabetes, the bladder does not contract as well as it should — which means that some urine stays in the bladder, forming a breeding ground for bacteria.

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