Probiotics have been a hot topic in the health and nutrition community over the last few years. As with any trendy health supplement, there’s a lot of hype surrounding them. With many websites simply trying to make a sale, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction.
I don’t know about you, but if I’m putting something into my body, I want to be 100% certain of what it is and what it does. In this article I’m going to share what I’ve learned during my research on probiotics – what they are, their health benefits and whether they really work.
What Are Probiotics?
When people talk about probiotics, they’re generally referring to supplements or foods that contain live “good” bacteria. These bacteria are unlike the disease-causing strains you may be familiar with. In fact, they are actually beneficial to your health.
Are Probiotics a Type of Medicine?
Probiotics are not, technically speaking, a medicine. They are considered a dietary supplement. The reason for this is that they have not been approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to treat or cure a particular disease.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t work, however. Research around probiotics and their influence on the human body is still in its infancy.
How Do Probiotics Work?
The general goal when taking probiotics is to restore balance to the body’s microbiome. The term microbiome refers to the population of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses) inhabiting your body.
These microorganisms occur naturally in your gut, inside your mouth, on the surface of your skin, and almost everywhere in your body. It is believed that the state of your microbiome is closely related to your overall health as well as particular diseases like inflammatory bowel disease and food intolerances.
When the composition of the microbiome is disturbed, for example, by taking antibiotics, things start to go wrong. The “good” microorganisms serve as a defence against “bad” disease-causing bacteria, viruses and fungi. When a gap appears in this defence, infection can take over. The theory is that ingesting probiotics can restore this defence and fight disease. (source)
Health Benefits of Probiotics and Do They Work?
Although the future does look bright with respect to the use of probiotics for particular illnesses, where does evidence currently stand? Let’s take a look at some of the health benefits of probiotics which have been proven through clinical research.
Probiotics for Diarrhea
Antibiotics are undoubtedly an amazingly useful tool in modern medicine, but they’re not without their drawbacks. One such drawback is the fact that while they can be very effective at eliminating disease-causing bacteria, they also kill off a significant amount of your microbiome’s bacteria. This can cause stomach troubles including diarrhea in up to 30% of patients taking antibiotics. (source)
Now that we understand how probiotics work, you can probably see why they could be useful in treating cases of diarrhea caused by using antibiotics. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2012 supported this theory. (source) It was found that taking probiotics along with a course of antibiotics resulted in a 42% lower risk of diarrhea.
In addition, there is evidence that probiotics may also help with acute diarrhea due to other causes such as so-called “traveler’s diarrhea”. Traveler’s diarrhea is caused by ingestion of unfamiliar microbes while travelling to new destinations.
Finnish travelers to Turkey tested a probiotic containing the bacterium Lactobacillus GG. It was found to confer a protection rate of up to 39.5% from traveler’s diarrhea. Another study of 245 New Yorkers who traveled to developing countries observed a protection rate of 47% using a Lactobacillus GG probiotic. (source)
Probiotics for Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease is characterized by chronic inflammation in the digestive tract, causing severe diarrhea, pain, fatigue, weight loss and life-threatening complications. (source) Crohn’s disease is one of the most common variants of inflammatory bowel disease.
A study of 32 patients with Crohn’s disease in remission were treated either with or without the addition of a probiotic containing the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii. Relapses were observed in 6.25% of patients taking the probiotic in comparison with 37.5% without the probiotic. (source)
Probiotics and Lactose Intolerance
Lactose intolerance is the inability to digest lactose due to a deficiency in the enzyme which breaks it down (lactase). Symptoms of lactose intolerance include bloating, gas, cramps and diarrhea.
Studies have shown that taking a probiotic can help with the digestion of lactose, thus reducing symptoms. (source) This is most likely because some strains of bacteria such as Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus have the ability to produce lactase enzyme.
Probiotics and Allergies
An analysis of the existing body of research showed that probiotics may be helpful in treating seasonal allergies. (source) Study participants who took probiotic supplements experienced a lessening of allergy symptoms and an improvement in quality of life compared to those who took a placebo.
A link has also been noted between mothers who took probiotics during pregnancy and children with less seasonal allergy symptoms. (source) The theory behind this phenomenon is that improved diversity in the mother’s microbiome contributes to a more efficient microbiome in the baby.
Probiotics and Clostridium Difficile
C. Difficile is an infectious strain of bacteria which causes gastroenteritis which is particularly difficult to treat. Infection is typically caused by taking antibiotics, so it seems ironic that the usual treatment includes more antibiotics . Because of the damage that antibiotics can do to the gut’s microbiome, probiotics may help prevent recurrences of the infection. (source)
Probiotics for Dental Health
You probably know that dental cavities are caused by bacteria. So, can probiotics help fight those bacteria and keep our teeth healthy? Evidence says yes. Bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus have been proven to prevent dental caries when taken as a probiotic supplement. (source)
As I have already said, the microbiome and its role in the human body is far from being wholly understood. However, it’s becoming plain through countless research studies that probiotics containing certain strains of bacteria that can help you get and stay healthy. I’m excited to see what’s in store for the future of probiotics!