Baba Vasilika, a peasant from a small village in Bulgaria, lived to
be 126 years old and her son, Tudor, to 101. The secret to their
longevity, says a 20th century text, was a daily diet of sour milk,
packed with beneficial bacteria.
The story, recounted in a 1911 book The Bacillus of Long Life,
describes healthy bacteria now called probiotics. Today,
probiotics--defined by the World Health Organization as live microbes
that confer a health benefit--are one of the hottest consumer health
products. Last year, according to research firm Euromonitor
International, more than 63,000 tons of probiotic cultures were consumed
Americans are turning to probiotics in part to counter the
sanitizing effect of modern rood processing, which minimizes risks of
pathogens in food but also kills natural flora which some scientists
believe have health benefits. Live bacteria, originally marketed mainly
in yogurt and dietary supplements, are now being added to breakfast
cereals, juices, sports drinks, muffins, chocolate, and even Pizza.
Potential health benefits range from better digestive health to
prevention of colds and flus.
Consider Herald Hollingshed, a 44-year-old technical director for a
computer-services company, who felt his digestion started
"slowing" when he hit middle age. He was frequently
uncomfortable and bloated, but found relief with a Procter & Gamble
product, Align. The pill "helps everything flow as it should,"
says Hollingshed, who also switched to a healthier diet. "I feel in
my best shape ever."
For Cheryl Richardson, a 67-year-old retired lab technician from
Chestertown, Maryland, probiotics over the years have helped balance the
negative effects of antibiotics. Several years ago, after becoming ill
from restaurant food while on vacation in the British Isles, a doctor
prescribed an antibiotic that seemed to throw her digestive system out
of whack. High doses of probiotics put it back on track.
"This replaces all the bacteria and helps your system digest
food properly," says Richardson. For consumers, it's
simultaneously a cornucopia of choice and a confusing cacophony of
The consumer "goes into a supermarket and has no idea which
product to buy," says Gregor Reid, professor of microbiology at the
University of Western Ontario's Lawson Research Institute. Despite
the potential for confusion, scientists say probiotics hold great
promise for human health. The evidence lies, in part, with the
beneficial effects of breast milk. Beneficial gut flora called
bifidobacteria are higher in breast-fed infants than in those fed by
formula, says Glenn R. Gibson, professor of food microbiology at
University of Reading in England, adding that the breast-fed infants
have lower incidence of asthma and eczema. Good bacteria drop after
babies are weaned, then remain stable through adult life until they drop
precipitously around age 60 to 65. "They don't go away
completely, but they decrease and make us more prone to
infections," Gibson says. Low levels of good gut bacteria, he says,
is likely at least part of the reason why the elderly suffer most during
The theory of how probiotics help us has for years been simple: The
good bacteria crowd out the bad, resulting in better health. In recent
years, scientists have learned that probiotic bacteria also take on many
more useful tasks, says Philip M. Sherman, a scientist at the Hospital
for Sick Children in Toronto. For example, scientists believe some types
of probiotic bacteria help boost production of a protective mucus which
lines the gut. Others, he says, produce cellular messages that calm
A growing number of scientists believe that gut microbes can change
overall health. Scientists are beginning to study the use of probiotics
to treat depression and even obesity. Benefits have already been shown
for the digestive system, immune modulation, and dental health. There is
even talk of the potential to increase longevity. "It's
exciting and there's great promise," says loan Salge Blake, a
clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University and a
spokeswoman for the nonprofit Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
If you want the benefits of probiotics, you need to select
carefully. "It's not one size fits all," says Salge
Blake. "The one that may help with constipation is different from
the one that may help with immune support. Make sure you are getting the
right strain for what you want."
For example, Dannon Activia yogurt and Procter & Gamble
Co.'s probiotic capsule Align have shown in scientific studies to
improve gastrointestinal health. In four published studies, Activia
improved food's transit time through the gut. Align, shown to be
effective in a chronic condition called irritable bowel syndrome, is
also helpful for milder digestion problems.
