Each week millions of Americans purchase probiotic-rich foods and supplements in an attempt to attain digestive regularity and balance. Business is booming-an April 2010 Mintel report showed that in the Natural Channel Sales for Digestive Health category, probiotics posted a 28 percent increase in sales from 2009 to 2010.
Dr. Chuck Olds, DC, of Olds Chiropractic clinics in Sparta and Cookville, Tenn., says the rising cost of healthcare and overuse of antibiotics are primary reasons why demand for natural digestive aids has increased.
“People are starting to learn,” Dr. Olds says. “It’s just getting too expensive to keep covering up the problem. Diet accounts for 90 percent of the solution, no matter what the problem is. But it does little if you don’t address the other 10 percent of the problem with probiotics.”
While consumers are sold on wanting to look and feel like the happy-go-lucky celebrities that tout probiotic food products, they know little about what they’re taking in. A recent report from the Natural Marketing Institute shows that approximately 70 percent of consumers say they aren’t knowledgeable about the health benefits of probiotics.
With an overwhelming response to probiotic advertising campaigns, consumers are desperate for education on what probiotics are, the symbiotic relationship they have with the gut and how many probiotic strains are enough (or too much). Here are some basics to help you choose a probiotic product that’s right for you.
Conflict in the gut: Probiotics help win the war
Inside the gut, there’s a quiet territorial war raging between several different types of beneficial and non-beneficial micro-organisms. On one side, beneficial bacteria engage in a symbiotic relationship with the body: It helps you break down food and absorb essential vitamins and nutrients. In return, it feeds off of a portion of the food you take in and is allowed to survive and multiply.
On the other side, non-beneficial bacteria, particularly yeast (candida albicans), feed, survive and multiply off of the sugars, starches, yeast breads (this type of yeast is called saccharomyces) and alcoholic beverages we consume.
All of the micro-organisms compete with each other to colonize in the gut and multiply. If non-beneficial bacteria colonize the colon and outnumber the beneficial bacteria, the results can include ulcers, weakened immune system, irritable bowel syndrome, vaginal infection and diarrhea.
Taking a probiotic supplement helps keep yeast, viruses and other harmful microbes at bay and creates a healthy and neutral environment in the gut, increases the efficiency of digestion, promotes better gut-related immune response, helps lower incidence of allergic responses and improves repair of damaged intestinal cell membranes.
Antibiotics: They don’t just kill bad bacteria
Just as its name suggests, antibiotics do not discriminate when it comes to destroying micro-organisms, both beneficial and non-beneficial. It’s akin to a nuclear bomb, wiping out everything in its path. While antibiotics can help the body level the playing field, it also opens up the door for harmful bacteria to gain the upper hand in next round of the micro-war.
“I heard it said once that if you’ve had just one round of antibiotics in your lifetime, you have a yeast problem,” Dr. Olds says. In order to keep pace with the growth of bad bacteria, supplementing your diet with a probiotic is crucial to sustaining intestinal balance.
What to look for
Lawrence Bronstein DC, CNS, DACBN, a 26-year veteran of Mahaiwe Chiropractic, Health & Nutrition Services in Great Barrington, Mass., says effective probiotic therapy is based on the particular needs of the individual and involves more than just picking up some yogurt at the local grocery store. If you want to tap into the full potential probiotics have to offer, Dr. Bronstein encourages consumers to take a close look at these factors:
Potency and types of strains: More isn’t always better
There are hundreds of different types of probiotic flora (aka “strains”). So it goes without saying that the potency and types varies from person to person depending on what is lacking. Dr. Bronstein says you should stick with a product that contains at least four of the six strains most likely to be needed, including bifidobacterium longum and five in the lactobacillus family, including acidophilus, plantarum, rhamnosus, salivarius, and casei. Lactobacillus is a lactic acid bacteria that competes with other bacteria-working in an increasing acidic environment that it creates. Doing so allows it to reduce other harmful bacteria from growing and flourishing.
Many probiotic manufactures use the “more is better” approach, offering products containing up to 16 strains. However, Dr. Bronstein says taking too many strains can end up doing more harm than good.
“There is such a thing as taking in too much flora,” he says. “It takes you right back where you started by making you feel bloated, experience indigestion and cause changes in stool.”
Dr. Olds recommends Advanced Formula FlorEnz, which is available through healthcare practitioners.
“I’ve had great success with it for 14 years,” he says. “None of my patients have ever had an adverse reaction to it.”
Additives: What some food companies don’t tell you
What is more enticing than taking in your daily dose of probiotics in the form of a delicious cup of strawberry, vanilla or peach yogurt? Ah, but there’s a likely catch if the product contains certain food additives, according to Dr. Bronstein.
“It’s a problem consuming probiotics or nutraceuticals in presence of food additives such as sugar and food colorings in typical yogurt produced commercially,” he says. And yeast (candida albicans) thrives on processed sugar making the commercially produced yogurt flavored with sugar counterproductive.”
Probiotics lose approximately 10 percent of their viability when they expire. Micro-organisms continue to die off after that, until they’re rendered virtually ineffective. Make sure the product you choose has an expiration date of at least one year or less from the current month.
Enzyme supplements complement probiotics
Intestinal health is the cornerstone and predictor of overall health. In addition to probiotics, digestive enzyme supplements are also a key player in the pursuit of intestinal harmony. The human body naturally secretes digestive enzymes in the pancreas and sends them to the small intestine to help break down food components. Raw foods contain their own enzymes and initiate the digestive process in the mouth as you chew. With these foods aiding in the process and completing two-thirds of the digestive process before it reaches the acid portion of the stomach, they keep the demand for digestive enzymes low and allow the body’s enzyme supply to concentrate on other areas (such as immune function and response to inflammation).