Probiotics: What They Are and What They Can Do for You
Products containing probiotics have flooded the market in recent years. As more people seek natural or non-drug ways to maintain their health, manufacturers have responded by offering probiotics in everything from yogurt to chocolate and granola bars to powders and capsules.
Although probiotics have been around for generations – think of the “live active cultures” in several brands of yogurt – the sheer number of products with probiotics now available may overwhelm even the most conscientious of shoppers. In some respects, the industry has grown faster than the research and scientists and doctors are calling for more studies to help determine which probiotics are beneficial and which might be a waste of money.
Probiotics are living microscopic organisms, or microorganisms, that scientific research has shown to benefit your health. Most often they are bacteria, but they may also be other organisms such as yeasts. In some cases they are similar, or the same, as the “good” bacteria already in your body, particularly those in your gut. These good bacteria are part of the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies. This community of microorganisms is called the microbiota. Some microbiota organisms can cause disease. However, others are necessary for good health and digestion. This is where probiotics come in.
The most common probiotic bacteria come from two groups, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium, although it is important to remember that many other types of bacteria are also classified as probiotics. Each group of bacteria has different species and each species has different strains. This is important to remember because different strains have different benefits for different parts of your body. For example, Lactobacillus casei Shirota has been shown to support the immune system and to help food move through the gut, but Lactobacillus bulgaricus may help relieve symptoms of lactose intolerance, a condition in which people cannot digest the lactose found in most milk and dairy products. In general, not all probiotics are the same, and they don’t all work the same way.
Scientists are still sorting out exactly how probiotics work. They may:
- Boost your immune system by enhancing the production of antibodies to certain vaccines.
- Produce substances that prevent infection.
- Prevent harmful bacteria from attaching to the gut lining and growing there.
- Send signals to your cells to strengthen the mucus in your intestine and help it act as a barrier against infection.
- Inhibit or destroy toxins released by certain “bad” bacteria that can make you sick.
- Produce B vitamins necessary for metabolizing the food you eat, warding off anemia caused by deficiencies in B6 and B12, and maintaining healthy skin and a healthy nervous system.
Probiotics are most often used to promote digestive health. Because there are different kinds of probiotics, it is important to find the right one for the specific health benefit you seek. Researchers are still studying which probiotic should be used for which health or disease state. Nevertheless, probiotics have been shown to help regulate the movement of food through the intestine. They also may help treat digestive disease, something of much interest to gastroenterologists. Note that probiotics mostly supplement rather than replace digestive disease treatments. Some of the most common uses for probiotics include the treatment of the following:
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a disorder of movement in the gut. People who have IBS may have diarrhea, constipation or alternating bouts of both. IBS is not caused by injury or illness. Often the only way doctors can diagnose it is to rule out other conditions through testing.
Probiotics, particularly Bifidobacterium infantis, Sacchromyces boulardii, Lactobacillus plantarum and combination probiotics may help regulate how often people with IBS have bowel movements. Probiotics may also help relieve bloating from gas. Research is continuing to determine which probiotics are best to help treat IBS.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Though some of the symptoms are the same, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is different from IBS because in IBD, the intestines become inflamed. Unlike IBS, IBD is a disorder of the immune system. Symptoms include abdominal cramps, pain, diarrhea, weight loss and blood in your stools. There are two main types of IBD: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. In Crohn’s disease, ulcers may develop anywhere in your intestine including both the large and small bowels. In ulcerative colitis, inflammation only involves the large intestine. Bouts of inflammation may come and go, but mostly, prescription medication is usually needed to keep inflammation in check.
Recent research indicates that your gut microbiota plays a role in developing IBD, especially ulcerative colitis. Some studies suggest that probiotics may help reduce inflammation and delay the next bout of disease. Ulcerative colitis seems to respond better to probiotics than Crohn’s disease. It appears thatE. coli Nissle, and a mixture of several strains of Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus may be most beneficial. Research is continuing to determine which probiotics are best to treat IBD.
Please make an appointment with your gastroenterologist to learn more about Probiotics.
* adapted from AGA website