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Probiotics: Friendly Bacteria

Friendly-bacteria or Probiotics, as they’re clinicly called are being talked about a lot these days? If you watch TV or read health magazines, you’ve seen ads for “friendly bacteria" or “probiotics" that comes in yogurt, fermented or unfermented milk, soy products, or other foods. Evidently, these ads are working because spending for bacteria-ladened products has tripled in the last few years. Also, probiotics can be bought as dietary supplements such as capsules, tablets, and powders. Foods with “friendly bacteria" or “good bacteria" have been much in the news because they are believed to be helpful to digestion, and many people are convinced that they have found the cure for their digestive problems. Yet studies with scientific data to back up these claims are limited, and the medical community regards the use of probiotics as being part of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), and not part of conventional medicine.

What are friendly bacteria or probiotics ?

The World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization have defined probiotics as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." Live microorganisms can be explained further as bacteria, viruses, or yeasts that can only be seen under a microscope. The human gut is the host to billions of beneficial bacteria which breakdown undigested food and release gases to be expelled as flatulence. Also, bacteria in the body help the immune system develop properly, protect against disease-causing agents, and aid digestion, helping the absorption of nutrients. The relationship between beneficial bacteria and the body can be a delicate balance to maintain, but it contributes to good health and a sense of well-being. The rationale behind probiotics is that if friendly or good bacteria are added to the body where there has been a digestive problem, health will be restored.

What upsets this delicate balance between body and friendly bacteria?

  • If you take antibiotics, all bacteria both beneficial and harmful in the digestive system are killed. Also, antibiotics can have side effects such as gas, diarrhea, or cramping which are believed to be helped by probiotics.
  • Lactose intolerance is a condition where certain people lack a needed enzyme to digest sugars in diary products, and they consequently suffer from cramping and diarrhea.
  • Diseases or conditions caused by bad bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and parasites can upset the body’s balance. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcers, traveler’s diarrhea, skin infections, and respiratory infections are some conditions that alter the relationship between the body and good bacteria.

What do medical studies reveal about probiotic foods and supplements?

The understanding of how added live microorganisms work in the body is at an early stage of investigation in the scientific community, but there is some encouraging preliminary evidence. Research into treating diarrhea with probiotics is especially promising since two million children in the world under the age of five die from diarrhea each year. Some of the problems with friendly-bacteria products are that the strains of added bacteria can vary from product to product, and in completed research studies, the control group has responded to a placebo effect. However, probiotics have been discussed at CAM health conferences as being potentially beneficial in these areas:

  • Treating diarrhea
  • Preventing and treating infections of the urinary tract or female genital tract
  • Reducing the recurrence of bladder cancer
  • Treating pouchitis, a condition that often follows surgery to remove the colon.
  • Shortening the duration of intestinal infections
  • Treating irritable bowel syndrome
  • Preventing and managing eczema (skin infections) in children

If you decide to use friendly bacteria or probiotics for treatment of a health problem, consult your doctor since probiotics are considered an alternative approach to conventional medicine. However, it is generally considered safe to use probiotics as an aid to good health and well being if you don’t have any underlying health problems. But be aware that more data needs to be collected from clinical studies before it is known whether friendly bacteria are a help or are considered all hype.

by Joy Seeman

© 2009 Hemorrhoid Information Center

Sources:

Biologically Based Practices: An Overview. (2007, March). Retrieved August 19, 2009, from National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: http://nccam.nih.gov

Getting to Know Friendly Bacteria. (2006, Summer). Retrieved August 19, 2009, from CAM at the NIH: http://nccam.nih.gov

Probiotics–Topic Overview. (2007, June 27). Retrieved August 19, 2009, from WebMD: http://webmd.com

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