Back in the old days it was simple: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin said in 1826 (Martin, 2010).
The French lawyer and gastronome, who wrote “Physiologie du gout,” or the “Physiology of Taste,” had a keen sense of diet, and the role it played in a person’s life. Apparently his work was less a treatise on cuisine, than a witty compendium of anecdotes and observations (Answers Corporation, 2011).
In his overly stratified society, where many ate whatever food available, Brillat-Savarin saw diet as central to overall health, and especially in regard to obesity. He observed, for example, that carnivorous animals did not get fat--nor herbivores (accept upon old age), unless fed potatoes, grain or flour (Brillat-Savarin, 1826). He observed the same in humans.
Brillat-Savarin’s book is still in print, and took on renewed meaning when Victor Lindlahr published “You Are What You Eat: how to win and keep health with diet” in 1942. Lindlahr’s book took Brillat-Savarin’s observation, and phrase, into the public consciousness (Martin, 2010).
But the truth is, for millennia people have been aware there is a link between diet and health. Garlic, for example, was considered one of the most important foods, or spices, in ancient times. Egyptians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans alike all ate and drank this herb in many different ways (Heinerman, 1994).
Heinerman (1994) said soldiers in the Roman legion ate garlic with bread for strength, and it also “figured prominently in the preparation of various kinds of food in the traditional Hebrew diet” (Heinerman, p. 16). In fact, in a traditional preparation of locust, the most edible portion of the insect was briefly soaked in garlic and onion juice before oven-roasting, sun-drying and salting it (Heinerman, 1994).
It is hard to imagine this cuisine, but certainly the health benefits of garlic overrode any objections. Garlic is good to eat, and good for digestion health. Locust and garlic? It probably helped get rid stomach aches.
Interestingly, many foods have been found to help people gain strength and vigor. For centuries people in various parts of the world have been aware of the health benefits of products rich in lactobacilli such as yoghurt or kefir (fermented milk products), tempeh (from soy beans) or kimchi (fermented cabbage or other vegetables such as radish). Our ancestors also discovered that highly protective bifidobacteria dominate the gut microflora of breastfed babies. This was discovered more than 100 years ago (Stanton, 2009).
Probiotics is a term for various "friendly" micro-organisms--certain types of bacteria and yeast--that may provide health benefits to all. It might seem counterintuitive to gobble bacteria for better health, but a healthy human gut teems with hundreds of varieties, most of them harmless or even beneficial. Those microbes, most commonly strains of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, vastly outnumber the body's human cells and help maintain a healthy digestive system, in part by inhibiting the growth of potentially infection-causing microbes (Leitzell, 2007).
Today, a burgeoning marketplace has launched hundreds of new products; while at the same time science continues to unravel the complex mechanisms, and many benefits, of the more than 500 species of probiotic microorganisms that inhabit our bodies. Interestingly, most probiotic populations are concentrated in our intestinal tracts, where some estimate 70 percent of the immune system lies (Adams, 2009).
With 500 species, science is just beginning to isolate the various microorganisms and what they do, but Adams (2009) said probiotics “have the ability to secrete several key nutrients crucial to the body's metabolism, including the B vitamins pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, niacin, folic acid, cobalamin and biotin, in addition to vitamin K” (Adams, p. 30). And it is now strongly believed that probiotics prevent the growth of pathogens, and especially since the probiotics most often consumed are lactic acid producers; most pathogens won't multiply under acidic conditions (Roquefeuil-Dedieu, 2009).
Probiotics can also produce antibacterial molecules called bacteriocins. Lactobacillus plantarum, for example, produces lac-tolin; Lactobacillus bulgaricus secretes bulgarican and Lactobacillus acidophilus produces aciophilin, acidolin, bacterlocin and lactocidin. These and other substances equip probiotic strains with the mechanisms to combat and reduce pathologies related to Shigella, Staphylococcus and many other infections. Furthermore, antifungal biochemicals from the likes of L. acidophilus and B. bifidum also significantly reduce fungal outbreaks caused by Candida albicans (Adams, 2009).
Some species also have the ability to reduce procarcinogens, and even suppress tumor genesis. This has been shown in several in vivo studies with L. bulgaricus, L. reuteri and Bifidobacterium infantis. In the B. infantis research, for example, separated bacterial cell wall material also maintained anti-tumor suppression (Adams, 2009).
