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Culture Club: Probiotics

Live bacteria doesn't sound palatable, but we've got a gut feeling you'll change your mind after reading about its health and skin benefits. Up until five years ago, the word "probiotics" was virtually unheard of, except in cultured drinks like Vitagen and Yakult. These days, it's everywhere on supermarket shelves.

Probiotics can be found in most yoghurts as well as drinkable versions, like. Marigold Non-Fat Yoghurt Drinks, and supplements in capsule or powered form, like GNC's mega Acidophilus, Pharmanex ProBio PCC or MiVitality Inliven from Pharmaplus at Camden Medical Centre. Twelve billion bacteria (importe../../d from the US or Australia.css) are pumped into you to clean out your stomach, increase the production of "good" bacteria in your gut and rid you of constipation.

So why the sudden interest in live cultures? Three words: Immunity boosting benefits. A recent Swedish study found that those who drank a yoghurt drink with the probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus reuteri took half the number of sick days compared to those who didn't drink it. Indeed, these gut-friendly cultures boast a host of health claims. Among them, the ability to promote healthy digestion by fighting the "bad" bacteria in the body, prevent intestinal tract infections and reduce the risk of colon cancer and heart disease.

The Raw Deal

The question is, why, with 100 trillion and over 400 types of bacteria already in the body, do we need to add probiotics to our diet? Research shows it helps alleviate symptoms associated with food poisoning, vaginal yeast infections, irritable bowel syndrome and antibiotic-associated diarrhoea. It's suitable for everyone, unless you're on antibiotics since probiotics and antibiotics cancel each other's effects out.

However, experts remain divided on the efficacy of probiotics on healthy people. "So far, there is no strong evidence to support recommendations to take probiotics on a regular basis, or the need to take them to maintain a healthy gut," says Dr Annie, a consultant gastroenterologist  As for opting for probiotic enemas, he says it's not really necessary since you can take them orally. "Such enemas only deliver probiotics to the left, and not the right side of the colon which is an important area for colonic fermentation (the digestion of food for the colon)."

Good For The Skin

Despite the lack of scientific evidence, probiotics fans swear by its diverse health and beauty benefits. "Studies have pointed to probiotics' ability to reduce respiratory tract illness," says experts. "Elite athletes took two probiotic pills a day from Pharmanex for three months and results showed a 50 per cent reduction in upper respiratory tract illnesses." It's also been found to improve one's skin. Four years ago, Dr 

Annie started prescribing probiotic supplements from Japan. She prescribes them to patients with eczema, dermatitis, sensitive skin or constipation, for whom regular medication and treatments don't work. Each pill contains 12 strains of live lactic acid bacteria, 10 vitamins and eight minerals. After a daily dose of five capsules for a month, her patients reported more resilientlooking skin.

Probiotics also helped her seven-year-old son, who suffers from eczema. "He started taking probiotics four years ago. After six months, his condition improved dramatically. Now, the itchiness only occurs once in a while," she says. However, Dr Andrew, a consultant dermatologist , says that although probiotics may help atopic eczema, it cannot be interpreted to help all kinds of sensitive skin problems. "It is also important to note that the kind of bacteria and dose of probiotics used in these studies may not be the same as those found in your usual yoghurt drinks."

How Much To Take?

Presently, there are no tests to determine the number of good or bad bacteria in your gut. Also, there aren't any guidelines to the amount one should take. Doctors suggest you follow the manufacturer's recommended dosage. You'll then be certain of the amount you're eating. A bottle of Yakult has a minimum of 10 billion active bacteria while a supplement should contain between 1 and 20 billion CFUs (Colony Forming Units) per dose.

As there are a wide variety of supplements out there, choose from a reputable source. "Go on the company's website or call them to ask if they test for impurities, use quality ingredients and have analyzed for contaminants like metals, chemical residues and microbiological contamination. Make sure the product is substantiated by preclinical and clinical studies," advises Dr Bartlett.

Since most yoghurt and yoghurt drinks don't state the number of live bacteria in their products, take at least one serving (200g) of yoghurt a day, recommends Michelle, chief dietitian. The good news is that it's almost impossible to overdose on probiotics in food so you can combine yoghurt and yoghurt drinks if you wish.

Another important piece of advice: Look at the nutrition label carefully and see whether the product is UHT processed or not. "Live bacteria might not be present in products that have been UHT processed, so you won't reap the same amount of benefits as compared to yoghurt with probiotics," says Michelle.

But how will you know if it's working for you? Unfortunately, if you're generally healthy, you won't be able to tell. "Unless you're suffering from a medical condition like IBS or diarrhoea, it's difficult to ascertain if probiotics are really working for you," says Dr Andrew. Still, he says there's no harm in giving probiotics a try as such live culture products usually come with additional benefits like calcium and protein.

What Are Prebiotics?

Found in non-digestible food like chicory roots, prebiotics work to stimulate the growth of good bacteria in your gut. "Taking pre- and probiotics can improve the survival of good bacteria and boost potential health benefits, say Dr Annie, a consultant gastroenterologist. The consumption of prebiotics can help constipation, but you may also have increase gas production, bloating, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea. If you start experiencing these side effects, stop or reduce the amount of prebiotic products you're taking.


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