With an interest in natural health and fitness on the rise in the United States, probiotics are getting a lot of good press. Experts have debated about how best to define “probiotics,” but basically they are live microorganisms that are comparable to the good bacteria inside the human gut. They can be found in some foods and in dietary supplements. Typically, probiotic bacteria come from one of two groups, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, but some common probiotics such as Saccharomyces boulardii are yeasts, not bacteria.
The use of some probiotic foods dates back to ancient times. Some that may contain probiotics include fermented and unfermented milk, yogurt, miso, tempeh, some soy beverages and certain juices. Occasionally probiotics are originally present in foods and sometimes they are added.
As mentioned, interest in the use of probiotics is growing due to increased knowledge of potential health benefits. In fact, in the last fifteen years, the amount that Americans spent on probiotic supplements nearly tripled. Because they can help restore a balance of bacteria in the gut, probiotics can be used as complementary and alternative medicine or CAM. Imbalances can occur for a couple of reasons:
Unfriendly, disease-causing microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, yeasts and parasites, can disturb the balance of bacteria in the gut. Scientists continue to study whether probiotics can suppress the activity of these harmful agents.
Antibiotic use – While these pharmaceuticals kill unwanted bacteria in the gut, they also kill friendly bacteria.
Probiotics are sometimes used to counter stomach problems like gas, cramping or diarrhea. They have also been used to treat the symptoms of lactose intolerance – a condition caused by a lack of enzymes needed to digest milk sugars.
Because there are cells in the digestive tract that are connected to the body’s immune system, the effect of probiotics on immune system health has also sparked interest among scientists. One theory proposed is that a restoration of a healthy balance of microorganisms in the gut can affect the health of the whole body.
Many studies have been conducted to investigate how probiotics can promote varying health benefits. In an animal study on newborn pigs, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Ohio State University wanted to determine if Lactobacillus acidophilus could enhance the effects of an attenuated (prepared from a weakened live virus) vaccine for human rotavirus infection. This infection is the most frequent cause of severe dehydrating diarrhea in infants and children.
It was found that pigs given both a vaccine and a probiotic had a better immune response than pigs given just the vaccine. The scientists concluded that probiotics may offer humans an increased protection from rotavirus vaccine, but additional research is called for.
In addition to a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement, it might be wise to add a probiotic supplement to your daily pill box to ensure general good health. Probiotic foods and supplements are typically safe for most people, but it is a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before making probiotics a part of your daily routine.
How many of your foods have natural probiotics in them?