Of course, knowing every probiotic, and finding specific ones to target problems is not always practical. Simply, the more species present in over-the-counter products, the better the product is in promoting overall good health.
It is also important to “feed” probiotics. Not all probiotics consumed are equal to the task of passing the stomach and its digestive abilities. Thus the basic premise of a “prebiotic,” or probiotic food, is that it passes through the upper GI (gastrointestinal) tract without hydrolyzation or absorption. Several foods, such as chicory, milk, soy, onions, bananas, Jerusalem artichoke and even our old friend garlic, contain prebiotic molecules. These have been further identified as inulin and oligosaccharides, which include fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and galac-tooligosaccharides (Adams, 2009).
Prebiotics are especially beneficial to bifidobacterium, a genus that makes up a large majority of the human body's resident strains (Adams, 2009). Of special note are fructooligosaccharides (FOS). Fructooligosaccharides are sugars linked together with unique bonds the body can’t digest (Crayhon, 1995).
According to Crayhon (1995), since the human body cannot digest FOS, they have no calories. “Yet in their own unique, roundabout way they do. Beneficial bacteria such as bifidobacteria consume FOS” (Crayhon, p. 15).
In fact, bifidobacteria are the most significant microorganisms in the gastronintestinal (GI) tracts. And while there are many benefits from various acidophilus species, bifidobacteria are the most important of the beneficial bacteria that can help lower cholesterol levels, improve digestion of calcium, ease constipation, help in the treatment of chronic fatigue and treat a wide variety of skin disorders, especially acne (Crayhon, 1995).
Maintenance of healthy gut flora is dependent on many factors, especially the quality of food intake: including a significant proportion of prebiotics. This supports probiotic bacteria and may be a more effective and sustainable means of achieving the desirable health benefits promised by probiotics (Maletto, 2007).
When choosing probiotics, experts advise to look for specifics when posible, including the bacterial genus, species, and strain as well as the number of bacteria, usually measured in millions or billions of colony-forming units (CFUs). Vague statements like "proprietary formula" should be a red flag. Since many probiotic products don't list the exact strain they contain--leaving consumers with no way of knowing whether the product is really effective--the best way to find an effective product is in some cases to experiment with several (Leitzell, 2007).
Dosages for probiotics also vary according to the strain, combination and condition. Clinical evidence has illustrated that the dosage has to be high enough to create a suitable environment. Dr. Shahani, a professor at the University of Nebraska, recommends around 10 billion CFU per day as a maintenance dose, and two to three times that as a therapeutic dose to re-establish probiotic bacteria in the intestines after illness or antibiotic therapy. A dose of less than one billion CFU is probably ineffectual (Adams, 2009).
It has also been recommend to take probiotics in the presence of food to help neutralize stomach acidity. However, taking probiotics on an empty stomach may also accelerate emptying into the intestinal tract, but most manufacturers err on the side of "with food" to manage the acidic stomach environment risk. Yogurts, kefirs and dairy-based coatings have a distinct advantage in delivery, as dairy may aid in the probiotic's viability. It protects probiotics from stomach acid and bile secreted during digestion (Adams, 2009).
Adams, C. (2009). The promising potential of prebiotics and probiotics. Nutraceuticals World, 12, 30.
Answers.com. (2011). Answers Corporation. Retrieved June 14, 2011, from http://www.answers.com
Brillat-Savarin, J. A. (1826). Physiology of taste. Retrieved June 15, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Anthelme_Brillat-Savarin
Crayhon, C. Health benefits of fos. New Canaan, CT. Keats.
Heinerman, J. (1994). The healing benefits of garlic. New Canaan, CT. Keats.
Leitzell, K. (2007, December 10). Some bacteria for brunch? U.S. News & World Report, p. 65.
Maletto, P. (2007). Functional food formulation. Nutraceuticals World, 7, 36.
Martin, G. (2010). You are what you eat. Retrieved June 12, 2011, from http://www.phrases.org
Roquefeuil-Dedieu, S. (Press Officer). (2009). Synbiotics: enhancing children's defenses. Nutraceutical Business & Technology, 5, 32.
Stanton, R. (2009, April 1). Probiotics are surrounded by much marketing hype. Australian Doctor.