Probiotics can also ease an uncomfortable inflammation of the large
intestine called ulcerative colitis, which causes cramps and diarrhea.
Jeff Isaacson, 43, of Tempe, Arizona, was taking two prescription drugs
for ulcerative colitis but still suffering flare-ups. His doctor
suggested adding VSL#3, a probiotic cocktail of eight strains of
bacteria, to his daily regimen. After two weeks taking the capsules,
Isaacson says, "I became basically symptom free."
As a preventive measure, Dr. Scott Bautch, Wassau, Wisconsin, says
he recommends probiotics to replace any good bacteria that are
"wiped out" by antibiotics. Taking probiotics can help
patients prevent antibiotic-associated yeast infections and even
unpleasant episodes of diarrhea.
Probiotics in Dannon's DanActive and Yakult--a dairy drink
from Japan's Yakult Honsha Co. Ltd.--can also help the immune
system. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) doesn't allow Dannon to
say DanActive prevents colds and flus, so the package reads "helps
support your immune system." But a look at published scientific
literature shows there's at least preliminary evidence that some
probiotics, including the ones in DanActive, reduce the duration of
upper respiratory infections. And the Cochrane Collaboration, a
nonprofit scientific group, concluded in a 2011 review encompassing 14
published studies that probiotics were "better than placebo"
in reducing incidence of colds and flus. Further research is needed,
particularly in elderly patients, the scientists cautioned.
Probiotics are also a boon to those who can't digest lactose,
a sugar found in dairy products. People who are "lactose
intolerant," can eat yogurt without trouble because it contains
bacterial cultures which make lactase, the enzyme needed to digest
lactose, says Dennis Savaiano, Ph.D., professor of nutrition science at
Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
"It's very much like taking a Lactaid pill, but it's
a naturally occurring phenomenon," says Savaiano. Unfortunately, he
adds, the helpful bacteria don't linger in your gut long enough to
provide a long-term cure for your lactose intolerance.
In good news for consumers, the quality of products seems to be
improving. In a February report, ConsumerLab. corn, which tests
nutritional products, found ten out of twelve popular probiotic dietary
supplements--83 percent--met its quality standards, including the number
of live bacteria promised on the label, up from 15 percent in 2009.
Nonetheless, regulators are taking a hard line on product claims.
Over the past two years, the FTC has filed administrative actions
against French Danone Group's U.S. unit, Dannon Co. Inc., and
Switzerland's Nestle S.A., claiming "deceptive"
advertising for their probiotic products. To settle the cases, the
companies agreed to soften product claims--for example, neither company
is now allowed to claim its products prevent colds and flus.
Consumers looking for probiotic benefits can improve their chances
with a few simple rules, scientists and nutritionists say. First, take
them daily, since the beneficial effects are short term. Look for
products that say "live" on the label, says Gary B. Huffnagle,
Ph.D., a professor of internal medicine and microbiology at the
University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of the book The
Probiotics Revolution. That doesn't necessarily mean refrigerated,
as live bacteria can survive in dry foods, such as cereal. There is even
a variety that can survive heat, Dr. Huffnagle adds, so it can be baked
into muffins and other treats. And watch your dose. The strongest
efficacy data that Dannon's Activia improves transit time of waste
through the gut was seen in studies on three four-ounce containers a
day, says Miguel Freitas, Dannon's director of health affairs. Some
published research show benefits at lower doses.
Finding the right probiotic for you "is definitely trial and
error," says Huffnagle. In addition to studying probiofics in the
lab, Huffnagle has been trying out different probiotics for a decade.
He's found Activia helps his digestion, Yakult seems to keep him
healthy in wintertime, and Culturelle, a dietary supplement from
i-Health Inc., has eased the mold allergies that used to make him
miserable. Before deciding if a product works, he adds, "generally,
give it four to six weeks."
