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Understanding probiotics

Maybe you’ve heard that probiotics help you lose weight. Or perhaps someone told you they’re good for eliminating constipation or preventing colds or any number of hefty claims. But how many of these claims are actually true? Read on to find out!

Benefits of probiotics
Woman eating probiotic yogurt

What are probiotics?

If that chatty co-worker of yours who constantly yammers on about the probiotics in her yogourt forgot to mention it, probiotics are live micro-organisms that exist in food and often fall into the category of bacteria. But don’t let their being bacteria turn you off too quickly! Registered dietician Betty Kovacs of MedicineNet explains that there is both “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria in our bodies, and optimal health is achieved by keeping these two in balance. In fact, the United Nations World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”

So how do they help?

Probiotics help our bodies in two ways. First, they can assist in regulating the digestive tract. The gastrointestinal tract requires a healthy mixture of good and bad bacteria to work effectively. When your body is short on healthy foods, sleep deprived, or coping with emotional stress or environmental factors, bad bacteria can start to become more dominant, and that can lead to diarrhea, urinary tract infection, fatigue and more. With appropriate probiotic consumption, you can help keep your body on track.

Similarly, probiotics also help our immune systems function more efficiently. Immune systems are constantly trying to keep the balance of bacteria at a healthy level. When bad bacteria starts to win out, any number of illnesses can take over. Probiotics can aid in increasing your good bacteria levels to keep your immune system running smoothly.

How do we get them?

Probiotics can be found primarily in certain foods such as yogourt, granola, cereal and juice. The California Dairy Research Foundation reports that you can also take supplements that come in the form of powders, tablets, capsules or liquids. The important thing to remember is that probiotic bacteria are only beneficial if they are alive when they arrive at the intestine. If you have any doubts about whether a product has been properly prepared and stored, consult the Canadian Food Inspection Agency for more information on probiotic claims.

Are probiotics for everyone?

Research is still ongoing as to whether probiotics are healthy for everyone. There is some belief that they may actually increase the risk of illness when consumed in high quantities by children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with immune deficiencies. If you’re considering increasing your consumption of probiotics or taking a supplement, be sure to talk to your doctor on whether it’s the right decision for you.

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