What are Probiotics?

It seems in a not so distant past that the term probiotic was largely obscure to most of us.  Today, you can not only find the term in a pharmacy or a vitamin store but also on the labels of food products like yogurt to granola bars that we purchase.  Probiotics promise to bring the answers to your digestive problems including regularity.  So what are probiotics?  Probitotics are beneficial bacteria that are similar to organisms that occur naturally in the digestive tract in our body.  There seems to be more and more evidence coming to light that the benefits of probiotics are real.  Probiotics may help prevent or even treat some digestive problems and may even help with aiding the immune system.  There are even some claims that they may protect against common respiratory infections.

The modern man is exposed many things that may decrease the number of healthy bacteria in the body.  Stress, poor diet, certain types of medications can interrupt the balance of the healthy bacteria in the body.  A course of antibiotics can cause a disruption of the normal flora in the gastrointestinal tract resulting in diarrhea.  Less than optimal intake of prebiotics can also cause an unbalance of such bacteria as prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of the intestinal bacteria.  Including probiotics in the diet can help restore such balance aiding your body work at its maximal potential.

How do I choose the best probiotic?

The FDA defines probiotics as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”  However, no specific health claims for probiotics have been approved as of yet and the amounts and type of probiotics that may be beneficial for specific condition vary making it important to learn a bit about them before you decide to use them.  The probiotic name, the amount of probiotic in each serving, and research information that they based the suggested use for is usually available on the web site of the company selling the product, making it easier to narrow down the products that you are seeking.

The following are some of the known types of probiotic paired with the condition thought to be beneficial for:

Infectious Diarrhea: Saccharomyces boulardiiLactobacillus GG, and Lactobacillus reuteri

The above organisms appear to shorten the length of the illness but there is no clear evidence of prevention and there have been specific studies in children.

Antibiotic-related Diarrhea: Streptococcus thermophilus, Saccharomyces boulardiiLactobacillus GG, combination of Lactobacillus casei, and Lactobacillus bulgaricus.

Probiotics intake started before beginning of the course of antibiotics appears to decrease the incidence of antibiotic-related diarrhea.

Irritable Bowel Syndrome: VSL#3

VSL#3 is a combination of eight probiotics organisms that appear to significantly reduce some of the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, including bloating, cramps, and diarrhea.

How valid are the claims?

It all depends.  The quality of the product is important as in any purchase but also it matters whether you have the right strain of a specific probiotic.  When a healthy food is used as a vehicle for probiotics, it can help to provide nutrients along with the probiotics so it is slightly preferable.  However, when used correctly, the probiotic supplements can be a more convenient method of providing higher levels of the probiotics. 

As with any of the supplements available out there, it is important for a conversation to take place with your doctor before taking probiotics, especially if you have existing medical conditions.  Those who suffer from conditions that may result in compromised immune system should take special care in evaluating the value of probiotic therapy with their doctor. 

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Comments 1 comment

Hugh Grantham 5 years ago

Thank you for this article. I would add, that with regards to the billions count, perhaps to go for something with at least 1 billion (as millions wont really make a difference) and yet not to worry too much over the count - as it is far more important to take a high quality probiotic with 3 billion good microorganisms in it, than say a probiotic with 100 billion rubbish probiotic strains.

Brands which I understand to be great include the VSL#3, Optibac, and Biocare.

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