Since bacteria are usually associated with disease, who would have thought that they could actually be good for you? Certain strains of bacteria have been proven to be beneficial for your health because of their ability to treat and prevent specific illnesses. These “friendly” bacteria are called probiotics, a name that means “for life” in Greek. Probiotics are generally found in yogurt and cultured foods. Northern Europeans have been consuming probiotics for centuries due to their tradition of eating foods fermented with bacteria. The History of Probiotics In 1908, the Russian microbiologist Elie Metchnikoff was the first to associate the large amounts of fermented dairy products with the good health and longevity of Bulgarian peasants. He proposed that the probiotics found in fermented dairy products prevented the growth of toxin-producing bacteria in the intestine through the secretion of lactic acid. He believed if eaten regularly, these probiotic-containing foods could lead to a longer and healthier life. One version of the Old Testament even attributes Abraham's long life—175 years— to the "consumption of sour milk." Metchnikoff’s ideas regarding probiotics were considered such a huge contribution to science that he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine. What Do Probiotics Do? Our bodies are home to a mix of good and bad bacteria. Under normal or "balanced" conditions, friendly bacteria in the gut outnumber the unfriendly ones. The ratio of good to bad bacteria is usually 85%:15%. However, sometimes pathogens overwhelm the body and their levels become much greater than 15%, thereby causing illness. For instance, when you take antibiotics the good bacteria are killed along with the harmful ones, often leading to diarrhea. Thus, it’s necessary to ensure that your body always has an adequate amount of good bacteria. Probiotics function in a number of ways. First, they secrete substances that will interact with harmful material and detoxify it. Second, probiotics also take in the toxic material and process it to make it less harmful. Third, these good bacteria compete with pathogens for space on the wall of the intestine, where they all live, thereby displacing the bad bacteria. Fourth, probiotics create a physical barrier in the intestine against unfriendly bacteria and prevent them from permeating the intestine to enter the bloodstream [1-2]. Probiotics can also help breakdown protein and fat in the digestive tract — a valuable benefit to help patients who need to build strength during and after an illness. As a result of all of these capabilities, probiotics can help improve immune function, protect against bad bacteria to prevent infection, and improve the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients. Benefits of Probiotics A great deal of research has been done investigating the health benefits of probiotics.
Probiotics have been shown to be effective in treating an impressive number of conditions, including [3-8]: Gastrointestinal: Diarrhea, constipation, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, colon cancer, Helicobacter pylori (the cause of stomach ulcers), radiation enteritis. Urinary: Urinary tract infections, kidney stones, recurrence of bladder cancer. Cardiovascular: High cholesterol levels, hypertension. Neurological/psychiatric: Autism, Alzheimer’s disease. Immune system: Allergies. Skin, Bone: Eczema, osteoporosis. General: Obesity. Infectious: Respiratory infections, yeast infections. Probiotics are also effect in preventing disease. Research shows that probiotics prevent diarrhea, cardiovascular disease, dental cavities, and improve immune response (thereby preventing colds and winter infections). Probiotics also act as antioxidants, fighting off harmful free radicals that damage cells and DNA. Thus, probiotics can be helpful for both healthy and sick individuals. REFERENCES: 1) Zareie M, Johnson-Henry K, Jury J, et al. Probiotics prevent bacterial anslocation and improve intestinal barrier function in rats following chronic psychological stress. Gut 2006;55:1553-1560 2) Hickson M, D’Souza AL, Muthu N, et al. Use of probiotic Lactobacillus preparation to prevent diarrhoea associated with antibiotics: randomised double blind placebo controlled trial. British Medical Journal 2007;335:80 3) Huffnagle GB. The Probiotics Revolution. New York, NY: Bantam Dell. 2007 4) Broekaert IJ, Walker WA. Probiotics and chronic disease. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology 2006;40:270-274 5) Floch MH, Madsen KK, Jenkins DJ, et al. Recommendations for probiotic use. Journal of clinical gastroenterology 2006;40:275-278 6) Friedrich MJ. A bit of culture for children: probiotics may improve health and fight disease. Journal of the American Medical Association 2000;284:1365-1366 7) Sanders ME. Considerations for use of probiotic bacteria to modulate human health. Journal of Nutrition 2000;130:384S-390S 8) Brudnack MA. The Probiotic Solution. St. Paul, MN: Dragon Door Publications, Inc. 2003