Yogurt Alert: Be Active

The message on overuse of antibiotics is finally getting plenty of press and for good reason.   The more we prescribe or use antibiotics, the faster nature adapts and evolves to find other paths for bacterial self-preservation. But there’s a flip side to the bacteria story that doesn’t get as much attention. There are “good” bacteria, as well as “bad” bacteria, and one of those “good” types of bacteria aids digestion and promotes a healthier digestive system.

Probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning “for life”) are bacteria that help maintain the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in our intestines. Normally, the human digestive tract contains about 400 types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and promote healthy digestion. The largest group of probiotic bacteria in the intestine is lactic acid bacteria, of which Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt with live cultures, is the best known. Yeast is also a probiotic substance.

Only certain types of bacteria or yeast (called strains) have been shown to work in the digestive tract. Probiotics mimic our natural digestive system, and have been used for hundreds of years in fermented foods and cultured milk products. Europeans consume a lot of these beneficial microorganisms because of their tradition of eating foods fermented with bacteria including yogurt. Additionally, probiotic-laced beverages are popular in Japan. While their positive health benefits have been established, researchers continue studying the safety of probiotics in young children, the elderly, and people who have weak immune systems.

Many people use probiotics to prevent or limit diarrhea, gas, and cramping caused by antibiotics. Antibiotics kill beneficial bacteria along with the bacteria that cause illness, and a decrease in beneficial bacteria may lead to digestive problems. Taking probiotics may help replace the lost beneficial bacteria. Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have established that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ailments, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.

They’re also recommended to help prevent infections in the digestive tract, and to help control immune responses or inflammations such as irritable bowel disease or syndrome.  Additionally, probiotics are being studied for benefits relating to colon cancer, Crohn’s Disease, and skin infections.

Eating yogurt is a healthy practice. But to get the amount of probiotics available in traditional supplements, you’d have to eat at least five containers of yogurt daily. However, as with any dietary supplement, you should discuss its benefits with your physician or a licensed nutritionist as supplements are regulated as foods, not drugs, and may not be suitable for people with specific illnesses, conditions, or medical histories. The same precaution is extended to women who are pregnant or considering getting pregnant.

While much also remains to be learned about probiotics and the immune system, studies suggest that certain probiotic strains offer a variety of additional benefits:

  • Probiotics may help with inflammatory bowel disease by changing the intestinal microflora and lessening the immune system response that can worsen the disease.
  • Studies indicate that probiotics may enhance resistance to and recovery from infection. In research on elderly people, researchers found that the duration of all illnesses was significantly lower in a group that consumed a certain probiotic found in fermented milk. They also reported a possible 20% reduction in the length of winter infections (including gastrointestinal and respiratory infections).
  • Yogurt containing two probiotics, lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, was found to improve the success of drug therapy (using four specific medications) for people suffering from persistent  pyloriinfections. H. pylori is a bacterium that can cause infection in the stomach and upper part of the small intestine. It can lead to ulcers and can increase the risk of developing stomach cancer as well.
  • Certain probiotics may help maintain remission of ulcerative colitis and prevent relapse of Crohn’s disease and the recurrence of pouchitis (a complication of surgery to treat ulcerative colitis).
  • Probiotics also may be of use in maintaining urogenital health. Like the intestinal tract, the vagina is a finely balanced ecosystem that can be thrown out of balance by a number of factors, including antibiotics, spermicides, and birth-control pills. Probiotic treatment that restores the balance of microflora may be helpful for such common female urogenital problems as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary tract infection.

Make sure contents and the strain of probiotic in the supplement are clearly marked as not all are beneficial for different conditions. And note that the number of active agents in a supplement can vary widely from one to the next. Again, seek guidance from your physician or a nutritionist to help ensure the best results.

And while it’s great right out of the container, yogurt works as a substitute ingredient in many recipes. Plain yogurt can take the place of sour cream (over baked potatoes or when garnishing enchiladas). You can also substitute a complementary flavor of yogurt for some of the oil or butter called for in a muffin, brownie, or cake recipe. It can replace all of the fat called for in cake mixes, too.

The best and easiest advice is to get in the habit of eating yogurt that includes live and active cultures, particularly those brands and labels that are not loaded with sugar. Remember, yogurt comes from milk, so in addition to the active cultures, yogurt eaters benefit from several other nutrients found in dairy foods like calcium, vitamin B-2, vitamin B-12, potassium, vitamin D and magnesium. Happy eating, and remember – a little culture never hurt anyone!