Probiotics are organisms such as bacteria or yeast that are believed to improve health. They are available in supplements and foods. The idea of taking live bacteria or yeast may seem strange at first. After all, we take antibiotics to fight bacteria. But our bodies naturally teem with such organisms.
The digestive system is home to more than 500 different types of bacteria. They help keep the intestines healthy and assist in digesting food. They are also believed to help the immune system.
How do probiotics work?
Researchers believe that some digestive disorders happen when the balance of friendly bacteria in the intestines becomes disturbed. This can happen after an infection or after taking antibiotics. Intestinal problems can also arise when the lining of the intestines is damaged. Taking probiotics may help.
Probiotics and the immune system
There are also evidence that probiotics help maintain a strong immune system. In societies with very good hygiene, we have seen a sharp increase in autoimmune and allergic diseases. That may be because the immune system is not being properly challenged by pathogenic organisms. Introducing friendly bacteria in the form of probiotics is believed to challenge the immune system in healthy ways.
Probiotics may help lots of ailments
Although they are still being studied, probiotics may help several specific illnesses. Probiotics are most effective for treating childhood diarrhoea, ulcerative colitis and necrotising enterocolitis (a type of infection and inflammation of the intestines mostly seen in infants); preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhoea and infectious diarrhea, pouchitis (an inflammation of the intestines that can follow intestinal surgery); treating and preventing eczema associated with cow’s milk allergy and helping the immune system. Probiotics can improve intestinal function and maintain the integrity of the lining of the intestines. These friendly organisms may also help fight bacteria that cause diarrhoea.
Cautions about probiotics
For the most part, taking probiotics is safe and causes few side effects. People in cultures around the world have been eating yoghurt, cheeses and other foods containing live cultures for centuries. Still, probiotics may be dangerous for people with weakened immune systems or serious illnesses. One study found that patients with severe pancreatitis who were given probiotics had a higher risk of death.
Which is better, probiotic foods or supplements?
Probiotics come in many forms including powders, tablets, capsules and foods such as yoghurts. The form you take them in does not matter, experts say, as long as it contains enough organisms to grow in the intestines. Experts say the effective dose varies, from as little as 50 million to as many as 1 trillion live cells per dose.
Specific probiotic organisms appear to be useful for particular illnesses. The bacteria Lactobacillus reuteri and the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii have been shown to be helpful for infectious diarrhoea in children, for example. But there is no evidence that Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is used in many commercial yoghurts, has any benefits for diarrhoea.
Advice on choosing a probiotic supplement
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate probiotics as it does prescription drugs because probiotics are in the same category as food and supplements. For now, the best advice is to choose products from well-known companies, especially those that have been tested in research studies. Reliable products should say the name of the precise probiotics they contain, as well as how many organisms a single dose provides. Many products also provide information on the scientific studies they use for their recommendations.
The writer is a faculty of surgical trainers, Scotland, UK.