All About Acidophilus

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When we hear the word bacteria, we usually think of something unsanitary. After all, don’t we worry about bacteria whenever we pierce our skin with a rusty nail, use a dirty public washroom, or eat at an all-night roadside diner?

Believe it or not, there are certain types of bacteria that are actually good for us. Constantly doing good work in our intestinal tracts are more than 400 species of microscopic organisms that help digest food and perform other functions. One of the stars among this so-called microflora is Lactobacillus acidophilus. And these beneficial bacteria get around. Not only are they in the intestinal tract and mouth, they may also show up in the vagina.

We are not born with a ready-made supply of acidophilus—or any other bacteria, for that matter—but we all begin gathering herds of microflora soon after we leave the womb. Mom can help, transferring some of the beneficial bacteria through breast milk. Later, as soon as we’re introduced to a variety of foods, the good and bad bacteria begin to colonize our bodies. Throughout our lives, we need enough of the good microflora to help keep us healthy and to keep the bad kind in check. There are times, though, when those friendly bacteria can use some help.

Friendly Flora

Acidophilus and other lactobacilli are considered friendly because they produce nutrients such as B vitamins. They also produce enzymes that aid in the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, says Khem Shahani, Ph.D., professor of food science and technology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Acidophilus also takes part in an important balancing act in the intestinal tract and vagina. Under ideal circumstances, it and other types of beneficial bacteria help to create an environment that prevents harmful bacteria from multiplying.

Many things can deplete the good guys, including stress, disease, poor digestion, processed foods, and too much sugar. Alcohol and tobacco are also culprits. When these factors come into play, bad bacteria can multiply and take over, leading to a variety of intestinal problems, urinary tract infections, and vaginal yeast infections. Then something must be done to help restore acidophilus to power.

There’s another sneaky predator as well. Antibiotics are prescribed to clear up bacterial infections, but that’s not all they clear up. In their haste to sweep away the bad bacteria, they can knock out beneficial bacteria, too.

Whatever the cause, as your natural supply of acidophilus goes into retreat, the need for reinforcements increases. “That’s when it becomes important to take an acidophilus supplement,” says Dr. Shahani. Commonly available in tablets, capsules, and powders, supplements help to combat these problems by restoring the balance of bacteria in the intestines and vagina.

How Much, and When?

Supplements aren’t the only sources of acidophilus. You can also get it from foods such as yogurt and other cultured milk products. Supplements, however, provide a more concentrated form of the beneficial bacteria, according to Dr. Shahani.

Acidophilus Botanical name: Lactobacillus acidophilus.

May help: Vaginal yeast infections, urinary tract infections, lactose intolerance, diarrhea, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, lupus, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, indigestion, constipation, and gas.

Special instructions: Take with food.

Good food sources: Fermented milk products, including yogurt and kefir. High temperatures destroy acidophilus, so fermented milk products are not good sources if they’ve been warmed.

Cautions and possible side effects: If you have any serious gastrointestinal problems that require medical attention, check with your doctor before taking them.

Amounts exceeding 10 billion viable L. acidophilus organisms daily may cause mild gastrointestinal distress.

In addition to its well-known use as a home remedy for preventing and treating vaginal yeast infections, acidophilus can also ease gastrointestinal distress such as diarrhea, constipation, and flatulence. Researchers are looking into its ability to lower cholesterol levels, prevent colon cancer, and provide relief for skin problems such as contact dermatitis, according to Dr. Shahani. It can even be a modest help in warding off osteoporosis, since some strains of acidophilus aid the transformation of calcium from your diet into the bone-strengthening form that keeps your skeleton healthy, he says.

While some of these benefits are speculative, there’s no doubt that we all need acidophilus bacteria for good health. Also, doctors sometimes recommend supplements for very specific conditions. “I recommend that anyone with any kind of gastrointestinal upset or chronic vaginal yeast infection, and anyone who’s going to take a trip overseas and is therefore at risk for traveler’s diarrhea, supplement with acidophilus in one form or another,” says Jennifer Brett, N.D., a naturopathic doctor at the Wilton Naturopathic Center in Stratford, Connecticut.

Biting Back at the Bacteria Bashers

A prescription antibiotic might be just the thing to conquer a common sinus infection. While the antibiotic is killing the bacteria that haunt your sinuses, it’s also moving throughout your body and clearing out bacteria of all types, good and bad.

