Over the years, probiotics are known to promote gut health and boost the immune system. Recently, more probiotic benefits have been continuously studied by experts.
What are probiotics?
How do they work? As you go through this article, you will learn what probiotics are, its history, its functions and benefits, its food sources, and other helpful information.
Nature of probiotics
Not all bacteria are harmful. In fact, Probiotics are mostly in the form of “good” bacteria. Probiotics are a variety of small living organisms that are meant to benefit our health, particularly our gut and immune system. They work like the normal bacteria found in our intestines that help destroy disease-causing organisms, digest food, and give off vitamins.
While other bacteria may be used as probiotics, probiotic bacteria usually come from two broad groups, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Some probiotics also come in the form of yeasts like Saccharomyces boulardii.
A publication in Harvard Health Publishing listed the following microorganisms as the most common strains of probiotics:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Lactobacillus bulgaricus
- Lactobacillus casei
- Lactobacillus gasseri
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
- Lactobacillus reuteri DSM17938
- Bifidobacterium bifidum
- Bifidobacterium lactis
- Bifidobacterium longum
- Enterococcus faecium
- Saccharomyces boulardii
History of probiotics
While modern studies and applications have recently emerged on probiotics, its use actually began thousands of years ago. The earliest known evidence was by Pliney the Elder, a Roman naturalist, who recommended treating intestinal problems by drinking fermented milk. In the Middle East and Asia, intestinal illnesses were also often addressed by fermenting milk products. The Bible and the sacred books of Hinduism mentioned the use of fermented foods, too.
Later in 1899, a scientist at the Pasteur Institute in France named Henry Tissler, discovered a Y-shaped bacteria, which he called bifidobacteria. He found these live bacteria in the digestive tract of breast-fed infants. He observed that infants with bifidobacteria in their intestines revealed fewer diarrheal problems.
At the dawn of the 20th century, Elie Metchnikoff, another scientist from the Pasteur Institute in France and Nobel laureate, studied lactic acid. He hypothesized that lactic acid bacteria can reverse the toxins that are naturally produced in the gut as a result of protein breakdown. He named the bacteria lactobacillus bulgaricus. His proposal earned him his name as the “father of probiotics”.
After Metchnikoff’s death, more studies spreading towards the United States were done about the beneficial microorganisms that can improve health. It was later termed “probiotics”, which means “for life”.
Functions and benefits of probiotics
Different probiotics or their combination may have different functions and effects on our bodies. The following are some of the benefits for each type of probiotics:
- Lactobacillus. The most common type of probiotic is lactobacillus, particularly, Lactobacillus acidophilus. It is sometimes called L. acidophilus or acidophilus. This type of probiotic may help ease diarrhea and help digest lactose for those who have lactose intolerance.
- Bifidobacterium. This group of good bacteria may help alleviate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) among other conditions.
- Saccharomyces boulardii. This type of yeast may also ease diarrhea and address other digestive problems.
Experts are continuously studying how probiotics work in our bodies and what they do to benefit us. Probiotics may offer the following health benefits:
- Enhance the immune system
- Help fight bad microorganisms that cause infections
- Fight toxins released by particular bacteria that can cause illness
- Improve absorption of food and nutrients
- Restore good bacteria being lost from taking antibiotics
- Stimulate the growth of other beneficial bacteria
- Prevent bad bacteria from sticking to the gut lining and breeding there
- Relay signals to cells to increase mucus in the gut that act as a physical barrier against harmful bacteria
- Improve digestion by helping in the breakdown of protein and fat
- Maintain healthy skin and nervous system
With all these beneficial functions, probiotics have the potential to prevent or treat certain digestive disorders. These conditions include infectious diarrhea, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and ulcerative colitis, among others.
Probiotics can also possibly treat or prevent the following conditions:
Allergies, such as eczema and allergic rhinitis
It has been known that bacteria exposure in early life may help provide protection against allergy. In this view, probiotics may be considered as harmless alternative microbial stimuli in the development of an infant’s immune system. Furthermore, they enhance mucosal barrier role, which is believed to play a part in controlling allergic reaction.
The B. lactis and L. rhamnosus strains were found to be helpful in reducing eczema severity for those suffering from atopic eczema. L. rhamnosus was also found to be successful in averting the incidence of atopic eczema in infants.
Colic in babies
It has been observed that the intestinal flora of healthy babies were more balanced compared to those of colicky babies. Studies have shown that Lactobacillus reuteri is effective in keeping the microbial balance in the intestines. This balance helps manage colic for infants. Certain strains of probiotic bacteria were also seen to reduce crying time of the infants compared to placebo, but not significant in preventing the occurrence of colic.
Common cold and flu
Supplementing vitamins and minerals with probiotics were seen to reduce the duration and the severity of the common cold and flu compared to consuming vitamins and minerals alone. Compared to taking placebo, another study has also shown that common colds and flu are less likely to occur after taking combination supplement. With combination supplement, all the immune cells were seen to have an increased activity, thus stimulating one’s resistance.
