Bacteria are well-known as pathogens; taking in a few billion a day for your health might seem illogical —figuratively. However, several scientific pieces of evidence advocate that you treat and even prevent certain ailment with diets and supplements comprising certain kinds of live bacteria. The use of beneficial Microorganisms (probiotics–from pro and biota, meaning “for life”), is already common among Northern Europeans and it’s also a big business in Japan.
Self-medicating with bacteria isn’t bizarre as it might seem. Trillions of microorganisms representing over 500 different species populate every normal, healthy bowel. These organisms (or microflora) don’t make us ill; most are helpful. Gut-dwelling bacteria aid digestion, nutrient absorption and contribute to immune function.
Probiotics and gastrointestinal issues
The finest instance of probiotic therapy has been in the treatment of diarrhea. Controlled trials show that Lactobacillus GG truncates the progression of infectious diarrhea in infants and children (but not adults). Probiotic therapy can also help people with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Clinical trial outcomes vary, but numerous minor studies suggest that certain probiotics can help sustain remission of ulcerative colitis and prevent relapse of Crohn’s disease and the recurrence of pouchitis (a complication of surgery to treat ulcerative colitis). Many people are now giving probiotics a shot before confirmation for the particular strains they’re using. More research is needed to find out which strains work best for what conditions.
Probiotics and vaginal health
Probiotics may be useful in sustaining urogenital health. As the intestinal tract, the vagina is a well-balanced ecosystem. The dominant Lactobacilli strain makes it too acidic for harmful microorganisms to survive; but the system can be thrown out of balance by some factors, including antibiotics, spermicides, and birth control pills. Probiotic treatment that returns the balance of microflora is helpful for common female urogenital problems as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary tract infection.
Yogurt is usually inserted into the vagina as a treatment for recurrent yeast infections. Oral and vaginal administration of Lactobacilli may help in the treatment of bacterial vaginosis. (Vaginosis must be treated because it creates a risk for pregnancy-related complications and pelvic inflammatory disease.)
Probiotics are widely safe — they’re already present in a healthy digestive system — although there’s a theoretical risk for people with impaired immune function. Be sure the ingredients are well marked on the label and familiar to you or your health provider.
Health benefits are strain-specific, and not all strains are mainly beneficial, so you may want to consult a practitioner familiar with probiotics to discuss your options. As always, let your primary care provider know what you’re doing.
Prebiotics are a source of food for probiotics to grow, multiply and survive in the gut.
Prebiotics are fibers which cannot be absorbed or broken down by the body and therefore serve as a great food source for probiotics, in particular, the Bifidobacteria genus, to increase in numbers. The most common definition of prebiotics is: “non-digestible food ingredients that beneficially affect the host by selectively stimulating the growth and activity of one or a limited number of bacteria in the colon, which can improve host health.”
Prebiotics in food
Prebiotics occur naturally in our diet, and prebiotic fibers can be found in Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, chicory, and onions amongst other things. One may have to eat large quantities of these foods to have a ‘bifidogenic’ effect – that is to increase the levels of friendly bacteria in our intestines. For this reason, many people find it easier to take a probiotic supplement, or a combination probiotic and prebiotic supplement (called a synbiotic) to ensure they are feeding their levels of friendly bacteria.
Research shows that there are different types of prebiotics, similarly as there are different kinds of probiotics. With prebiotics, the key differentiating factor is the length of the chemical chain – short chain; medium chain or long chain determines where in the gastrointestinal tract the prebiotic has its effect, and how the benefits may be felt by the host.
Common prebiotics include: inulin, Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), galactooligosaccharides (GOS), lactulose and lafinose.