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Bacteria can be good for you. At least when it’s in probiotic form.

Not long ago probiotics were sexy only to gastroenterologists. In the past few years, however, these beneficial, itsy-bitsy microorganisms found in yogurt have become huge: their popularity is exploding and products containing probiotics ring in over $11 billion in sales worldwide.

Despite squeamishness about bacteria, recently Americans have become pro-probiotics, with over $5 billion worth of them now sold in the US. The reason: a slew of new studies showing that probiotics yield big benefits in “gut health.”

What they are: Tiny living bacteria or yeasts that have health benefits, particularly in aiding the digestive system. The most commonly used probiotic is the lactobacillus strain, which is the helpful “live culture” in some dairy products.

Where they’re found: Naturally occurring in yogurt—some brands now add more—probiotics are also sold as capsules, pills and powders in health food stores; the most potent forms, which can contain a billion or more of these “good bacteria” per pill, usually need to be kept in the fridge.

How they work: Probiotics are microscopic diplomats: these microorganisms have beneficial effects – they help bring harmony to the 100 trillion bacteria found in the human body.

Why that’s important: Not all bacteria are helpful. Antibiotics strip the good “flora” from intestines, frequency causing reactions like diarrhea, yeast infections and thrush; some believe that the absence of these helpful bacteria may even be related to cystic fibrosis and obesity.

What scientific studies are showing: Even U.S. government agencies and institutions such as Harvard Medical School are chiming in about the important role probiotics can play in keeping up healthy. Studies are documenting the benefits of probiotics in:
• Preventing reactions to antibiotics, especially “the trots.”
• Fighting online casino yeast infections, urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis.
• Protecting against food poisoning from salmonella.
• Other studies suggest that probiotics may help keep irritable bowel in check, fight off gas for chronic sufferers, prevent eczema outbreaks, and even lower the risk of colon cancer.

When to take them: Whether eating them in yogurt or supplements, probiotics are a good idea to add to your diet when you’re taking antibiotics. They also appear to fight off some types of food poisoning: travelers to locales such as Mexico and India may do well to begin a probiotic regimen several weeks prior to leaving to help stave off the “revenge” of Montezuma and Ganesh. Since probiotics are believed to optimize immunity, particularly of the gastrointestinal sort, they are also popular with hospital staff or anybody else who comes in contact with antibiotic-resistance diseases such as C-Diff and MRSA.

What is often overlooked: When first ingested, probiotics can cause bloating and indigestion. Even people who are used to eating yogurt in the U.S. may notice a reaction to yogurt in other parts of the world. In Europe, which has long included yogurt in its collective diet, regulatory authorities aren’t so impressed with the health claims of probiotics. The European Union has shot down virtually every advertising promise about probiotics; apparently you can eat them there, but manufacturers aren’t allowed to tout their benefits on the containers.

What else: Being newly identified, and both a food and a supplement, probiotics are in a legal and regulatory gray area in the U.S. as well; experts are asking that there is more oversight in their production. Ads for them in the U.S. are toned down with words like “helps to” and “assists in,” although the flurry of studies now coming out and currently underway should help establish their effects as facts.

What they have to do with prebiotics: While probiotics are live cultures that have beneficial effects, prebiotics are indigestible bits of fiber. Prebiotics are believed to help probiotics work even better.

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About Melissa Rossi

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Melissa Rossi's first words were, "Get me outta here!" She's been moving around since she was 17 — living in Seattle, Portland and assorted other parts of the Pacific Northwest as well as in New York, Vermont, and Florida (let's not talk about Iowa and Kentucky). After writing a book about Courtney Love (Courtney Love: Queen of Noise), which Courtney didn't like, Rossi decided to become a world traveler, and has visited most European countries. She has also lived in assorted parts of Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Belgium. Fluent in "Spitalnishsian" — an Italian, Spanish blend with a dash of Russian thrown in — Rossi has written for such publications as National Geographic Traveler, Newsweek, MSNBC and George, and is the author of What Every American Should Know about the Rest of the World (Plume/Penguin, 2003). A chronic sufferer of "Urban Deficit Disorder" — she can't focus on one city for long — Rossi probably will never settle down long enough to call one place her home.

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