Exploring the Benefits of Probiotics
Many health-seeking people are now aware that there are “good bacteria” which can be taken as part of a healthy diet. These live bacteria, popularly known as probiotics, are found in foods and supplements and have health benefits that have been scientifically proven to help maintain good digestion and treat a variety of conditions.
What are Probiotics?
The term ‘probiotics’ comes from the root words, pro and biota, which means “for life”. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amount confer a health benefit on the host.”1 Although most probiotic products contain exclusively bacteria, some also include yeast.
For a microbe to be considered a probiotic it must be alive when used and it must have a proven health benefit. Aside from being proven effective through properly controlled scientific studies, it must be safe to use and it must be able to be kept alive for the duration of its shelf life.
How Probiotics Work
The body harbors a normal amount of bacteria and other microbes on the skin, in the gastrointestinal tract, and in a few other places. In fact, there is a very large number and diversity of these microbes that live in the human body, and they are critical for our growth and development. Depending on their location and number they can help maintain normal processes like digestion, prevent infection, and maintain a normal balance in pH (a measure of acidity).
When unusual conditions, such as such as antibiotic intake and a weakened immune system disturb the normal balance of these helpful organisms, other microbes may take over and exert harmful effects. Taking probiotics supplementally can help restore normal balance in situations like these.
Proven Benefits of Probiotics
There is growing enthusiasm for the use of probiotics not only as supplements to maintain good health but also as possible therapeutic agents for specific conditions such as the following.
The effectiveness of using probiotics to prevent allergic disease has been demonstrated in a couple of studies using Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG in infants. These showed a long-term reduction in the incidence of atopic eczema, a type of allergic reaction among babies who were given probiotic supplements.2
One of the most common uses of probiotics is for the prevention and treatment of diarrhea. This condition may be brought about by different types of harmful micro-organisms, although it can also occur as a result of antibiotic intake which disturbs the normal balance of micro-organisms in the intestines. Studies have shown that taking probiotics such as Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum may help prevent loose bowels .3
Inflammatory Bowel Diseases
Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are serious conditions that bring about a host of symptoms and nutritional deficiencies. Several studies suggest that probiotics like Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli provide an alternative or adjunct therapy. They act by modifying the intestinal flora (microorganisms) and by modulating the immune system .4
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome is a functional disorder of the bowels where one experiences symptoms of abdominal cramps, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. These follow acute, infectious diarrheal illness in about 15% of patients. While severe, persistent symptoms may not be responsive to supplementation, a mild inflammatory state which occurs with changes in intestinal function or structure often is. Studies using Bifidobacteria or Lactobacilli species have shown benefits to patients suffering from this condition .5
Lactobacilli normally inhabit the vagina, and a lack of these microbes is a risk factor for vaginosis. The lactobacilli help maintain a favorable vaginal acidity which inhibits harmful bacteria. When this ecosystem is disturbed, infection such as bacterial vaginosis or yeast infection may occur. Oral intake of Lactobacillus in the form of yogurt as well as intravaginal application of the probiotics has been proven to be useful in the treatment of urogenital or vaginal infections. 6
Other Possible Benefits
Other possible benefits for supplementing with probiotics may include maintaining health cholesterol levels, supporting proper blood pressure and maintain kidney health.
Probiotics are safe and effective health supplements that can help promote digestive health as well as general health. To benefit from them it is best to purchase good quality products and keep them stable by proper storage.
- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, World Health Organization.
- Furrie E. Probiotics and allergy. Proc Nutr Soc. 2005 Nov.64(4):465-9
- McFarland LV. Meta-analysis of probiotics for the prevention of traveler’s diarrhea. Travel Med Infect Dis. 2007 Mar. 5(2):97-105
- Sheil B, Shanahan F, O’Mahony L. Probiotic effects on inflammatory bowel disease. J Nutr. 2007 Mar. 137(3 Suppl 2):819S-24S
- Camilleri M. Probiotics and irritable bowel syndrome: rationale, putative mechanisms, and evidence of clinical efficacy. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2006 Mar.40(3):264-9
- Reid G, et al. Oral probiotics can resolve urogenital infections. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol. 2001 Feb. 30(1):49-52