Probiotics are live microorganisms that may be able to help prevent and treat some illnesses. They are “friendly bacteria” that are similar to organisms that occur naturally in our digestive tract.
Certain strains or types of probiotics have been linked to all sorts of health benefits, from helping with irritable bowel syndrome and traveler’s diarrhea to boosting the immune system.
The idea that bacteria are beneficial can be tough to understand. We take antibiotics to kill harmful bacterial infections and use antibacterial soaps and lotions more than ever. The wrong bacteria in the wrong place can cause problems, but, the right bacteria in the right place can have many benefits. Their benefits, beginning with those naturally ohave been very widely studied in recent years. You can see more about them and where best to find them naturally occurring in foods inn my last newsletter/blog. If you missed that, click here.
The root of the word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning “promoting,” and biotic, meaning “life.”
The discovery of probiotics came about in the early 20th century, when Elie Metchnikoff, known as the “father of probiotics,” had observed that rural dwellers in Bulgaria lived to very old ages despite extreme poverty and harsh climate. His theory was that health could be enhanced and senility delayed by manipulating the intestinal microbiome with host-friendly bacteria found in sour (fermented) milk. Since then, research has continued to support his findings a well as suggest even more benefits.
Today the supermarket invasion of probiotic products and supplements is moving into high gear, and it can be daunting to figure out which ones to choose.
We can eliminate things like granola bars, fancy yogurts, and many soft drinks which attempt to maked their processed foods more marketable to health seekers. Otherwise, naturally fermented foods like raw sauerkraut, kimchee, raw apple cider vinegar, etc. are the best first choices. (Click that link above for more about them.)
Here are some questions that I hear about probiotic supplements, and at least partial answers to them.
– Does the FDA Regulate the Term “Probiotics?”
In 2001, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations – not the FDA – defined “probiotics” as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
So far, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved no specific health claims for probiotics. Further, the amounts of probiotics that studies have found to be beneficial vary from strain to strain and condition to condition.
In 2007, the FDA did enact regulations requiring dietary supplements to be produced in a quality manner, to be free of contaminants or impurities, and to be accurately labeled. Many probiotic researchers hope these regulations will improve the quality of probiotic supplements in the United States.
– Which are the Different Types of Probiotics
Up until the 1960s, the only gut microflora that were identifiable were clostridia, lactobacilli, enterococci, and E. coli. Many more have been discovered since then, and their health benefits are determined by the job that they do in the gut.
Studies have shown that different strains of probiotics provide different benefits. They include, but are not limited to the following:
Lactobacillus – more than 50 species.. They occur naturally in the digestive, urinary, and genital systems. Fermented foods and dietary supplements also contain these bacteria and have been used for treating and preventing a wide variety of diseases and conditions such as yeast infections, antibiotic-related diarrhea, traveler’s diarrhea, lactose intolerance, skin disorders and respiratory infections.
Bifidobacteria – approximately 30 species. They make up most of the healthy bacteria in the colon. They appear in the intestinal tract within days of birth, especially in breastfed infants and are thought to be the best marker of intestinal health. They can help with improving blood lipids and glucose tolerance, and have been shown to alleviate and significantly improve IBS symptoms such as bloating, urgency, and digestive disorders.
– Are Probiotic Supplements Worthwhile?
Probiotic microbiology consultant Mary Ellen Sanders, MS, PhD says, “Food sources of probiotics have the advantage in that they offer good nutrition along with the probiotic bacteria.” Supplements, though, can be actually good supplements to those foods and “may provide higher levels of probiotic depending on the the product in question.
– Are Probiotics Safe for Everyone
Mostly. No studies have shown probiotics to be harmful in healthy people. There are still questions about which diseases and illnesses preclude their use. Barry Goldin, MS, PhD, of Tufts University School of Medicine, advises that terminally ill cancer patients and people with the potential for leaky bowels, including acute pancreatitis should NOT consume probiotics.
In some cases, mild side effects might include an upset stomach, diarrhea, gas, and bloating for the first couple of days after you start taking them. They may also trigger allergic reactions. Stop taking them and talk to your doctor if you have problem.
If you haven’t had a specific strain or brand recommended to you by a physician, I recommend shopping for probiotic supplements in a good health food store. Consult one of the knowledgeable people there. I try to go for the ones with the most strains, to try to cover as many bases in my gut system as I can. Further, I think it’s a good idea to switch them up, as each company that produces probiotics includes different combinations of them.