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Over the past year, we have seen an increase in the number of products that contain beneficial microorganisms, or probiotics. The supermarket shelves are now inundated with yogurts, drinks, smoothies, baby foods, and even breakfast cereal, all costing more than the regular products and claiming to be more beneficial than the traditional brands. While these products may be more appealing to those interested in a “natural” approach to eating well, is this extra expense justified for the health benefits these products claim? First we must look at what probiotics are and how they can be helpful.
In the early 1960s, the term probiotic was first applied to microbes used for medical purposes. A more recent and widely accepted definition of probiotics is, “live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts, which confer a beneficial physiological effect on the host.” A Russian scientist named Elie Metchnikoff (1845–1916) is credited with calling attention to the health benefits of yogurt. Metchnikoff associated the longevity of the Bulgarians with regular yogurt consumption and hypothesized that the lactic acid bacteria in the yogurt counteracted harmful bacteria in the intestines. The use of probiotics has long remained popular in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, but until recent years has been uncommon in the United States.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when ingested, provide health benefits by helping to digest food, produce vitamins, stimulate the immune system, and fight infection. Our bodies actually contain trillions of bacteria, most of which are beneficial and help us to maintain normal function. They are found in our mouth, stomach, intestines, reproductive tract, urinary tract, and on and even within our skin. Normally, these bacteria keep the body in balance by protecting us from invasion by pathogenic, or disease-causing, bacteria, including E. coli, Campylobacter, Shigella species, and Salmonella species. The good bacteria create a layer between the body and the harmful bacteria, inhibiting colonization; this is called colonization resistance. Many things can disrupt this protective mechanism, including poor diet, stress, and medications. Most probiotics are taken for traveler’s diarrhea, acute diarrhea, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, digestive problems, and vaginal and urinary tract infections.
The two most frequent reasons to take probiotics are antibiotic- related diarrhea and traveler’s diarrhea. Antibiotic use is the primary cause of the loss of most people’s natural flora, allowing other nonbeneficial floras to proliferate. The antibiotic taken for an infection destroys the bacteria causing the illness, but it may also kill many of the beneficial microflora at the same time. This makes the body susceptible to yeast overgrowth and increased bad flora growth where the beneficial microflora used to be—which puts a person at risk of invasion by other pathogenic bacteria once the antibiotics have stopped. Because of this, repeated use of antibiotics will greatly weaken our immune system, leaving us more susceptible to repeated infections, pathogenic colonization, and yeast overgrowth.
When you travel to places your immune system is not familiar with, or to a place where there may be unhygienic conditions, including developing countries and tropical or semitropical regions, the risk of exposure to diarrhea-producing bacteria increases considerably. The food and water that you may consume often contain different bacteria than your bodies are accustomed to. Your health and immune system can be compromised when these organisms are introduced, or when the balance of these organisms changes. People who travel regularly find that having a large amount of probiotic bacteria in reserve in the gastrointestinal tract is greatly beneficial in the event of a new foreign bacterium trying to take over. A placebo-controlled, double-blinded study in Finnish travelers found that the probiotic Lactobacillus GG decreases the incidence of traveler’s diarrhea. Ingesting probiotics can help to replenish the body’s microflora and improve the immune system.
Breastfeeding mothers and children can benefit from probiotics for a number of reasons. Newborn infants can benefit from probiotics as well, especially in cases of caesarian birth. When a baby passes through the mother’s birth canal, it experiences its first exposure to, and chance to acquire, beneficial microflora. A child born via caesarian will miss out on that first opportunity to pick up microflora, and may have a compromised immunity and decreased ability to digest the mother’s milk. Breastfeeding will help to expose the infant to microflora through contact with the mammary areola, breast skin, and the milk itself.