Probiotics: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

With consumers snapping up antibacterial products from soaps to dishtowels designed specifically to wipe out germs, it's clear that bacteria has become a dirty word. But did you know that these products may be hazardous to your health?

In addition to killing the bacteria that make you sick, antibacterial agents can also kill the healthy bacteria that line your intestinal tract to keep it healthy and aid digestion. That leaves you vulnerable to possible yeast infections, invasion of new bacteria or to any bad bacteria that survived the attack. This is the same reason that antibiotics can be dangerous. Although the drugs fight bacterial infections, like strep throat, they also eradicate all types of bacteria, both bad and good.

And contrary to popular belief, there are good germs out there. Dubbed "probiotics," these bacteria prevent the growth of yeast, salmonella, E. coli and other harmful organisms in our bodies, says Terri Saunders, an herbalist in Charlottesville, Virginia. The most well-known of these probiotics are lactobacillus, which is found in cultured dairy foods like yogurt and buttermilk, and bifidobacterium, which is most easily ingested in supplement form.

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Consider the slew of foreign studies which suggest their importance to our health: One Irish study found that a combination of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium helped slow excessive weight loss in people with inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Chrohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. And a Swedish report indicated that probiotics may bolster the immune system, fight carcinogens in our bodies and perhaps prevent colorectal cancer.

Interest in probiotics is picking up in the United States, as well. A study conducted at the University of Nebraska and published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that children's diarrhea caused by antibiotics improved when they took lactobacillus.

Note: Probiotics are not recommended for children under the age of three. Consult a physician to ensure that probiotics are the right treatment for you, and in the meantime, doctors suggest, eat your yogurt.

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