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Good for the gut

Good for the gut
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Super-strength smoothie

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2011

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you have probably heard quite a bit about something called probiotics.

Television commercials - especially the ones featuring popular brand-name yogurts - have been very effective in conveying the message that probiotics are essential to a healthy lifestyle.

Not surprisingly, all the buzz about probiotics has raised some pretty basic questions, such as: What exactly are they? What do they do? And how do you know if you are getting enough?

The first two questions are relatively easy to answer.

Probiotics is the term used to describe a multitude of different types of friendly micro-organisms and bacteria living in our intestinal tract. Also known as the "friendly bacteria," probiotics do indeed work to keep us healthy. Not only do they help us digest the food we eat, they also activate our immune system, combat harmful bacteria and even regulate pain receptors.

Moreover, there is encouraging evidence to suggest that probiotics may be particularly useful for people with certain conditions. Studies show that they can be helpful in:

  • Reducing diarrhea, especially following treatment with antibiotics
  • Preventing and treating vaginal yeast and urinary tract infections
  • Reducing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
  • Inducing and maintaining remission of Ulcerative Colitis
  • Improving medication treatment of ulcers caused by Helicobactor Pylori
  • Reducing incidence and severity of seasonal colds and flu

Probiotics are found in naturally fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, miso, and sauerkraut. They are also added to certain foods, such as cereal, cheese, juice and yogurt.

In addition to being found naturally or as a supplement in certain foods, probiotics are also sold as supplements that are regulated as Natural Health Products (NHPs). Supplements generally contain very large doses of probiotics for a reported use.

Just how many probiotics one person should consume is difficult to say. Generally speaking, probiotics need to be consumed on a daily basis in order to maintain their numbers in the intestinal tract. An amount of at least one billion bacteria per serving, has been shown to help colonize the intestinal tract. Also important is that the probiotics are alive at the time of purchase and have been clinically tested for their reported health claim. In other words, it's "buyer beware."

Those interested in maximizing the health benefits of probiotics should also make a point of ensuring they include prebiotics in their diet. Prebiotics essentially serve to stimulate probiotics in the gut. They can be found in a variety of foods, including:

  • Whole grains like oatmeal, barley, flax
  • Vegetables like onions, garlic, leeks
  • Greens like spinach, kale, swiss chard
  • Fruit like berries, bananas, apples
  • Legumes like lentils, kidney beans, black beans

The bottom line: Probiotics can enhance your health. But they are only one of many food components that contribute to overall health and should be consumed as part of a healthy, balanced diet like that recommended by Eating Well with Canada's Food Guide.

Lisa Begg is a registered dietitian with the Winnipeg Health Region.

Wave: Summer 2011

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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