We're living in a Purell world and we are germaphobe girls. Understandably, most of us are not fans of germs. Or the icky stuff they're made up of, i.e. bacteria. Or well, anything that elicits thoughts of slimy, little microorganisms crawling on or in us (gross), because we’ve been wired to think they are all bad, bad, bad. But then in come probiotics — essentially the do-gooders of the bacteria world — and they completely throw us for a loop.
"Probiotics are healthy bacteria that actually benefit the host — and in this case that’s you," says Tracy Olgeaty Gensler, M.S., R.D., nutritionist in Chevy Chase, Maryland and author of Probiotic and Prebiotic Recipes for Health . She notes that these friendly flora are critical to your health and have been shown to boost the immune system, reduce inflammation, and help the body better absorb nutrients from food. Here, we're offering you some of the most common ways to add probiotics to your life, plus the benefits you'll see when you let those little buggers work their magic.
FOR YOUR BODY
In your digestive system, specifically intestines, there are trillions (cue Dr. Evil laugh) of bacteria doing their thing. "The digestive system is very complex — and it consists of 300 to 500 different species of bacteria," says Gensler. The good news: A lot of them are good. The most popular being lactobacillus acidophilus (Latin for acid-loving milk-bacterium), which pretty much hangs out in your hoo-ha as well as digestive tract and is what you typically see in pill form lining the drugstore shelves.
The whole purpose of having probiotics in your system is to counteract their evil counterparts, which often find their way where they don’t belong and are the cause of of tummy troubles like the stomach virus, flu, or a whole slew of so-not-fun illnesses. Probiotics also aid in the breakdown of fiber from food — like fruits, veggies, and whole grains — as well as lactose, from dairy. The result: stellar intestines and a happy belly. You’ve also got some no-good bacteria (a.k.a. yeast) living in your lady parts, so probiotics help keep that in check. Allow too much bad bacteria to collect down there and sure enough you’re buying Monistat on the reg.
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FOR YOUR SKIN
Much as you want to keep bad bacteria at bay inside your body, you also want to do the same on the outside. You already know that dirt and grime sitting on skin can breed bacteria, and when pores are clogged with skin cells and other gunk, bacteria feeds on it, creating puss and well, a zit. The idea behind topical, probiotic-laced skin care is to lessen bacteria, so you end up with not only clearer skin but also healthier, younger skin cells and a more radiant complexion.
"When the skin is out of balance, there can be a disruption in the barrier protection which can cause bacterial overgrowth, dryness, skin rashes, acne, rosacea, or premature aging," explains says David E. Bank, M.D., a dermatologist in Mount Kisco, New York. "The problem is that there isn’t a ton of research proving that applying probiotics topically does much." That’s partly because you’re aren’t going to put live microorganisms on your face (nor can they flourish in a jar), and there’s not much science that shows that taking a non-living form of probiotic and putting it on skin even works. That being said, in theory, it makes sense and if there’s even a hint of anti-bacterial action in there, we’ll take it.
A few beautifiers that promise the benefits of probiotics in a jar:
Clinique Medical Optimizing Skin Pre/Post Procedure Regimen System Kit (the department store fave teamed up with Botox maker Allergan) offers an all-in-one prep and treat line that also doesn’t have the live stuff in there but instead, ingredients that claim to promote skin’s natural probiotics and speed up healing.
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FOODS THAT PACK A PROBIOTIC PUNCH
Probiotics are found in buttermilk, kefir, kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage), miso, sauerkraut, tempeh (fermented soy), and the most famous of them all — yogurt. "All yogurts made in the United States are manufactured using the probiotic bacteria S. thermophilus and L. bulgaricus,” explains Gensler. “Check the yogurt label for the words 'Live Active Culture Seal' as this means that the yogurt was not heat treated after production, and your yogurt should contain live versions of these bacteria."
"The live microbes in probiotic foods can be used in conjunction with prebiotics — non-digestible foods which help the probiotics flourish — and this combination, known as synbiotics, can improve the survival of probiotics in the digestive tract," explains Gensler. Prebiotic foods include barley, flax, legumes such as black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, navy beans, and white beans, oatmeal, and all fruits and vegetables — but especially bananas, berries, chard, collard greens, dandelion greens, garlic, kale, leeks, mustard greens, onions, and spinach.
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WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH PROBIOTIC SUPPLEMENTS?
Popping a pill always seems like an easy way out and some physicians recommend them, however Gensler suggests going right to a natural source instead, whenever possible. Still need more good flora or your physician says a supplement would do you good? Look for one with ample active microorganisms such as Vidazorb Probiotic Supplements which has about 30 billion live and all-good micro organisms (the equivalent, they say, of 20 Activa yogurts). But Bank says that a probiotic supplement could also be a clear skin Rx. “Oral probiotics will help to improve the skin from the inside out — they can help balance your system and clear up your skin,” he says. What to look for on the label: a pharmaceutical-grade product and high quality. Also, pay attention to the quantity of bacteria labeled as CFU (colony forming units) to make sure you have the right balance for you.
As for how much of a probiotic you need to aim to get every day — be it from food or a supplement? It’s not easy to say. Each person has what Gensler says is a "unique flora fingerprint." And oddly enough, this number is determined, she says, by age two when you came in contact with all the icky bacteria you could for the first time ever — be it from breast milk, other kids in the sandbox, or following the two-second rule with your Fruit Loops. And now as an adult, even if something messes up the perfect balance of good and bad bacteria (such as a dose of antibiotics and a bacterial infection), after a while, your body typically takes back control on its own and restores order. But if the balance is so off that all bad-bacteria hell breaks loose, you may want to ask your doc about helping your numbers along with a supplement that can nix overabundant yeast, fungi, and parasites.
Photo: Courtesy of Vidazorb