Probiotics are live microorganisms (in most cases, bacteria) that are similar to beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut. They are also called "friendly bacteria" or "good bacteria." Probiotics are available to consumers mainly in the form of dietary supplements and foods. They can be used as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Repeatedly demonstrated to aid gastrointestinal health in the human body, acidophilus and other probiotics are key elements of our overall health and well being. This is particularly true when we consider that many of our common-day chronic ailments begin in the digestive system. It is also true when we consider the sheer number of people that suffer from poor gastrointestinal health, a condition which lowers the overall level of good bacteria in the body.
In plain English, probiotics are a type of living bacteria that actually benefit your health when taken in the appropriate amounts. This friendly bacteria, located in the gastrointestinal tract, comes in a variety of forms. With more than 400 different bacteria living in the human gastrointestinal tract, the most common forms of intestinal probiotics are L. acidophilus and Bifidobacteria bifidum.
These bacteria act as balancing agents for non-friendly, pathogenic, gut-bacteria such as Candida or E. coli. When the “good-guys” are notpresent enough, a number of bacteria-related health problems such as digestive upset, headaches, sluggishness, irritability, cadidiasis (an overgrowth of the bacteria Candida albicans), and even anxiety can ensue.
Lactobacillus acidophilus is, quite possibly, the strongest of our probiotic fighters. Studies show that L. acidophilus actually creates a natural form of antibiotics in the body. This natural antibiotic increases our ability to produce antimicrobial action against the pathogens in the food we eat, the air we breath, and the things we come in contact with. Stress, unhealthy lifestyles, and most importantly, unhealthy acidic diets, destroy our natural amounts of probiotics. In this sense, it is a great idea to add a probiotic supplement to your diet.
The Health Benefits of Probiotics
The following health benefits are associated with the intake of daily doses of probiotics:
Enhanced immune system response
Reduces negative affects of taking many types of antibiotics
Aids in preventing and treating colon inflammation following surgery
Helps to prevent eczema in youth
Increased ability to digest food
Therapeutic for viral respiratory tract infections by enhancing the overall immune system
Reduces lactose intolerance
Reduces incidence of yeast infections, vaginitis and candidiasis
Increases ability to assimilate the nutrients from food
Alleviates many common digestive disorders such as constipation, diarrhea and IBS
Acts as a remedy for bad breath (halitosis)
Increases ability to synthesize vitamin B
Increases ability to absorb calcium
Promotes anti-tumor and anti-cancer activity in the body
Bacteria have a reputation for causing disease, so the idea of tossing down a few billion a day for your health might seem — literally and figuratively — hard to swallow. But a growing body of scientific evidence suggests that you can treat and even prevent some illnesses with foods and supplements containing certain kinds of live bacteria. Northern Europeans consume a lot of these beneficial microorganisms, called probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning “for life”), because of their tradition of eating foods fermented with bacteria, such as yogurt. Probiotic-laced beverages are also big business in Japan.
Enthusiasm for such foods has lagged in the United States, but interest in probiotic supplements is on the rise. Some digestive disease specialists are recommending them for disorders that frustrate conventional medicine, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Since the mid-1990s, clinical studies have established that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ills, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.
Self-dosing with bacteria isn’t as outlandish as it might seem. An estimated 100 trillion microorganisms representing more than 500 different species inhabit every normal, healthy bowel. These microorganisms (or microflora) generally don’t make us sick; most are helpful. Gut-dwelling bacteria keep pathogens (harmful microorganisms) in check, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and contribute to immune function.
The best case for probiotic therapy has been in the treatment of diarrhea. Controlled trials have shown that Lactobacillus GG can shorten the course of infectious diarrhea in infants and children (but not adults). Although studies are limited and data are inconsistent, two large reviews, taken together, suggest that probiotics reduce antibiotic-associated diarrhea by 60%, when compared with a placebo.
Probiotic therapy may also help people with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Clinical trial results are mixed, but several small studies suggest that certain probiotics may help maintain remission of ulcerative colitis and prevent relapse of Crohn’s disease and the recurrence of pouchitis (a complication of surgery to treat ulcerative colitis). Because these disorders are so frustrating to treat, many people are giving probiotics a try before all the evidence is in for the particular strains they’re using. More research is needed to find out which strains work best for what conditions.
Probiotics may also be of use in maintaining urogenital health. Like the intestinal tract, the vagina is a finely balanced ecosystem. The dominant Lactobacilli strains normally make it too acidic for harmful microorganisms to survive. But the system can be thrown out of balance by a number of factors, including antibiotics, spermicides, and birth control pills. Probiotic treatment that restores the balance of microflora may be helpful for such common female urogenital problems as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary tract infection.
Many women eat yogurt or insert it into the vagina to treat recurring yeast infections, a “folk” remedy for which medical science offers limited support. Oral and vaginal administration of Lactobacilli may help in the treatment of bacterial vaginosis, although there isn’t enough evidence yet to recommend it over conventional approaches. (Vaginosis must be treated because it creates a risk for pregnancy-related complications and pelvic inflammatory disease.) Probiotic treatment of urinary tract infections is under study.
Probiotics are generally considered safe — they’re already present in a normal digestive system — although there’s a theoretical risk for people with impaired immune function. Be sure the ingredients are clearly marked on the label and familiar to you or your health provider. There’s no way to judge the safety of unidentified mixtures.
In the United States, most probiotics are sold as dietary supplements, which do not undergo the testing and approval process that drugs do. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure they’re safe before they’re marketed and that any claims made on the label are true. But there’s no guarantee that the types of bacteria listed on a label are effective for the condition you’re taking them for. Health benefits are strain-specific, and not all strains are necessarily useful, so you may want to consult a practitioner familiar with probiotics to discuss your options. As always, let your primary care provider know what you’re doing.
Who Should Take Probiotics?
There is no question that candiasis sufferers require supplemental use of probiotics to replenish beneficial GI bacteria and rebuild the immune system. Even if you don’t have candidiasis, environmental and food toxins, coupled with the high-stress lifestyle of most North Americans, are good indicators of the widespread need for probiotics.
This is especially true if you are consistently taking antibiotics, or if you have ever been on a course of particularly strong antibiotics, have frequent colds, or exhibit any symptoms of candida related problems. The reason for this is that antibiotics kill bacteria both good and bad. Despite their value, antibiotics have been overused to the point that there are at least two bacteria that have developed complete resistance to antibiotics. Needless to say, these bacteria present a serious problem to our health.
Side effects and risks
Some live microorganisms have a long history of use as probiotics without causing illness in people. Probiotics' safety has not been thoroughly studied scientifically, however. More information is especially needed on how safe they are for young children, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems.
Probiotics' side effects, if they occur, tend to be mild and digestive (such as gas or bloating). More serious effects have been seen in some people. Probiotics might theoretically cause infections that need to be treated with antibiotics, especially in people with underlying health conditions. They could also cause unhealthy metabolic activities, too much stimulation of the immune system, or gene transfer (insertion of genetic material into a cell).
Probiotic products taken by mouth as a dietary supplement are manufactured and regulated as foods, not drugs.
Disclaimer: This website is for information purposes only. By providing the information contained herein we are not diagnosing, treating, curing, mitigating, or preventing any type of disease or medical condition. Before beginning any type of natural, integrative or conventional treatment regime, it is advisible to seek the advice of a licensed healthcare professional.