Another approach is to skip commercial products and, like the
Bulgarian peasants, get your probiotics naturally.
"Traditionally, people got probiotics from fermented
foods," says Sally Fallon Morell, author of Nourishing Traditions,
a popular natural-foods cookbook, and president of the Weston A. Price
Foundation, a nutritional education nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
Deli dill pickles, for example, are a good source of natural
bacteria--but look for the kind made with salt not vinegar.
Mass-manufactured, jarred sauerkraut is heat-treated, so buy it from
"your mom and pop deli making it in the back," says
Colorado-based probiotic food consultant Mary Ellen Saunders.
You can also make your own probiotic vegetables using a simple
recipe says Fallon Morell, whose advice has helped inspire a national
movement which calls itself "demented fermenters." Simply take
any vegetable you like--ground carrots and ginger, for example--and put
it in a Mason jar. Add sea salt and whey. Close the jar and leave it on
the counter for three days. Then transfer to the refrigerator for two
weeks before eating.
"It's really easy to do and it's kind of
magical," says Fallon Morell. "You leave it on the counter.
Three days later you open the top and the bubbles come up. You feel like
an alchemist in the kitchen." For a video and more information
about probiotics, visit saturdayeveningpost.com/probiotics.
Laura Johannes is a Boston-based writer who writes the "Aches
& Claims" column for the The Wall Street Journal.
The Role of Pre-biotics
Supporting the good bacteria already dwelling in your digestive
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate a diet high in the plant fiber
inulin, says British scientist Glenn Gibson. Today, scientists and
nutritionists are recommending inulin as a "prebiotic," or
substance that provides food for beneficial probiotic bacteria, helping
it grow and thrive in your gut. "Think of it like fertilizer,"
says Gibson, a food microbiologist at the University of Reading.
Inulin is found in chicory, onions, garlic, asparagus, artichokes,
bananas, and leeks. But studies have shown about five grams of inulin is
needed daily to affect your gut flora significantly. "You'd
need a good sackful of onions" to get that much, Gibson says.
Consumers looking for a more efficient method can find inulin in
many processed foods. For example, General Mills Inc.'s Yoplait
Yoplus yogurt contains both a probiotic and a dose of inulin. You can
also get inulin in capsule form. "If probiotics are not doing what
you think they should, I recommend adding a prebiotic," says Dr.
Other prebiotics, not found in natural foods but often seen in
dietary supplements and packaged foods, include fructooUgosaccharide, or
FOS for short, and galactooligosaccharide, or GOS.
Meet the Healthy Microbes
These microorganisms have been shown to boost
health in published scientific studies.
STRAIN BENEFITS PRODUCTS
Bifidobacterium Gut health and faster Dannon Activia yogurt
animalis DN-173 010 digestion
Bifidobacterium Digestive health; Procter & Gamble's
infantis 35624 Alleviates symptoms of Align dietary
(Bifantis) irritable bowel supplement
Bifidobacterium lactis Helps immune system Yoplait Yoplus yogurt
Bb-12 and digestive health
Lactobacillus casei Helps immune system; Dannon DanActive dairy
DN-114 001 (L. casei lessens duration of drink
lmmunitas) colds and flus in
older people; eases
diarrhea in children
and people taking
Lactobacillus casei Helps immune system Yakult fermented dairy
Shirota and digestive health drink
Lactobacillus Digestive health, Culturelle dietary
rhamnosus GG infant diarrhea supplement
Lactobacillus Improved vaginal RepHresh Pro-B and
rhamnosus GR-1 in health; helps Fem-Dophilus, both
combination with eradicate vaginal dietary supplements
Lactobacillus reuteri infections
Lactobacillus reuteri Eases infant colic; BioGaia chewable
DSM 17938 helps immune system; tablets, drops, and
diarrhea. When blended
with another strain,
helps treat bleeding
Saccharomyces Helps prevent and Florastor dietary
boulardii yeast treat antibiotic- supplement