Probiotics: Do you need them?
By Jay Wiener
Founder & CEO, WeightZone Factor
Probiotics keep growing more popular, and with good reason: they work. That’s remarkable, considering that the great majority of over-the-counter supplements do not work. Probiotics may relieve many health problems; however, before you dash to the health food store or begin mainlining yogurt, you should learn what probiotics do, which brands are recommended by legitimate experts, which will treat different conditions, and (most important) what the hell are probiotics?
I get strange questions…
Q: “If I take probiotics, can I eat more carbs?“
A: Yes, but you will get fatter.
Q: “Will probiotics help my diet?”
A: No. Dieting will help your diet.
Q: “Will Probiotics help my chronic explosive diarrhea?”
A: Maybe. Now, never write to me again.
According to NY Times Wellness Expert Jane Brody, “Probiotics are defined by the World Health Organization as ‘live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.’ Their benefits range from relieving infection-caused diarrhea, inflammatory bowel diseases, and irritable bowel syndrome to helping patients with asthma, allergy, and Type 1 diabetes.”
Translation: Probiotics are bugs that make your gut healthier.
Probiotics, Prebiotics and Synbiotics
Two other terms complete the picture: prebiotics and synbiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that stimulate the growth of probiotic organisms in the gut. They are found in oats, wheat, bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, soybeans, honey, and artichokes. Synbiotics, a combination of prebiotics and probiotics, are found in yogurt and kefir, fermented foods like pickles and some cheeses, and in some supplements.
A quick summary: probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in your body and offer a health benefit. Prebiotics feed the little beasts. Synbiotics are foods that contain both prebiotics and probiotics and still taste good, which apparently is not impossible.
Northern Europeans frequently consume probiotics because of their tradition of eating foods fermented with bacteria, such as yogurt and cheese. Probiotic-laced beverages are also big business in Japan. However, probiotic foods have lagged in the United States while probiotic supplements have grown rapidly. Tell Americans there is a health issue and we will try to fix it with a pill.
Before you take a probiotic, decide what you want it to do for your health. Then, Google your symptom and the word ‘probiotic.’ After you find the appropriate bacteria strain (or yeast strain), find a supplement that contains that specific organism. Just be careful; if you go to your local health food store and purchase a beautifully labeled package of pills, you will have no way of knowing if the pills contain probiotics or cow pie. And even if they do have billions of probiotic beasties ready to populate your intestines, you don’t know if you are getting the strain you are looking for to treat your particular problem. Cross your fingers.
Why are things so confusing? First, no government agency regularly tests supplements to see what they contain. Second, there is no legal definition of ‘Probiotics’. Someone could legally sell crunchy wafers of Mr. Magic’s All-Natural Probiotic Cow Pie, even if the package sported a label that said, “This may help your chronic explosive diarrhea.”
Will probiotics help you lose weight?
Legitimate researchers have proven that many different strains of bacteria, fungi, and yeasts can have a positive impact on your gastrointestinal tract. Unfortunately, they cannot help you lose weight–sorry. The only studies that showed positive weight-loss results were small, short term projects sponsored by companies that sell probiotics–hardly an objective crowd. Independent studies have shown that the bacterial strains under review did not help dieters.
Several supplements and yogurt drinks have been evaluated properly and found to be excellent aids to digestion. Culturelle contains Lactobacillus GG; Align contains Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 (also marketed as Bifantis). Both are recommended for people taking lengthy courses of antibiotics. VSL#3 was specifically designed for the dietary management of ulcerative colitis, an ileal pouch, and irritable bowel syndrome.
That said, all the major brands suffer from the same deficiency: they employ a very limited variety of species of bacteria. A healthy gut contains hundreds or even thousands of different species, and in general, more is better. The best way to encourage a diverse microbiota is… by eating your fruits and vegetables. I’m serious.
The wider the variety of fruits and vegetables, the healthier your assortment of gut bacteria will be. Also, organic is better than commercially grown, but commercially grown produce is vastly better for your health than processed foods.
Now, summon your inner Bugs Bunny and munch away.
About Jay Wiener
Jay is both a professional mathematician and a humorist–a rare combination. After maintaining a 100+ pound weight loss for many years, he created a popular diet and fitness blog that makes wellness fun. It has helped countless people to lose weight and get healthier.
Jay is also the developer of WeightZone, a free algorithm that predicts a healthy zone of weight based on body stats, health history and exercise history. WeightZone has replaced the standard BMI and is considered to be the most accurate healthy weight guide available online.
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The views and opinions of guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Full Circle.