Today, Friday, February 15, 2019

The Pros of Probiotics

For many people the words “good,” and “bacteria” would seem to be at odds with one another.  However all of us maintain a delicate ecosystem of bacteria both inside and outside of our bodies.  And research has indicated that “good,” or “friendly,” bacteria, also known as probiotics, are vital to the balance of these personal ecosystems as well as to the development and maintenance of the human immune system itself. 

Bacteria are known primarily for causing disease.  So the idea of willfully consuming a few billion of them a day may be a hard pill, literally, to swallow for some.  However in the northern regions of Europe there is a long tradition of eating probiotic foods such as yogurt.  And in Japan and other parts of Asia, the consumption of probiotic foods is also widespread.  Here in the United States, interest in probiotics has been steadily growing.  Between 1994 and 2003 American's spending on probiotic supplements nearly tripled.

So you may be wondering, just what are the benefits of taking probiotics?  Research has indicated that probiotic consumption may be beneficial in aiding proper digestion, waste elimination and nutrient absorption, among other things.

The Body's Ecosystem
Our bodies, like the world around us, are full of tiny microorganisms.  In and on our skin, in our guts and orifices friendly bacteria maintain a balance against microorganisms that cause disease.  Everyone has his or her own unique, individual bacterial mix.  A person's health and well being can be greatly effected by the their interactions with, as well as the interactions between, these microorganisms.

There are two major ways that this delicate balance can be upset.  One is by taking antibiotics.  Taking antibiotics is very effective for killing unfriendly bacteria that may be actively causing us illness or infection.  Unfortunately, in the process they often kill off the friendly bacteria we need to maintain our healthy balance internally.  The other major way in which our bacterial balancing act is upset is by an invasion of “unfriendly” microorganisms like disease causing bacteria, yeasts, fungi or parasites. 

Probiotics are sometimes taken to offset the effects of antibiotics in an effort to stem common side effects such as gas, cramping or diarrhea.  Researchers are still exploring the effectiveness of using probiotics to counter or suppress “unfriendly” microorganisms.

What Probiotics Can Do For You

In addition to their benefit in helping to maintain the balance in our personal bacterial ecosystems, probiotics have a variety of other benefits.

Several clinical studies since the mid 1990s have shown that probiotic therapy can be effective in treating several gastrointestinal ailments, delay the development of allergies in children and the treatment and prevention of vaginal and urinal infections in women.

Although results in clinical trials have been mixed, probiotics may prove helpful in the treatment of Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome.  Several small clinical studies have suggested that probiotic therapy may be helpful in maintaining remission of ulcerative colitis as well as preventing relapses of Crohn's disease.  However, it is widely believed that more research is needed to better understand which bacterial strains work best under which conditions. 

Studies have also suggested that probiotics are useful in maintaining urogenital health.  Like most bodily orifices, the vagina is a delicately balanced ecosystem all it's own.  Several factors can easily upset this system including spermicides, antibiotics and birth control pills.  Probiotic therapy may be helpful in restoring this balance in order to treat such common conditions as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections and urinary tract infections.  Although science offers little support for it, many women eat yogurt or insert it into their vaginas as a folk remedy for treating yeast infections.

Most probiotics are similar to the friendly microorganisms found in our own digestive systems.    Which is perhaps why the strongest case for probiotic therapy has been made for the treatment of diarrhea.  In controlled trials it has shown that probiotics can effectively shorten the course of infectious diarrhea in infants and children, although not adults. Currently tests are underway to determine the benefits of probiotic therapy in treating tooth decay, periodontal disease, and various types of skin disease.

Mostly probiotics are available in supplemental form.  However there are also many food sources where probiotics occur naturally.  Some foods that contain probiotics are yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, fruit and some juices and soy beverages.

A Work In Progress
Researchers are still putting probiotics to the test.  Scientific understanding of probiotic therapy's potential for treating and preventing health conditions is in its infancy.  However, a November 2005 conference co-funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and convened by the American Society for Microbiology explored the topic in great depth. 

That conference reported that evidence was encouraging in supporting the use of probiotics for several conditions.  Among them, irritable bowel syndrome, urinary tract or female genital tract infections, eczema in children and to reduce the recurrence of bladder cancer.  The most convincing evidence is still in support of probiotics positive effects in treating infectious diarrhea, especially diarrhea incurred from rotavirus. 

The conference did note that in studies of probiotics as cures, beneficial effects were usually minimal.  A strong placebo effect often occurred and further study was deemed necessary.  While their overall helpfulness is still somewhat in question, probiotics are generally considered safe.   And the body of scientific evidence in support of their effectiveness is growing. 

In the U.S. however, most probiotic supplements are sold as dietary supplements.  This means that they do not undergo the same testing and approval process that drugs do.  Also there's no guarantee that the types of bacteria in the supplement will be effective for the condition you are attempting to treat. 

Also, for those whose immune functions are impaired, there is a slight, theoretical risk factor.  It is a good idea to make sure that the ingredients are clearly listed on the label and that you or your physician are familiar with those ingredients.  Still, the idea that you can treat and even prevent some illnesses by consuming bacteria either in food or in supplements may be one whose time has come.  


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