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Optimizing Digestive Health

The health of our digestive tract is influenced by many things, including the bacteria found in the gut. Believe it or not, there are more than 400 different species of bacteria that live inside your large intestine.

However, not all bacteria are created equal. There’s somewhat of a constant competition in the digestive system between the good and bad bacteria. When the good bacteria outweigh the not-so-good bacteria, you have a healthy gut.

Digestive HealthRole of Probiotics

Probiotics are the “good” bacteria that can aid in digestion and help bolster your immune system by teaming up with your body’s existing “good” bacteria. In other words, probiotics can help keep potentially harmful bacteria, and possibly yeasts, in the gut under control. It is thought that probiotics work by crowding out disease-causing bacteria, and as a result restore proper balance to the intestinal flora. They actually compete with the harmful organisms for nutrients and may also produce substances that prevent the growth of the harmful bacteria.

Health benefits of probiotics

The digestive system is the workhorse of the body. In addition to defending the body against harmful bacteria and viruses, it is responsible for many other functions. These include removal of waste material from the body and breaking foods down into glucose and nutrients the body needs for energy and nourishment.

Poor digestion has been found to affect the health of many systems in the body including the brain, nervous system, reproductive system, hormonal balance, and the liver’s ability to properly detoxify. Therefore, keeping the digestive system healthy is a foundation to general health and wellbeing.

According to the World Health Organization, probiotics can positively impact your health.  They have been found to stimulate the body’s immune system and may aid in several gastrointestinal illnesses.

Research suggests that probiotics can be beneficial in treating:

  • Diarrhea, especially following treatment with certain antibiotics
  • Yeast infections and urinary tract infections
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Some intestinal infections

In some people, probiotics may also help prevent some allergy symptoms and reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Where to find probiotics

Probiotics are live bacteria that can be found in foods like yogurt and other dairy products.

Yogurt is a particularly rich source of probiotics because it contains good bacteria like lactobacillus or bifidobacteria. However, not all yogurts are created equal. Be sure to read labels carefully, looking for the phrase “live active cultures” to ensure it contains the good bacteria you’re looking for.

Other good sources of probiotics are fermented foods like sauerkraut, miso soup, kefir, kombucha, pickles, kimchi, aged cheeses, and sourdough bread. They can also be found in foods fortified with probiotics and in some dietary supplements.

A winning combination

Probiotics work together with prebiotics in the intestinal tract. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates that serve as the food or fuel for the probiotics. The key to keeping your digestive system working at its best is to include both probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods in your diet. Probiotics and prebiotics complement one another and work together synergistically to improve overall health and wellness.

Combining probiotic foods with prebiotic foods is a winning combination so the next time you grab a yogurt, pair it with a banana (a prebiotic food) so you get the best health benefit.

Most healthy adults can safely add probiotic foods to their diet. If you're considering taking probiotic supplements instead, speak with your doctor first to make sure supplements are right for you.

Norwalk Hospital offers state-of-the- art diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of digestive diseases and conditions. We also serve as a major teaching site for Yale School of Medicine, training residents and fellows.

To learn more visit norwalkhospital.org or call 866-NHB-WELL.


Feeling Well: Digestive Health