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The Particulars of Probiotics

By: Rebecca James Gadberry
Posted: June 13, 2008, from the September 2006 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

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Probiotics have a long-standing tradition of use in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. A variety of probiotic-rich foods—including yogurt, cheese, sour cream, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchee—has been used for centuries to reduce symptoms of diarrhea, constipation and vaginitis; to improve the digestion of lactose-containing dairy products in lactose-intolerant people; and, when yogurt or kefir is applied to the skin, to control acne. During the past decade, research has broadened, and double-blind clinical studies into the effects of probiotics on a variety of conditions have commenced—especially in Europe. Among the most promising is the effect of probiotic bacteria on Helicobacter pylori, a gut bacterium that has been linked to stomach ulcers and rosacea.1 Also of interest are several studies conducted by Finnish researchers examining whether certain probiotic bacteria can help to reduce or eliminate the development of allergies and atopic eczema in children.2

Probiotics are used in the United States, but in a more limited way than in other parts of the world. Unpasteurized yogurt that contains live bacteria cultures represents the largest probiotic product category sold in the United States. Nutritionists and some physicians recommend that yogurt be consumed either during or at the end of a round of broad-spectrum antibiotics because these types of drugs often eliminate all bacteria, resulting in a loss of friendly flora in the gut and vaginal tracts that can lead to stomach problems and vaginal yeast growth. Certain spermacides and contraceptive creams also can kill beneficial vaginal bacteria, leading to yeast infections soon after their use.

The cultures used to transform milk into yogurt should be listed on containers of unpasteurized yogurt. Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium are the two most common, but Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus reuteri, Lactobacillus case, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Lactobacillus plantarum also are used by probiotic practitioners. If your client doesn’t like yogurt and you want to ensure that they receive the most effective dose of bacteria, look for capsules of Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus GG, Lactobacillus johnsoni or Lactobacillus reuteri. Of the entire group, these have undergone the most study and are obtained easily in capsule form. Lactobacillus acidophilus is the most readily available, and also is used to reduce bad breath, prevent fungal growth and control acne.

All of the above bacteria are members of the lactic acid bacteria (LAB) family, named due to its ability to change lactose sugar into lactic acid via fermentation. Lactose in milk, cabbage, Chinese radishes, cornstarch, potatoes, molasses and similar foods ferments easily under the influence of LAB, which has been used for centuries to lengthen food’s edible life span by lowering its pH level and reducing consuming nutrients that could be used to support the growth of spoilage microbes.

Sometimes nonliving lactose-rich substances called prebiotics purposely are introduced into the same product as LAB to stimulate bacterial activity. When this is done, the product is known as a synbiotic or symbiotic, depending on with whom you’re speaking. Inulin—an oligosaccharide utilized by such plants as chicory, garlic, wild yam, jicama, burdock and dandelions to store energy—is the most commonly used prebiotic.