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Straight Facts on Probiotics and Prebiotics

How to Compare ProbioticsWhether you've heard about them yet or not, probiotics and prebiotics are rapidly gaining scientific popularity as safe and effective agents that help regulate the body's micro-environment. The micro-environment of your body varies from place to place but is ideally made up of healthy microorganisms that not only thrive in a healthy ecosystem with us but are sometimes as beneficial to us as we are to them. But the market is full of probiotics and prebiotics supplements so how do you know which ones work and which ones don't

In this series of articles we will help you learn how to identify which ones work and which ones don't for yourself.

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When our healthy micro-environment is nearly perfect, it contains colonies of bacteria and a few yeast organisms that live together without harming us, and without our body working to fight off the organisms as it does whenever we have an infection. The primary sites of colonization are the mouth, the skin, the genital organs and the intestinal tract. While each site is colonized a bit differently, the composition of one site can influence the types of microorganisms living on another site.

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When the micro-environment gets disrupted, such as when the immune system is low or when a person takes antibiotics, the healthy microorganisms can drastically reduce in numbers so that unhealthy or "pathogenic" organisms can take their place. Yeast, particularly, can become overgrown as they are not killed off when someone takes an antibiotic and in the case of other conditions, like diabetes, that promote the growth of yeast.

Anytime pathogenic organisms become a big part of our micro-environment, we can develop colon problems, allergies, local infections of the skin or genital area and other problems related to the immune system. Some types of colitis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome have, in some cases, been found to be attributed to an imbalance of microorganisms in the body.

This is where a diet supplemented with combinations of probiotics and prebiotics becomes extremely valuable to your health. Probiotics are strains of living bacteria in their natural state or in their spore form, which is the form bacteria choose to be in when conditions are harsh. The spore form of bacteria has a longer shelf life and survives the trip through the stomach until it reaches the colon and begins to further grow and develop into health colonies of bacteria, attached to the wall of the colon.


Probiotics: The most common types of probiotic bacteria are strains of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria. The body has a mechanism whereby it can tell the difference between healthy bacteria and unhealthy bacteria. Inside the intestine, the unhealthy or pathogenic bacteria create an immune response against the unhealthy bacteria, leading to diarrhea, cramps and abdominal pain. Clostridium difficile is one of those pathogenic bacteria and is a complication of prolonged or repetitive antibiotic use. Giardia is a parasitic infection that leads to chronic diarrhea. Each of these pathogens can be crowded out by the healthy probiotic bacteria.


Prebiotics: these are best described as the nourishment the probiotic bacteria need to grow and colonize the bowels. They are more commonly referred to as Synbiotics. The most common kind of prebiotic is made of fructo-oligosaccharide molecules. These are short-chain sugar molecules containing fructose. The exciting thing about prebiotics is that, while traveling through our stomach and small intestines, we haven't the ability to take prebiotic molecules and digest them ourselves. The molecules, therefore, pass through untouched and are available for probiotic bacteria to use as nutrition for their own purposes. Ideal nutrition plus healthy bacteria make for a perfect environment inside the colon for these bacteria to colonize and wipe out the pathogenic bacteria.

While probiotics and prebiotics are taken by mouth in capsule or tablet form, they do not simply stop doing an effective job of recolonizing the body's micro-environment by colonizing the colon. Scientific research has shown that colonizing the colon with healthy bacteria also alters the colonization of the micro-environments of the genital areas, the mouth and the skin. By using probiotics and prebiotic supplements, the micro-environment of the entire body can be optimized and can keep pathogenic bacteria from gaining an unwelcome foothold on your body systems.

Because probiotics come in several strains and because science has discovered that different strains of probiotic bacteria have different effects on the body, using a combination of probiotic strains is likely the best way to go. Simply picking a strain of probiotic that is advertised as being healthy doesn't mean it will help you in the way that you would like. The colon, for example, contains over 400 strains of different microorganisms. It is unlikely that only one strain will be able to single-handedly recolonize your colon the way you would like.

