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Bacteria that's good for you

Intentionally consuming bacteria may not seem like a good idea, but as long as the bacteria are those of the beneficial variety, known as probiotics, ingesting them may improve your health.

Probiotics are living microorganisms that normally thrive in the human body. Numbering in the trillions, the total population of these bacteria in the adult intestine can weigh several pounds.

Although probiotics are best known for promoting digestion and boosting immunity, a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that they influence health in other ways. The friendly bacteria have been used in the prevention and treatment of gum disease, stomach ulcers, hay fever, even colon cancer.

In recent years, scientists have discovered that the probiotic population in the human gut acts as an important metabolic "organ" in the body, playing a key role in metabolism and in reducing the risk of diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

Probiotic organisms are typically acquired at birth, when a baby passes through the mother's birth canal, and during breastfeeding. Throughout life, the body's probiotic population is influenced by genetics, age, diet and certain medications.

Antibiotics wreak havoc on the friendly microbes. Designed to kill harmful bacteria, the drugs attack not only the disease-causing organisms in the body, but also the beneficial bacteria, especially those in the gut.

Because antibiotics destroy gut-dwelling bacteria that aid in the breakdown and absorption of food, digestion may be negatively affected by the medications.

Even if you haven't been prescribed antibiotics lately, you may have been exposed to them, especially if your diet includes meat, milk or eggs. Animals produced for human consumption are often given antibiotics to reduce their risk of infection, and these drugs may ultimately influence the probiotic population of human consumers.

In addition to antibiotics, some consumer products may reduce the probiotic population in and on the human body. Antibacterial hand sanitizers can destroy beneficial bacteria on the skin, and antibacterial mouthwashes can destroy friendly microbes in the mouth.

Fortunately, replenishing the body's supply of health-promoting bacteria is relatively easy. A number of nutritional supplements and functional foods, including yogurt, contain probiotics.

Taking supplemental probiotics can be especially beneficial for individuals suffering from irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Not only do the friendly bacteria improve digestion and nutrient absorption, they also produce compounds that soothe inflammation in the gut and enhance the integrity of the intestinal lining.

Probiotics may help reduce symptoms associated with seasonal allergies.

The results of a study conducted at the Institute of Food Research showed that probiotics can modify the immune system's reaction to grass pollen, a common cause of seasonal hay fever.

Taking probiotic supplements may protect the respiratory system from infections as well as allergies. The results of a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that elite endurance athletes were significantly less vulnerable to respiratory illnesses such as cold and flu when they took a probiotic supplement.

If you want to add more probiotics to your life, you can find them in a variety of dietary supplements in the form of pills, powders and capsules.

In addition to yogurt, food sources of the friendly bacteria include kefir, fermented soy products and sauerkraut.

A daily dose typically offers at least a billion beneficial bacteria, although some brands may contain 5 billion to 10 billion living organisms per dose. For best results, it's a good idea to use products that are dated and kept refrigerated.

Adding a few billion beneficial bugs to your body is easy and inexpensive, and it might just improve your health.

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