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Consumer's Guide to Benefical Bacteria


Going probiotic shopping? Read this before you buy. Though you may not be aware of it, your gastrointestinal tract is inhabited by thriving colonies of more than 400 types of micro-organisms. Not all of them are friendly.

Going probiotic shopping? Read this before you buy.

Though you may not be aware of it, your gastrointestinal tract is inhabited by thriving colonies of more than 400 types of micro-organisms. Not all of them are friendly. Some are responsible for causing disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, allergies and digestive problems, while other beneficial microflora–known as probiotics–are battling to destroy pathogens, help the body release toxins and keep the immune system healthy.

This complex ecosystem within our gastrointestinal (GI) tract is with us almost from the beginning. Shortly after birth, we rapidly acquire micro-organisms from our mother’s milk and the surrounding environment. As we go through life, our gastrointestinal ecosystem grows with us and is profoundly affected by diet, lifestyle and especially antibiotics.

Maintaining a thriving population of friendly bacteria throughout the GI tract is vital for good health. Probiotics exist in fermented dairy foods such as yogurt, kefir and quark as well as in a growing range of commercial supplements that have been developed in the past 15 years to restabilize or boost the gastrointestinal ecosystem.

Specific Strains and Species

The most common genus of friendly microflora is Lactobacillus. Though several species are known to be beneficial to the human system, each strain of friendly microflora has its natural place of residence within the GI tract, where they attach themselves to the intestinal wall and set up protective colonies. L. acidophilus for example, is the most popular friendly bacterium in the small intestine.

Another genus, Bifidobacteria, is the most important indigenous bacteria of the large intestine. Bifidobacteria bifidum species is one of the best researched of all probiotics. Not only can it aid digestion, but it also helps other beneficial bacteria to colonize the intestine.

L. bulgaricus (the main bacteria in yogurt) is also beneficial though more transient than other species. L. bulgaricus helps L. acidophilus and Bifidobacteria to colonize more successfully by preventing pathogenic bacteria from attaching to the intestinal wall.

So if you want to give your healthy microbacteria a healthy boost, which probiotic do you need to take? There are different strains of probiotics that are known to be for the treatment or prevention of certain disorders. For example the Lactobacillus plantarum variant OM strain has been shown to be effective in preserving omega-3 fatty acids. If you are considering using a combination blend, check with the manufacturer and find out which strains are included and how they work together.

Protected Form

You will also need to know a little about the manufacturing process of your probiotics. This is important: To work effectively, the probiotics much reach their destination intact. Even if the bacteria fulfill their shelf life, their next challenge is to survive stomach acid secretions.

Some manufacturers take precautions to protect the probiotics through their treacherous journey. After being isolated from their original source, beneficial bacteria are then grown in a selected nourishing medium that acts as a buffer to shield the viable micro-organisms from gastric juices. To effectively shield, the medium must remain in the probiotic supplement. You can also ensure the safe passage of probiotics by taking supplements with or shortly after meals and by not drinking fruit juice at the same time.

Safe Storage

Storing probiotics is another issue to consider. They must be stored and used so as to reduce exposure to heat and light, moisture and air. Many products are now freeze-dried and available in powdered form. However, each time they are exposed to air, the friendly organisms deteriorate and die and their potency is dramatically reduced. Powdered probiotic substances are prone to rapid die-off on contact with moisture and such exposure occurs each time that the packet is opened.

Your probiotics container is also important. Plastic bottles, unlike glass, are porous and can let in moisture that can literally wake up the probiotics and cause them to starve to death.

Travel and Transport

Probiotics are not quite like other nutritional supplements because they are alive. Most health practitioners recommend keeping probiotics refrigerated to extend their life as long as possible. You also need some assurance from the manufacturer that the supplement was refrigerated for the journey from them to the health store or to your home. If they have not been, it’s unlikely that your probiotics will be alive and kicking by the time they reach you.

Stephen Levine, PhD, president of the Allergy Research Group in California, advises consumers: "You should be paying for a live product, stored under refrigeration and containing the amount of organisms stated on the label."

High Numbers of Organisms

Ensure the quality and longevity of your probiotics supplement by checking that your probiotic contains high numbers of organisms–at least one billion organisms per gram. This information should be present on the label, plus an expiration date.

To find out other information before you purchase, contact the manufacturer. They should be able to provide information about the specific strains used and if they are specific to humans, and clinical trials they have conducted, and to let you know if they can guarantee refrigeration at each stage of process: production, shipment and delivery.

Seven Probiotic Strains

Probiotic Effects
Lactobacillus plantarum variant OM preserves omega-3 fatty acids, breaks down protein, aids digestion.
Lactobacillus acidophilus relieves and prevents candidiasis, restores balance after antibiotics.
Lactobacillus reuteri prevents harmful bacteria from colonizing.
Lactobacillus salivarius helps the body eliminate toxins.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG relieves traveller’s diarrhea and colitis.
Lactobacillus bulgaricus can prevent child allergies, prevents harmful bacteria from colonizing.
Bifidobacteria bifidum controls populations of pathogenic bacteria and yeast.

Five-Point Buyer’s Checklist

  1. Is the probiotic species and strain compatible with your needs?
  2. Has the manufacturer taken steps to ensure that the probiotic will withstand stomach secretions?
  3. Has the supplement been stored in proper containers so as to avoid heat, light, moisture and air?
  4. Does the probiotic contain sufficiently high numbers of organisms plus an expiration date?
  5. Have steps been taken to ensure viability through transport and at point of purchase?


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