Probiotics – what's good for the tummy is good for the body
The word probiotic is derived from the Greek meaning "for life,” which probably qualifies it as a suitable toast at your next cocktail party.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” By “host” they mean “you.” By “live microorganisms” they mean “bacteria.” Before you turn pale with the prospect of popping pills full of bacteria, know that they are also known as “friendly” bacteria because some bacteria are actually beneficial for your health. Bacteria is not a bad word. In case you haven't heard, an estimated 90 percent of our bodies are made up bacteria!
Not only that, but scientists now think that even our brains are shaped by bacteria in the digestive tract.5
Broadly speaking, however, today probiotics mostly are used to improve the state of your gastrointestinal tract – that is, increase your digestive health. With this clear and present information, research quickly teased out that probiotics can help decrease the duration and severity of diarrhea.1 They do this by first restoring beneficial bacteria in the intestine, which is why probiotics are seen as wise supplements to take anytime you’re also taking prescription antibiotics. Probiotics also decrease inflammation, and this is where immune enhancement comes into play.
This connection was first postulated more than 100 years ago by Nobel Prize-winner Elie Metchnikoff, PhD. It’s taken about a century for this message to make its way to the bacteria-averse American public, despite accumulating research along the way.2
The two primary genus of probiotics are lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. Species include acidophilus (as in Lactobacillus acidophilus) and even includes Bifidus regularis, which is actually a fictitious name manufactured for marketing purposes by Dannon to describe a strain of Bifidobacteria animalis. The reason: the strain is said to “keep you regular.” Get it?
Foods with an inherently healthy halo, such as yogurt, are prime candidates for probiotics integration. It helps that yogurt needs to be refrigerated, which helps with maintaining shelf life of the friendly bacteria. Dairy products also help probiotics survive through the digestive tract by buffering stomach acids. Also, many probiotic bacteria seek out lactose in the gastrointestinal tract and turn on various genes that may increase the benefits of probiotic cultures.
And despite supplements currently winning the probiotics battle in the US, foods are coming on strong. One more thing: That WHO definition above? There’s the part about probiotics needing to be “administered in adequate amounts.” This means it’s debatable whether there is enough probiotic bacteria in foods to help you out, not least because food manufacturers have chosen to not list the quantity they put in their products, unlike with supplements.
Probiotics and skin health
AN UPDATE: At the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 50 kids 7-24 months old with Atopic Dermatitis (AD), also known as eczema, were given supplements for 8 weeks containing L. acidophilus NCFM, B. lactis Bi-07 (both of which are made by ingredient supplier Danisco), or a placebo. Children in the Bi-07 showed a significant reduction in severity of AD. The researchers statement: "The possibility of beneficial immunological effects of the B. lactis Bi-07 probiotic strain in young children could be of great interest."3
UPDATE #2: A study published in the Journal of Oral Microbiology utilizing a strain of probiotics known as Lactobacillus reuteri in lozenges demonstrated a significant reduction in the severity of periodontitis among patients with this chronic condition.4
UPDATE #3: A number of studies about probiotics have come out in the last year or so, noting their positive effect on maladies as diverse as weight loss and eczema, and their usefulness in preventing allergies in children. Consequently, sales of probiotic supplements were up by 37 percent between August 2009 and August 2010. Seems like American consumers are paying more attention to science than some would have us believe!
3. R. Gøbel, N. Larsen, C. Mølgaard, M. Jakobsen and K.F. Michaelsen; Probiotics to young children with atopic dermatitis: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. International Journal of Probiotics and Prebiotics, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 53-60, 2010.
5. R. D. Heijtz, et al. Normal gut microbiota modulates brain development and behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1010529108
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