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Modern health gurus are constantly recommending probiotics for a myriad of health benefits. But getting the full benefit of probiotics means understanding what they are, what they do, how to add them to your diet naturally, and how to choose a supplement that is worth the often hefty price tag. You’re about to get a crash course in the benefits of probiotics and the best way to add them to your lifestyle for maximum results.
On the most basic level, we’re talking about microorganisms that are healthy for your body. While most people equate microorganisms with germs, many forms of bacteria are important to digestive health and many of the other systems of the body. Healthy gut bacteria also do much to defend the body against harmful microorganisms, and they are vital in vitamin production. Researchers have considered the benefits of probiotics for everything from digestive disorders to the common cold. What benefits have they uncovered?
Having more bad bacteria than good bacteria in the gut can have all sorts of consequences for the body. In fact, changes in the function or presence of healthy microbes in the gut have been linked to numerous health conditions. Consider the following benefits of balancing out gut bacteria through diet and supplementation.
Gastrointestinal Health – Probiotics are useful in curbing constipation and diarrhea associated with a number of conditions including irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease, and other conditions that are associated with inflammatory bowel disease (1) and leaky gut. In particular, the bacteria Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 proved beneficial in a study involving 362 women. (2)
Overall Immune Health – Changes in gut bacteria have been linked to problems with immune system response. This can cause a person to become more susceptible to infections, the flu, or the common cold. Allergies, autoimmune conditions, and cancer have also been linked to changes in health microbiota. (3) In fact, some researchers are examining the efficacy of probiotics for enhancing the effectiveness of antibiotics. (4)
Weight Control – In a comprehensive study involving weight loss and the reduction of fat mass, women taking the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus CGMCC1.3724 were able to achieve greater levels of weight loss and keep the weight off when compared to women in the study who were not taking probiotics. (5) If you’ve been trying to lose weight and struggling, or have trouble keeping the weight off, probiotics may be the key element that is missing.
Increased Female Flora – Probiotics may be the answer to several common female health concerns including bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections. Beneficial microbes help maintain a vaginal atmosphere that is inhospitable to infectious bacteria. A lack of this beneficial flora can result in a change in pH level and create the right environment for yeast growth. (6)
Anxiety Reduction – Certain bacteria have been seen to reduce stress hormones, thereby serving to help with anxiety. In fact, a number of mood disorders have now been linked to changes in healthy gut bacteria. (7) As a result, many suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mood disorders are supplementing with probiotics to enhance mood.
A good probiotic should increase immunity, sense of well-being, decrease stomach problems (IBS, bloating...etc), and help balance out your bad bacteria to good bacteria ratio.
The best way to increase the amounts of healthy bacteria in your body is to add probiotics to your diet naturally through foods that are sources of the right type of bacteria. The one source that everyone seems to recognize is yogurt. Yogurt contains numerous types of flora that are beneficial for the body including the widely-known Lactobacillus acidophilus. However, yogurt is not the only way to add probiotics to your diet naturally and is not an option for people on dairy-free diets. Here are a few more foods to consider:
By adding more yogurt and certain fermented and pickled foods to your diet, you can quickly give your body a boost of probiotics. Be sure to keep foods containing probiotics out of sunlight (this will go for supplements as well). And keep in mind that any naturally fermented products will provide the same benefits whether you get them discounted in bulk or pay extra at a store that specializes in organic foods.
However, when natural sources just aren’t enough, supplementation can make up the difference. But be warned – not all probiotic supplements are created equal.
Supplements can get expensive, so the best way to avoid wasting your money is to know what makes a good supplement and then to shop around for a bargain. Unfortunately, just buying the cheapest supplements can lead to getting a worthless product, so here are a few things to look for.
Beneficial Bacteria Strains – The most beneficial strains of bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium (you will notice that all of the strains mentioned above under the benefits heading are of these two varieties). Most supplements will abbreviate the strain with a B. or an L. followed by the lowercase name of the specific culture. For example, Lactobacillus acidophilus will usually be listed as L. acidophilus. You should look for something that states "live, active strains". More strains do not equate to more benefits. Some brands list a whole variety of cultures that do nothing but pass through your gut without any noticeable benefits. These brands are usually premium (since they have 15+ different strains) and you pay a premium price. Some strains while not harmful to you -- do not belong in your gut. They are unnatural for your body and will not be absorbed.
Dosage – Some supplements contain hundreds of billions of CFUs. This is usually overkill and just adds to the price. A supplement that provides 5 billion CFUs or above should be sufficient. More strains are not synonymous with more benefits. Some brands add in useless strains to make the product appear better. Meanwhile, these strains, while not harmful, are not needed by the body and are simply excreted. Rather than more strains, you want the rights strains, as noted above, and you want them to be live, active strains.
Probiotic Labels – Look for labels that say “potency guaranteed until time of expiration.” Trick phrases like “colony forming units at the time of manufacturing” is code for “this would have been good for you if you took it months ago.” It doesn’t matter how beneficial the product was when it came off the manufacturing equipment. It matters how good it is in your home while you are taking it. Don't be phased by buzzwords and "patent-pending technologies" Also, be careful with a “proprietary blend” if it doesn’t have lots of good reviews or explanations as to why and what is in its “proprietary blend”. The FDA doesn’t require a company to release how much of each ingredient is in the blend, so you’re going on blind faith that the blend is even remotely useful.
It can take a little trial and error to find the right supplements that work with your body, but here are a few that meet the recommendations above, so you have a place to start:
My advice is to experiment with different high-quality brands and see what works for you. You won't notice an effect in a week but should notice something in a month.
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