Probiotics: Beneficial bacteria
Probiotics are organisms that contribute to the health and balance of the intestinal tract and are commonly referred to as the "friendly," "beneficial" or "good" bacteria
The term probiotic means “for life.” Probiotics are organisms that contribute to the health and balance of the intestinal tract and are commonly referred to as the “friendly,” “beneficial,” or “good” bacteria, which when ingested act to maintain a healthy intestinal tract and help fight disease.
The concept of probiotics is in contrast to antibiotics, which are compounds that suppress or destroy bacteria. Probiotics combat “bad” bacteria and also help maintain the health of the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract. There are many different probiotics with Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. rhamnosus GG, and bifidobacteria, among those more commonly studied.
Probiotics have a number of modes of activity, including affecting inflammatory processes, secreting compounds that regulate cell function, and protecting the intestine against invasive “bad” bacteria. They inhibit the growth of disease-causing bacteria by preventing their attachment to the intestine and by producing substances that suppress their growth.
A large body of scientific research has examined the role of probiotics in the treatment of gastrointestinal diseases such as diarrhea; inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis; as well as urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, asthma, and some cancers. While exactly how they do so is not understood completely, probiotics appear to affect the body’s immune system.
These beneficial bacteria can be obtained through consumption of fermented foods such as yogurt as long as these are produced using live cultures of lactobacillus or bifidobacteria. Probiotics are also available as a dietary supplement in pill or powder form. Like many items sold in health-food stores, commercial probiotics vary considerably in their effectiveness.
The science of probiotics is an exciting field and while the research looks promising, more research is still needed. If you do choose to buy a probiotic supplement, do your homework before you decide on which product to purchase, and consider these points:
- All probiotics products are not the same. Some contain a single type of organism and others contain many.
- The health effects of probiotics are species- and strain-specific and cannot be generalized to other bacteria. For example, lactobacillus GG has been shown to be helpful for childhood diarrhea but not for Crohn’s disease, while other probiotics products have been shown to be helpful in Crohn’s disease. Find out which probiotics have been studied for the condition you want treated.
- Look for a probiotics product with billions of bacteria in it. You need this many to effectively colonize your intestine. The bacteria should be available at time of consumption, not at time of preparation, so look on the label for the viable count at time of use. Also, look for the specific strains of bacteria in the product. If they are not listed on the label, they may not be there.
- Store probiotic supplements in a cool, dry place, such as the refrigerator.
- Yogurt or any fermented milk product must contain 100 million bacteria per dose to be effective. Look for live cultures of acidophilus or bifidobacteria, or both. Probiotics products which are pasteurized or have been sitting in the refrigerator for a long time will have very few active bacteria.
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Adapted from Foods that Harm, Foods that Heal: An A-Z Guide to Safe and Healthy Eating, Reader's Dig