Are There Health Benefits To Probiotics?
When you think of living a healthy lifestyle, eating bacteria probably isn’t something you think about. But did you know there is actually such a thing as “friendly” bacteria (known as probiotics)? And we should include it in our diets just like we take vitamins and minerals to safeguard our health.
What are probiotics?
The term refers to “friendly” bacteria that inhabit our intestines such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Every day, billions of these friendly intestinal bacteria are working hard to keep us healthy by performing numerous functions critical to our good health. These functions include aiding digestion, detoxifying the colon, supporting regular bowel movements, supporting immune functions, and fighting infection by food-borne or other disease-causing germs.
Many people are eating yogurt to increase their intake of probiotics, but most commercially available yogurt is not a very reliable source of quality, potent probiotic bacteria. A reliable source of probiotics should provide specified amounts of organisms (in the billions) that are processed with the best intention to preserving organisms’ capability, and should have research to support the beneficial role of specific organisms in human health.
The word bacteria have a reputation for causing disease, so just the idea of eating bacteria by the billions a day for your health is a hard pill to swallow. But the growing body of scientific evidence suggests that you can treat and even prevent some illness with foods and supplements containing certain kinds of live bacteria.
For example, 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.
Also, Probiotic-laced drinks are big business in Japan as well as Europe. Such foods are not as popular in the United States, but interest in probiotics supplements is on the rise. Some digestive specialists are recommending them for disorders that frustrate conventional medicine, such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Products marketed as “natural” have benefits come with them that are at times exaggerated, such as – miracle cures for acne to preventing cancer and heart disease. However, it does not mean probiotic therapy is without merit. Since the mid 1990s, clinical studies have established that it can help treat several gastrointestinal ills, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary tract infection in women.
Rationale for Probiotics
There is 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.
When microorganisms become depleted, usually it is the result of disease, stress, poor diet, or certain medications, and health problems can result. In this scenario, pathogens may get a foothold causing diarrhea and sometimes colitis (inflammation of the intestinal lining). The gut wall become “leaky,” letting through proteins that set off an inflammatory response. That is the reason it makes sense to replenish the bacteria supply or stock up during challenges, such as a round of antibiotics that kills off useful microorganisms along with harmful ones.
Which Bugs Are Involved?
The strains of bacteria often found in probiotic supplements and foods like yogurt are lactic acid bacteria that belong to genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterim. The commonly used species include L. acidophilus, L. brevis, L. bulgaricus, L. reuteri, L. plantarum, L. rhamnosus, L. salivarius, L. casei, B. Bifidum, B. lactis, B. longum, and B. infantis.
Other strains are Escherichia, Enterococus, clostridium, streptococcus, and Saccharomyces (a yeast) families.
Note that all of these bacteria have not been thoroughly researched. Most of the studies have been small, the methodologies imperfect, and the results inconsistent. Preparations and doses are varied. Also, different strains have different health effects, so the findings of one probiotic don’t necessarily apply to others.
However the probiotic with the most research behind it is Lactobacillus GG, also known as L. rhamnosus GG, (named after its discoverers, Drs. Sherwood Gorbach and Barrin Goldin at Tufts University). This bacteria, has shown good results in treating diarrhea in children and preventing infant allergy. Some products may have several bacterial strains. Such a product called VSL #3 is a mix of four strains of Lactobacilli, three strains of Bifidobacteria, and one strain of Streptococcus salivarius. A probiotic preparation may also contain inulin or fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), plant-based components that certain microflora feed on. Such substances are referred to as “prebiotics.”
Good for some intestinal problems
Probiotic therapy has the best case for treatment of diarrhea. It may also help people with crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. These diseases are so frustrating to treat, that many people are giving probiotics a try before all the evidence is in for the particular strains they are using. More research is needed to find out which strains work best for what conditions.
Acute diarrhea. Controlled trials have shown that Lactobacillus GG can shorten the course of infectious diarrhea in infants and children (but not for adults). L. reuteri, L.casei, combination L. acidophilus and L. Bifidus and Bifictobacerium lactis probiotic in one trial found effective in children or adults. In one study, B. Bifidum and Streptococcus thermophilus when added to infant formula reduced the incidence of diarrhea by 24 %.
Probiotics studies for other gastrointestinal problems are being studied for treating constipation, traveler’s diarrhea, and H. pylori infection, which causes stomach ulcers and gastric cancers. No strains have been found to be entirely effective in treating irritable bowel syndrome, although the planetarium and B. infantis help relieve individual symptoms of bloating, gas, or diarrhea.
Lactose intolerance. Some people suffer from gas, bloating, and diarrhea if they drink milk because their bodies are short on lactase, an enzyme needed to break down lactose (milk sugar). More that 20 years ago, researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine that lactose-intolerant individuals had fewer symptoms if they ate yogurt instead of milk. The bacteria in yogurt produce lactase, which digests the lactose before it reaches the large intestines.
Urogenital health. The vagina has its balanced ecosystem and the dominant Lactobacilli strains normally make it too acidic for harmful microorganisms to survive. However the system can become out of balance by a number of factors, including antibiotics, spermicides, and birth control pills. The vaginal and urinary tracts are also at risk because they are so close to the anus, a source of E. coli and other bacteria that should remain confined to the intestinal tract. The feeling that 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 treatment of bacterial vaginosis, although there isn’t enough evidence yet to support it over conventional approaches. (Vaginosis must be treated because it creates a risk for pregnancy-related complications and pelvic inflammatory diseases.) Probiotic treatment of urinary tract infections is under study.
Rule of Thumb for Taking Probiotics
The recommended doses of probiotics range from 1 billion to 10 billion colony-forming units (CFU) – the amount contained in a capsule or two- several days per week.
Lactobacillus GG, marketed is sold in capsule form. VSL #3 comes in packets of powder that you sprinkle on food. To get the benefits of probiotics in yogurt and other cultured products, make sure the label indicates the presence of “live” or “active” cultures. A daily supplement for one to two weeks is often recommended. Some people take probiotics as a routine prevention measure.
Take note that Probiotic supplement must be handled and stored properly, because they need to be alive when you take them (or when they are freeze-dried for capsules). They may die on exposure to heat, moisture, or air. Some require refrigeration.
Are they safe? Probiotics are generally considered safe since they are already present in a normal digestive system. Be sure the ingredients are clearly marked on the label and familiar to you or your health provider. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure sure they are safe before they are marketed and that any claims on a label are effective for the condition you’re taking them for. Also, health benefits are strain-specific and not all strains are necessarily useful. When in doubt, consult a practitioner familiar with probiotics to discuss your options.