Probiotics: A Surprising Way to Beat Stress

Those trillions of microbes that live in your body—sorry!—have an astonishing influence on your state of mind and may affect your waistline

by Diane Lange
Photograph: Illustrated By Aad Goudappel

In a recent study, Swanson and his colleagues demonstrated that pre-biotics can improve the composition of your bacterial world. Subjects who ate snack bars containing 21 grams of one of two kinds of soluble fiber, either polydextrose or soluble corn fiber, increased their Faecalibacterium, a bacterium known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Soluble corn fiber also boosted Lactobacillus, which, among other things, increases the acidity of the large intestine, making it harder for disease-causing bugs to survive. “Prebiotic-rich foods include oats, chicory, bananas, wheat, garlic and onions,” says Challa. Other good sources of prebiotics are flaxseed, artichokes, barley, legumes and raw dandelion greens.

Although there’s no established guideline for the optimal amount of prebiotics, the usual nutritional advice is to eat 30 to 35 grams of fiber (soluble and insoluble) a day to improve your digestive functioning and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and other problems. Most Americans consume less than half that amount.

The supplement route

Odds are you will not eat enough yogurt or other probiotic- and prebiotic-rich foods each day to make a huge change in your gut bacteria. Taking daily supplements of probiotics or synbiotics (a combo of prebiotics and probiotics) may be enough to put you over the top. If you decide, in concert with your physician, to get supplements, opt for those that contain a variety of bacteria strains; two you definitely want are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, advises Challa. And don’t drink anything hot for an hour after you take the pills, since heat destroys the bacteria.

There’s one situation in which doctors may recommend probiotics, and that’s when you take antibiotics, which typically decimate good bugs in your body along with the bad guys, potentially allowing more harmful ones to take over the colon. In this situation, “some people get diarrhea,” says Braden Kuo, MD, instructor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School and director of the GI Motility Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital, both in Boston. If you really do need antibiotics, taking probiotic supplements may restore the healthy bacteria population in the gut. Your goal is to have a gastrointestinal tract dominated by healthy bacteria that can improve your mental and physical functioning while also fending off the dangerous bacteria.

Next: Are Belly Bugs Making You Fat?

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First published in the April 2013 issue

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