To Your Health
January, 2009 (Vol. 03, Issue 01)
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Probiotic supplements have captured the interest of consumers and health practitioners because they are inexpensive, have few side effects, and are easy to consume. These supplements appeal to two kinds of people. The first group includes generally healthy people who believe probiotics will help them stay healthy. As my mom likes to say, "They can't hurt, and they might help." The second group includes people with a health condition for which probiotics have shown some benefit in human clinical studies. These people may benefit from probiotic supplements beyond diet alone. However, such supplements must provide the desired outcome - the person should feel better and experience fewer symptoms of their condition. To help ensure this, it is essential that the products used have been scientifically tested in humans and shown to address the specific health issue.

One difficulty with probiotic supplements is how to deliver them to the end part of the digestive tract, the colon, where they have most of their documented effects. A probiotic has to survive the digestive process to get there. When delivered in foods, the food matrix may protect the probiotic as it travels through the stomach and small intestine. In supplements, microencapsulation and coating technologies have achieved considerable success in overcoming this challenge.

Ask Your Doctor

What's the take-away message here? In short, prebiotics and probiotics are useful in supporting the growth of beneficial microbes that can promote health and prevent disease. So, for generally healthy people, foods rich in pre- and probiotics may suffice to improve nutritional status, GI function, resistance to illness, and overall health. For people with certain health conditions, supplementation with specific strains of probiotic organisms may offer additional benefits beyond diet.

Remember that when it comes to pre- and probiotic products, there is tremendous variation in the amount of health information provided on the label by manufacturers. As a result, it is up to you to separate the marketing hype from the nutritional facts. Talking with your doctor is always a good option, too, particularly before taking any supplement or product.

Joe Leonard, MS, has degrees in biology and public health. He conducts clinical outcomes research for Standard Process, Inc. (, a whole-foods nutritional supplement manufacturer based in Wisconsin.

Specific Health Benefits of Prebiotics and Probiotics
Prebiotics Probiotics
Improve colon function and metabolism.

Increase production of short chain fatty acids, which helps prevent cancer.

Decrease pH of the colon, which inhibits growth of harmful microbes.

Reduce cancer-causing chemicals.

Reduce cancer-promoting enzymes.

Increase mineral absorption.

Support the immune system.
Prevent and reduce GI disorders.

Prevent and reduce duration of infectious diarrhea in infants.

Provide tolerance to antibiotic therapy.

Help control symptoms of lactose intolerance.

Support the immune system.

Produce antimicrobial substances that inhibit pathogenic bacteria.

Enhance calcium absorption.

Reduce serum cholesterol.

Retard tumor growth.

Prebiotics and probiotics help restore and sustain a healthy microbial balance in the gut, which is important because stress, antibiotic therapy and poor diet can disrupt this balance.

Joe Leonard is manager of outcomes research and scientific communications for a nutritional supplement manufacturer. Together with Kelly Kwiatkowski, they generate scientific documentation on the role of nutritional supplements in health and wellness.