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Let's look at an example of a situation in which a probiotic and prebiotic combination can have a remarkable effect on the entire body. For example, consider an individual with diabetes who takes several courses of an antibiotic for a bladder infection that just won't go away. Before too long, she is likely to get a vaginal yeast infection and that, about the same time, her allergies worsen.

Given her uncomfortable situation, she has two choices. She could double up on the allergy medicine which may make her more tired than she already feels. Along with that she could see her doctor or go to the pharmacy and get something for the yeast infection. The problem is that she's diabetic so that getting rid of the yeast infection won't be that easy.

Her other alternative is to do some, all or none of the above treatments along with getting a good probiotic/prebiotic combination supplement and to tackle the problem by using a different approach. You see, what has likely happened to her is that she has destroyed the micro-environment of her intestines and her vaginal tract. Both have become overrun with yeast. Treating just her vaginal yeast infection won't get rid of the yeast overgrowth that is inside her colon.

The yeast in her colon has caused her colonic wall to become more permeable (or leaky) so that yeast toxins, other toxins and undigested molecules to get into her system and trigger an immune reaction, making her tired and increasing her allergy symptoms. The same yeast has overgrown inside her vaginal tract, causing an uncomfortable infection that thrives on the high sugar levels in her diabetic bloodstream.

A diet supplemented with a probiotic/prebiotic combination can alter the unhealthy micro-environmental situation she's in. Treating the allergies and the yeast infection alone does not treat the underlying condition. By eliminating the unhealthy ecology of her bowels and her vaginal tract, she properly addresses the situation.

The point to really think about is that situations similar to the one above happens more often and to more people than one would think. Many bowel conditions have unhealthy micro-environments that are contributing to them. Some systemic conditions, like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, have been found to be related to unhealthy microflora in the body. Researchers are beginning to find a connection between an unhealthy colonic environment and the development of colon cancer.

Perhaps it would be best to summarize the benefits of supporting your diet with safe and effective probiotics by listing the various body systems and conditions in which intestinal floral imbalance can lead too;

  • Infant allergies and infections (when used in formula)
  • Inflammatory colitis
  • Candida yeast infections (in all body areas)
  • Atopic dermatitis
  • Bladder infections
  • Vaginal infections
  • Acute pancreatitis
  • Indigestion
  • High cholesterol
  • Crohn's Disease
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Antibiotic-induced diarrhea
  • Gastroenteritis (stomach flu)
  • Diarrhea
  • Risk of colon cancer
  • Gastric ulcers
  • Duodenal ulcers
  • Helicobacter pylori infections
  • Post-operative bowel infections
  • Clostridium difficile infections
  • Complications of prematurity
  • Abdominal radiation

Keeping your micro-environment healthy on a daily basis prevents the many unwanted effects that can occur whenever your system gets out of balance. Probiotic and prebiotic combinations can regulate your body micro-environment in a safe and effective way.

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  2. Snelling AM. "Effects of probiotics on the gastrointestinal tract." Curr Opin Infect Dis . 2005 Oct;18(5):420-6.
  3. Agureev AN, et al. "Prebiotics-promising alimentary preventors of digestion dysfunctions caused by adverse environmental factors." Aviakosm Ekolog Med . 2005 Jan-Fev;39(1):5-14.
  4. Fedorak RN, Madsen KL. "Probiotics and Prebiotics in Gastrointestinal Disorders." Curr Opin Gastroenterol . 2004;20(2):146-155.
  5. Pool-Zobel BL. "Inulin-type fructans and reduction in colon cancer risk: review of experimental and human data." Br J Nutr . 2005 Apr;93 Suppl 1:S73-90.
  6. Szilagyi A. "Use of prebiotics for inflammatory bowel disease." Can J Gastroenterol . 2005 Aug;19(8):505-10.
  7. Bengmark S, Martindale R. "Prebiotics and synbiotics in clinical medicine." Nutr Clin Pract . 2005 Apr;20(2):244-61.
  8. Hoentjen F, et al. "Reduction in colitis by prebiotics in HLA-B27 transgenic rates is associated with microflora changes and immunomodulation." Inflamm Bowel Dis . 2005 Nov;11(11):977-85.

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