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Designer Poop: What’s the Deal With Prebiotics and Probiotics? [What they are, how to eat them and why you should]

Posted Apr 24 2013 12:51am

Unicorns obviously have very healthy gut bacteria.

Hospitals with their life, death, and strange-smell zeitgeist have been the setting for several major revelations in my life (not the least of which is that nutritionists consider Malt-o-Meal a “solid food” but Jell-O is a “liquid”) and this time it was no different. My 3rd son, just nine months old at the time, hung limply in my arms as nurses and doctors buzzed around us. There was no waiting for us in the the waiting room when I brought my baby in, nearly unconscious with a fever of 107. The triage nurse took one look at my son and half the night staff descended on us. Weirdly all I could think about was the beginning of that Nicholas Cage/Meg Ryan flick City of Angels where the least sexy angel ever, Seth (Cage), escorts a little girl in yellow footie pajamas to heaven after she dies of a fever. The opening sequence ends with the anguished wail of her mother. To this day I hate that movie. (Although Meg Ryan was adorable. I miss that Meg Ryan.)

Over the five days my son was in the hospital, it was established that he had an infection but no one knew what it was or how he had contracted it. We went through antibiotic after antibiotic until at last we were down to the nuclear option: an IV drip of the most potent antibiotic available. If this didn’t work, the doctors told us, there wasn’t anything else we could do except try to support his body as it fought off the infection itself. Thankfully it did work, drip by drip, as I held him to my chest and rocked back and forth – the only position he would sleep in – and simultaneously prayed and watched Home and Garden Television on mute (not as mutually exclusive as one might think – you see a lot of God’s humor in Real Estate Wars). My baby recovered and I thanked God again for not putting me on earth in any century prior to this one. (Seriously, have you ever counted how many people you know would be dead without modern medicine? Half my girlfriends would have died in childbirth.) I learned two life-changing things from this experience:

1. Life is so so fragile. Infinitely more than we imagine. One morning my baby was fine, if a little cranky. That evening he was at death’s door. Living and dying depends on just a few degrees of heat. And yet the capacity of the human body to repair itself and to recover is nothing short of miraculous.

2. I discovered probiotics. This revelation may not seem as important as the first one – it’s certainly not as dramatic! – but it has been life-saving in its own right. When we took the baby home, we had to keep him on the nuclear antibiotic for a month to make sure the infection was really gone. Any of you that have taken antibiotics for an extended period of time will know what havoc it wreaks on your system. My baby immediately started with severe diarrhea that almost put him back in the hospital because the antibiotics had wiped out all the good bacteria in his little gut. (He “squished” every time I picked up. Like a water squirty toy! But it wasn’t water! Parenting is full of fun surprises.) The doctor gave us some packets of probiotics – good bacteria – in powder form that we sprinkled in his food to replenish his colon. Within a day the diarrhea was gone.

You know how I feel about extraneous supplements but ever since that experience I have kept a supply of probiotics on hand and give it to all my kids whenever they have a tummy ailment. Jelly Bean got her first dose from my breast milk – all mom juice comes loaded with probiotics! – but has had the powder sprinkled in her food since she was just a few months old and has never had a bad bout of diarrhea. While I go back and forth about different vitamins and supplements – I haven’t taken a multi since  that research came out  showing that people who did lived 15 years less than people who didn’t – probiotics are the one supplement that I love whole-heartedly. I don’t give my kids probiotics every day, nor do I take one daily, but we do use them on occasion and we eat a lot of foods containing both pre- and pro-biotics. (Let me insert here that I am no doctor nor any kind of medical professional and everything in this post should be taken as just my experience and not as medical advice.)

What Are Probiotics and Prebiotics?

Briefly,  probiotics are “ live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” The most common types are “Lactobacillus orBifidobacterium. Within each group, there are different species (for example, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus), and within each species, different strains (or varieties). A few common probiotics, such as Saccharomyces boulardii, are yeasts, which are different from bacteria.” (Charlotte’s note: Aaaand you win the award for comma abuse! Which is all good since I’m a serial abuses of the en-dash.)

Prebiotics are undigestible (to humans) food parts that encourage the growth of probiotics. Basically they’re Old Country Buffet for germs.

Where Can You Find Them?

Probiotics have been used since ancient times as they are the active agents in fermented foods and cultured dairy products like yogurt, kefir, miso, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi etc. (a.k.a. all the stinky foods.) While food sources can be a great way to get your probiotics, sometimes you need more or at least a more consistent strain and that’s where the pill form comes in. In a previous post people have asked me for a specific product recommendation. I have been getting good results with the generic probiotic at Target. It’s just a few bucks a bottle, I keep it in my fridge and I love it. That said, I primarily use it to support already healthy immune systems. If you have greater needs (or just want to cover more bases) you can get a broader spectrum supplement. In the past I’ve used  ReNew Life’s Ultimate Flora  and have been impressed with their quality. (Not trying to sell you anything! And no, they’re not paying me! Neither is Target! I only mention the brand names because so many of you have asked for recommendations!)

Prebiotics are found in a variety of soluble-fiber-rich foods including whole grains (although their bioavailability is of some debate right now), jicama, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, onions, leeks and the like. (P.S. Never tried jicama or Jerusalem artichokes? You must!! SO yummy. And crunchy.)

Benefits

Probiotics are not just good for tummy troubles.  Research has shown t hat these good germs help with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, h Pylori infections (the bacteria that causes some types of ulcers), tooth decay and gum health, vaginal and urinary tract infections, and some respiratory and skin infections. There was even a study that showed that post-partum women who took a probiotic supplement had lost more weight at 6 months than those who didn’t. Plus there are a whole host of poop studies that I won’t go into right now but show promising results for everything from mood to drug addiction!

Risks

Personally I’ve never noticed any negative side effects, even when I took several in one day. (Making pricey poop is apparently a hobby of mine!) But I did have a personal trainer once tell me that he got diarrhea from OD’ing on probiotics. Either way the most common listed side effects from probiotics and prebiotics – whether in food or pill form – are gas and bloating.

So how do you get your probiotics – do you have a favorite stinky food or supplement to recommend? Have you tried jicamas and Jerusalem artichokes? What’s the weirdest veggie you’ve ever eaten?

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