Certain strains of probiotic bacteria were seen to treat and prevent liver diseases. However, more evidence is needed to back this claim and include specific probiotics as a treatment to certain liver diseases. Based on various studies, certain beneficial bacteria have shown to protect the liver from oxidative damage, reduce liver fat, and improve liver function.
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a condition that mostly occurs in premature babies with very low birth weight and underdeveloped intestinal tract. While its causes are not certain, what happens is that as food travels to the underdeveloped intestinal tract, the bacteria from the food hurts the intestinal tissues. These tissues either become so damaged or they die, creating a hole in the intestine. This in turn causes serious infections in the abdomen that could possibly lead to the baby’s mortality.
In relation to this, experts have studied the effects of probiotics on such infections. Various results show that “good” bacteria can help prevent NEC in low birth weight infants. The most effective strains were identified to belong to the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium group.
Oral health problems
Studies have shown the following benefits of good bacteria to oral health: The A12 bacteria were observed to help fight Streptococcus mutans that causes cavities. Streptococcus salivarius was found to reduce the harmful bacteria, which is what causes bad breath. The same strain of bacteria was observed to reduce oral cancer in rats.
Lactobacillus reuteri was seen to improve gingivitis symptoms and lessen plaque. Lactobacillus brevis helps lessen oral inflammation or gum disease.
Probiotics in dairy products were observed to boost lactobacilli microbiota, which is normal in the vagina. This causes enhanced therapeutic outcome in women with bacterial vaginosis.
High serum cholesterol level and high blood pressure can cause cardiovascular diseases. Probiotics were seen to prevent coronary heart diseases by reducing serum cholesterol level. They function by interfering the cholesterol absorption from the gut.
Probiotics were also observed to control blood pressure. Their end fermentation products were seen to have antihypertensive effect.
Beneficial bacteria were also studied to help treat cancer. It was found out that certain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium reduce carcinogenetic enzymes in the colon. There bacteria work by promoting microflora balance, producing antimutagenic acids, and boosting one’s immune system. More studies are recommend for further evidence and to know exactly how probiotics help prevent or treat cancer.
Safety and side effects of probiotics
It is generally safe for healthy individuals to take probiotics. If side effects ever occur, they would usually be mild digestive issues, such as gas.
For people with underlying medical problems, however, severe side effects were observed to take place. These include stomach pains, bloating and gas, headaches (migraine), and mental fogginess. People who are at risk of severe side effects include the following:
- Critically ill patients
- Sick infants
- Those who are recovering from surgery
- People with weak immune system
Sources of probiotics
Major sources of probiotics include fermented or cultured dairy products. You can find probiotics in foods like the following:
- Soy beverages
- Fermented milk
- Apple cider vinegar
- Fermented food, such as unpasteurized pickled food, kimchi, kombucha tea, and sauerkraut.
Yogurts can be considered probiotics when they contain one of the strains of microorganisms previously listed above (See Nature of probiotics). They are also required to be treated with Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus strains.
Today, you can find more food and drinks enriched with probiotics, including:
- Probiotic cereals
- Infant formula milk and other milk powder
- Granola bars and other nutrition bars
- Ice cream
- Sour cream
- Cottage cheese
You may also find them as dietary supplements in the form of powder, capsule, or tablet.
Probiotis are generally safe to take in when you are healthy. However, it is important to inform your doctor or health care provider when planning to take probiotic supplements. Probiotic supplements may not be suitable for you when you have health problems, are pregnant, or are nursing. Other people may also experience allergic reactions, so be observant of your body’s response to probiotics.
Probiotics in children
As with adults, it is generally considered safe for children to take probiotics. Limited clinical trials have been made for infants and children so far, so it is still best to talk to your pediatrician when planning to have your children take probiotics.
Probiotics in the elderly
The elderly can also benefit from taking probiotics. Studies have shown the positive effect of probiotics on the immune system of the elderly. This is especially helpful being aware that the elderly are known to be susceptible to infections and chronic disease.
Difference between probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics
You may have also heard about prebiotics and synbiotics. These two are different from probiotics. While probiotics are described as beneficial microorganisms, prebiotics act as food for probiotics. They are dietary substances, particularly nondigestible fiber, that promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms over the bad ones.
Examples of prebiotics include the following:
- Chicory root
- Dandelion greens
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Green bananas
- Konjac root
- Burdock root
- Yacon root
- Jicama root
- Wheat bran
- Legumes, beans, and peas
The term “synbiotics” refers to the mixture of prebiotics with probiotics. Prebiotics combined with probiotics were seen to improve the endurance and capabilities of probiotics. Studies also reveal that certain synbiotic combinations may cause weight-reduction and anti-inflammatory effects. It is therefore recommended that you eat fiber-rich prebiotics with your probiotics.
Until now, experts are continuously learning more about probiotics and how they can help improve our health conditions. More studies are conducted to back recently discovered benefits. In addition, experts are also looking to counter the harmful effects of disease-causing bacteria with probiotics.
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