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Probiotics and Prebiotics and Conditions They Can Help Treat

By Lea Basch, M.S., RD ; Updated October 31, 2016

More and more, researchers are drawing connections between our health and the universe of bacteria that live inside our bodies -- particularly in our guts. The world is full of microorganisms, and so are our bodies: There are 100 trillion microorganisms in our digestive tract alone! The healthy ones, called "friendly bacteria" or "good bacteria," help your gut digest food and synthesize vitamins and essential fatty acids.

When we develop an imbalance in the amount of good bacteria versus bad bacteria in our bodies (often as a result of disease, diet or medication/antibiotics), we can develop symptoms and even chronic conditions that may be resistant to typical medical treatments.

Enter probiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacteria) that are similar to the beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut. They're available mainly in the form of supplements and foods like yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi.

The body of research on the benefits of consuming probiotics centers around digestive disorders (e.g., diarrhea, Crohn's disease and the elusive irritable bowel syndrome). However, there are also strong linkages being drawn between our microbiomes and our immune health, autoimmune disease, inflammatory conditions and even obesity. Probiotics are also helpful in synthesizing vitamins (particularly B vitamins), lowering the risk of allergies, decreasing risk of dental caries and even mitigating lactose intolerance.

The benefits of one strain of probiotics may not necessarily apply to others, or even to different preparations of the same species or strain. If you are looking to treat a specific condition with probiotics, the list below may come in handy in your search for the right supplement for you. These are some probiotic genomes that recent research has associated with certain conditions.

Health Conditions and the Recommended Probiotics and Prebiotics

Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
Saccharomyces boulardii
Enterococcus faecium
Streptococcus thermophilus
Lactobacillus casei
Lactobacillus acidophilus

Irritable Bowel Syndrome:
Lactobacillus plantarum
Bifidobacterium infantis
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG

Vaginal Yeast Infection:
Lactobacillus acidophilus
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1
Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14

Immune Support:
Lactobacillus rhamnosus
Lactobacillus plantarum
Lactobacillus salivarius
Bifidobacterium bifidum
Bifidobacterium lactis
Lactobacillus casei Shirota
Lactobacillus casei
Lactobacillus reuteri

Lactose Intolerance:
Lactobacillus bulgaricus
Streptococcus thermophilus

Lactulose (prebiotic)
Oligofructose (prebiotic)
Inulin (prebiotic)
Bifidobacterium animalis
Lactobacillus casei Shirota

What Are Prebiotics?

I can't write about probiotics without mentioning their partners in crime: prebiotics. Prebiotics are the indigestible carbohydrates that feed probiotics. They are found mainly in foods like Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, bananas, oatmeal and chicory root.

Some of the common health benefits associated with prebiotics include decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reduced risk of colon cancer and relief of constipation. Prebiotics also decrease the pH of the colon and thereby increase mineral absorption and possibly even reduce the survival of some harmful bacteria.

Overall, if you're looking to maintain a good balance of gut bacteria, simply eat a healthy, diverse diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and fermented products. You may also consider taking a probiotic supplement for specific conditions or after a course of antibiotics. Consult with a health professional to determine the best course of action for you and your situation.

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