Gut Feeling

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So you think that bacteria cause infections and should be eliminated, right? Well think again! In fact some bacteria are so essential to your immune system that destroying them can render you vulnerable to illness! They are called Probiotics — from the Greek word for ‘for life’ — and they’re found mostly in food. According to research, regular consumption of curd, ‘lassi’, ‘doogh, ‘laban’, yogurt, ‘miso’, ‘tempeh’, soy beverages and other fermented dairy foods like ‘kefir’ or acidophilus milk (the main dietary sources of these co-called good bacteria) may lower your risk of some kinds of cancer, cardiovascular disease, certain allergies, urinary tract or vaginal infections, digestive disorders, even bad breath!

If you haven’t yet heard of Probiotics, you will. Thanks to a growing awareness of their preventive benefits, more and more Probiotic-packed foods are becoming available in the market the world over. So how do Probiotics work?  Here’s an insight into their mechanism…

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Probiotics are your immune system’s backbone.  Did you know that more than 800 types of bacteria populate your gastrointestinal tract? Collectively they are called intestinal flora and besides merely living in your small and large intestines, they comprise nearly 70 per cent of your immune system! They’re essential to your body’s ability to protect itself from all sorts of attacks. These organisms are not only your body’s front line of defence against infection by food-borne bacteria, but they may also boost white blood cell production, quicken immune response and increase nutrient absorption. In addition, research suggests that intestinal flora can help the body produce specialised antibodies that prevent recurring infections.

Some of the bacteria in your body, however, aren’t so protective and can even be dangerous if left unchecked. Antibiotic use or overuse is the most common cause of intestinal flora imbalances, but a poor diet is also a factor. That’s where consuming Probiotics – either in food or from supplements – comes in. These products contain good bacteria that help control the growth of bad bacteria by competing for nutrients and space in the digestive tract.  One study in England found that women who ate Probiotic-packed dairy foods at least three times per week suffered nearly 80 per cent fewer urinary tract infections than women who ate them once a week or less. Research suggests that they may help ward off diarrhoea and constipation and lessen the effects of lactose intolerance. Eating just 100 gms of yogurt twice a day may even keep bad breath at bay by controlling bacterial overgrowth on the back of the tongue say researchers.

Probiotics prolong life. Studies have found that Probiotic bacteria may prevent precancerous changes from occurring in colon cells. Consuming Probiotic dairy products, like yogurt, may also help lower total cholesterol and improve the ratio of good cholesterol to bad, cutting your risk of atherosclerosis (a major precursor of stroke and heart disease).

Getting your dose of bacteria. Not all Probiotic-rich foods are created equal. Milk can be turned into yogurt with the help of several different strains of bacteria, but only the hardy ones – Lactobacillus (l.) acidophilus (the kind found in curd) and L. casei, among others – can survive the trip through the highly acidic environment of your stomach. And these are the kinds you want to consume in the greatest numbers!

It’s also extremely important to check the expiry date and choose only the freshest product. Ideally yogurt should contain at least 100 million bacteria per gram; how much is still there when you finally get around to eating is anyone’s guess!

Let’s say you’re not really a curd/yogurt person, did you know you can still get your dose of healthy bacteria by taking Probiotic supplements that are found in many health food shops around the world. These contain hundreds of billions of beneficial bacteria and aren’t as prone to spoilage as yogurt or another dairy foods are. Such power in a single pill makes it easy to quickly replenish your intestinal flora. For this reason, they’re also often prescribed as a companion to a round of antibiotics or as part of a treatment for a particular digestive disorder such as Crohn’s disease or travellers’ diarrhoea.

But for general wellness, fermented dairy products are the better option because they provide additional beneficial nutrients like calcium, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and potassium, often in a low-cal package. Just check that the expiry date is far into the future and eat it as soon as you can.

Including more Probiotic foods in your diet seems like a no-brainer, especially since they pose no harm. In fact most experts advise consuming them in a regular basis – if not everyday, then close to it. The idea is to continually replenish your intestinal flora and keep the population and thereby your body strong.