What’s the Deal with Probiotics?
You’ve probably heard the virtues of probiotics extolled in health magazines and on cartons of Greek yogurt. Probiotics are live bacteria that naturally occur in certain foods—from fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut or kimchi, to live-cultured yogurt. They’re also added to some high-end dark chocolates and available as supplements.
Broken down, the word probiotic means “for life” or “promoting life.” While it sounds good, you still may wonder: are probiotics just another New Age gimmick, or is there some science behind the health benefits? Though far from a panacea, probiotics can help cure some ailments that may surprise you.
Down with Blood Pressure
If poor marks on your last physical have sent you on a personal quest to lower your cholesterol, look no farther than your fridge.
A small study presented at a recent AHA scientific meeting found that a strain of probiotics found in dairy and meats called Lactobacillus reuteri lowered LDL levels in participants by nearly 12 percent more than the group taking a placebo. Overall cholesterol was lowered by 9 percent.
How? The liver uses cholesterol to make bile. Researchers believe that probiotics break up bile salts and decrease their reabsorption in the gut.
Keep Your Teeth Intact
Your eyes may be the windows to your soul, but your smile is your welcome mat to the world. Besides being unsightly, poor oral hygiene is associated with serious health woes, including heart disease, diabetes, and even low birth weight.
Studies have shown that the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri kills the bacteria that causes tooth decay and lessens the harmful effects of gingivitis. A full mouth of teeth and a reduction in bleeding gums are two good reasons to add probiotics to your daily menu.
Whether you experience the occasional bout of traveler’s diarrhea, or are among the Journal of the American Medical Association's (JAMA) estimated one third of people who will experience it as a common side effect of antibiotics, diarrhea is unpleasant and embarrassing.
But don’t worry—there’s good news for your tush: according to the Harvard Medical School, many studies suggest that probiotic consumption can help reduce diarrhea episodes. For example, a 2012 clinical review published in JAMA found that those who took probiotics with antibiotics were 42 percent less likely to develop diarrhea than those who took the placebo.
If you have eczema, you know how annoying and frustrating perpetually dry, itchy skin can be. What if we could prevent future generations from getting it? A study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that babies who are at risk for developing eczema may benefit from their mothers’ consumption of probiotics.
Allergy-prone mothers with eczema were given probiotics two months before giving birth and during the first two months of breastfeeding. The babies, who were assessed at 6, 12, and 24 months, showed a significant reduction in their risk of developing the no-fun skin inflammation.
Listen Up, Ladies
The vagina is a delicately balanced environment of good and bad bacteria. Unfortunately, sometimes just taking antibiotics or birth control pills, becoming pregnant, or having diabetes is enough to throw your system out of whack. If you’re prone to pesky yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or urinary tract infections (UTIs), you might consider protecting your lady parts with probiotics.
According to the Harvard Medical School, probiotics may help balance the bacteria present in your vagina and prevent the overgrowth of harmful microorganisms. While their effectiveness is still being debated, researchers agree that there’s no harm in adding more probiotics to your diet.
Give Respiratory Infections the Cold Shoulder
Some people seem to get sick every time the weather changes, but that doesn’t have to be you this year. Researchers who conducted a review of studies from the Cochrane Library concluded that, overall, probiotics seem to reduce upper respiratory infections when compared to a placebo.
In another study, children from 18 daycares in Helsinki, Finland were given milk with or without probiotics. Can you guess which group remained healthier? You got it—those who drank the probiotic-enriched milk were 17 percent less likely to get a respiratory infection and 16 percent less likely to be absent due to illness.
Hush, Little Baby
Any parent or airplane passenger would agree: nothing is worse than a crying baby—especially one that can’t be comforted. Because we don’t know exactly what causes colic in babies, it’s difficult to treat. However, some research suggests that probiotics might provide some relief.
A 2007 study published in Pediatrics found that after 28 days, breastfed babies whose mothers consumed a daily dose of probiotics cried 194 minutes less than the test group that didn’t. A 2010 study published in the same journal found similar results. Gaining just a minute of peace and quiet would give you good reason to pop a probiotic supplement. Now you’ve got 194 good reasons.
Love Your Gut
If constipation, bloating, and gas are mainstay symptoms of your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s, a cup of yogurt a day may keep you regular all day. Johns Hopkins Health Alerts reports that those who ate two 4-ounce servings of live-culture yogurt during a study experienced less bloating and more bowel movements after a few weeks.
Another study published in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics revealed that people who ate live-culture yogurt twice a day experienced a shorter amount of time between eating and bowel movements. That’s less time you’d have to spend doubled over, clutching your stomach in pain.
Putting Probiotics in Perspective
It’s important to remember that while many studies suggest that probiotics can have a positive impact on your health, other studies report weak findings. Although probiotics may not be the miracle cure you’re looking for, one thing’s for sure: they can’t hurt.
Whether it’s an apple a day or a cup of probiotic-rich kefir, if you feel healthier when you eat it, keep it up. Pay attention to your body and to emerging research on new and natural ways to stay healthy.