Courtesy of Richard's Whole Foods

Friendly Bacteria For Your Health

Posted: 10/30/2006

Posted Oct 30, 2006

It's spooky to think that good and bad are fighting it out inside us every day. And with 100 trillion bacterial cells in our intestinal tract, let's pray the good side wins.

Like an old Clint Eastwood flick, the "flora" that grows in our intestines is a combination of good and bad microbes. Good bacteria with names such as Lactobacillus and Bifobacteria help manufacture vitamin K, fortify our immune system and prevent the growth of bad bacteria, such as the notorious E. coli. Things get ugly when this balance gets disturbed.

Research shows that an imbalance of "bowel flora" may play a role in the development of allergies, especially during infancy. (Breastfed babies tend to have a better balance of good bacteria than formula-fed babies.) Other studies have found that "inflammatory bowel diseases" such as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may be linked to an unhealthy balance of intestinal bacteria.

From where do these good bacteria come and how do we encourage their growth? Check the next carton of yogurt you buy for the words "live and active cultures." Yogurt, buttermilk, kefir and other fermented foods contain strains of good bacteria with names such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, S. thermophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and bifidus. Scientists have dubbed these beneficial microbes "probiotics."

And just like bread yeast needs a little sugar to thrive, probiotics need food or "prebiotics." Prebiotics that feed probiotics reside in the fiber of plant foods such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Inulin and oligofructose are two widely studied prebiotics that are found naturally in a long list of foods: oatmeal, flax, barley and other whole grains, onions, greens (especially dandelion, spinach, collard, chard, kale and mustard greens), berries, bananas and other fruit, and legumes such as lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas and navy beans.

What kind and how much of these prebiotics and probiotics do we need? Ah, that is the question. Scientists are just beginning to unravel what they call the "complex ecosystem" that makes for a healthy intestinal flora.

Like a garden, our guts will produce the bacteria we sow. A garden of good bacteria begins when we plant food sources of probiotics (yogurt and other fermented foods) and fertilize them with prebiotics (fruits, vegetables, whole grains).

Probiotic and prebiotic supplements are also available. Are they safe? Historically, yes. However, long-term studies still need to be conducted, according to experts.

We know when good outweighs bad, the result is ... better. And so the battle rages. But don't worry. The good guys win in the end.


(Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. E-mail her at

© 2006, The Monterey County Herald (Monterey, Calif.). Distributed by Mclatchy-Tribune News Service.