When it does this cleaning work in the vaginal area, the result can be very counterproductive. Vaginal yeast is held in check by beneficial bacteria such as acidophilus, and once that barrier is removed by the antibiotic, yeast can multiply quickly. That’s where acidophilus supplements can help, by restoring good bacteria to chase away the bad, says Dr. Brett.

While it’s true that most acute yeast infections are treatable with safe, inexpensive, over-the-counter medications, these remedies don’t offer much long-term protection. Acidophilus supplements, on the other hand, may provide a long-term solution to chronic problems.

At the Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York, researchers tested the effects of acidophilus by giving eight ounces of acidophilus-containing yogurt daily to 13 women who had histories of recurring yeast infections. After six months, the incidence of yeast infections dropped nearly 74 percent.

Better Bacteria? Move over, acidophilus. Make room for lactobacillus strain GG (LGG), a kind of beneficial bacteria that has been available as a supplement in this country only since 1998. Some experts say that LGG is superior to acidophilus for the prevention and treatment of diarrhea and other gastrointestinal disturbances.

No other beneficial bacteria—not even acidophilus—have been so well supported by scientific tests, according to Barry Goldin, Ph.D., a biochemist, and professor in community health at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. Dr. Goldin is the researcher who discovered the strain in 1985, along with Sherwood Gorbach, M.D., professor of community health and medicine at Tufts. Since that discovery, he says, more than 100 scientific papers have reported the effectiveness of LGG in treating a number of gastrointestinal problems.

Unlike acidophilus, which is derived from a dairy strain, LGG comes from a sterile form of the bacteria that grow in the human intestine. For this reason, it may be better equipped to survive in the gastrointestinal tract and vagina than acidophilus and other dairy strains of lactobacilli, Dr. Goldin says.

Acidophilus also shows promise for lowering cholesterol levels. High cholesterol is a major risk factor in atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), which can lead to heart problems. According to Dr. Shahani, human and animal studies have shown significant decreases in LDL cholesterol—the bad kind—when diets were supplemented with certain strains of acidophilus.

Acidophilus supplements have also been shown to ease the symptoms of lactose intolerance, including bloating, gas, and diarrhea. This condition occurs when the body doesn’t produce enough of an enzyme called lactase, which breaks down lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products. Acidophilus can help because it produces large amounts of lactase, says Dr. Shahani.

Looking for Living Cells

If we never got sick, ate only nutritious, wholesome foods, and lived an enormously healthy and stress-free life, we probably wouldn’t need to take acidophilus supplements, says Dr. Shahani. But “our lifestyles are such that supplements become necessary from time to time,” he observes. “I think the capsules may be more reliable because you’re swallowing living micro-organisms. You can’t always tell how potent yogurt and other dairy products are,” he says.

To get the supplements that are most effective, you have to choose very carefully, according to Dr. Shahani. In order to get one that’s full of viable organisms, you can ask your pharmacist to recommend a brand. Prices vary, of course, but the cheapest product may not be the best choice. “Paying more is no guarantee that you’ll get a quality product, but it does seem to improve your chances,” says Dr. Shahani. In other words, it’s no bargain if it doesn’t contain living acidophilus.

Here’s some additional advice from experts to help you choose your supplement.

• Look for a product that contains a mixture of bacteria strains and has a count of at least one billion organisms per capsule.

• Make sure the supplement you buy has been refrigerated prior to purchase, especially if the label recommends it. And keep it in the refrigerator after you buy it, with the lid on tightly, suggests Dr. Brett. Heat, light, humidity, and oxygen can rob supplements of their live bacteria.

• Check the label for an expiration date. If it doesn’t have one, don’t buy it, advises Dr. Brett.

• If you’re ordering by mail, have the product sent overnight or second-day mail, suggests Dr. Shahani.

• Consider enteric-coated capsules, especially for more severe symptoms, says Dr. Brett. The coating allows the supplement to pass through the stomach in its entirety before breaking down in the intestines.

• Some brands of acidophilus contain fructooligosaccharides, food components that are intended to increase good bacteria such as acidophilus while reducing bad bacteria. According to Dr. Shahani, however, there’s no solid research to back up this claim and justify the extra expense of these supplements.

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