Probiotics - you may have heard the term in the news or on TV commercials. There's been a lot of talk about the benefits of probiotics. But what are the facts? What do probiotics do, and most importantly, are they right for you?
Probiotics is a general term for "friendly" bacteria or yeast (living microorganisms) that provides health benefits to the body.
The normal human digestive tract contains hundreds of different types of probiotic bacteria that reduce the grown of harmful bacteria, help maintain a natural balance of organisms in the intestines and promote a healthy digestive system. A healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive system helps to maintain the health of intestinal linings, assists in breaking down food and is thought to help regulate a healthy immune response.
More research is needed regarding probiotics and their health benefits before definitive claims can be made about their effects. Not all probiotics work the same way in the body, and it still needs to be proven which probiotics (alone or in combination) can help to treat or prevent certain diseases.
Research thus far indicates probiotic bacteria can improve digestive function, reduce side-effects of antibiotics, help reduce the risk of certain acute common infectious diseases, improve lactose tolerance, enhance immune function, reduce skin conditions such as acne and eczema, reduce childhood allergy development and decrease symptoms of irritable bowel disease.
Officially, probiotics are identified by their genus, species and strain level. That can make for a long and complex name. The largest group is the lactic acid bacteria - with more than 50 different species attached to this genus. One of the best known is probably Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is found in yogurt containing live cultures.
Three other, of the more common, genus names include:
Bifidobacteria - The 30 different species of this bacteria make up about 90 percent of the healthy bacteria in the colon.
Saccharomyces boulardii (S. boulardii) is the only yeast probiotic.
Streptoccuc thermophilus produces large quantities of lactase; thought to aid in the prevention of lactose intolerance.
Probiotics are often found in yogurt and can be taken as supplements. But, before you decide to put yourself on a probiotic regime for an existing digestive ailment, you'll want to talk to your primary health care provider about the benefits and possible risks. Your doctor can help you determine the type of probiotic that is best for your condition, the best way to take it, the amount you should take and the length of time you should continue using probiotics.
For the most part, taking probiotics is safe and causes few side effects. People all over the world have been eating foods containing live cultures - such as yogurt - for centuries. However, probiotic supplements may not be safe for people with weakened immune systems or serious illnesses. More studies are needed.
You can get your probiotics in many forms - powders, tablets, yogurt and dairy drinks. The important factor is that the amount you ingest contains enough live organisms to begin growing in the intestines. And this "ideal" dose can vary widely - depending on each individual situation.
The Food and Drug Administration does not currently regulate probiotics - making it all the more important that you review your probiotic plan with your primary care physician.
Probiotics indicate promising expectations regarding their ability to promote healthy digestion, boost the body's immune system, treat ailments such as diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, stomach ulcers, acne, eczema, the side effects of antibiotics, infections, dental disease, allergies and other diseases - with one important and critical caveat: more research is needed.
Probiotics may provide many answers to people suffering from numerous digestive ailments, however, we won't know this for sure until more research is completed. Until the answers are definitive, you probably will want to consult with your physican if you believe treating an existing condition with probiotics is the answer for you.
Dr. Riess is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic in Cloquet.