I’m a big fan! Probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning “for life”) are getting a lot more attention as they are recognized and being studied for health benefits that go beyond only intestinal health. Clinical studies since the 1990’s have demonstrated that in addition to gastrointestinal ills they also work to treat and prevent vaginal and urinary tract infections in women, delay the development of allergies in children, treat diarrhea in children, and can aid in weight loss.
Microorganisms, including both bacteria and yeast, live in the small and large intestines (also referred to as the gut). Collectively, all organisms in the gut are referred to as flora. An estimated 100 trillion microorganisms of more than 500 different species inhabit every normal, healthy bowel. These microorganisms generally don’t make us sick; most are useful and necessary as gut-dwelling bacteria keep harmful microorganisms in check, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and contribute to immune function.
Probiotics may be useful in maintaining urogenital health. Like the intestinal tract, the vagina is a finely balanced ecosystem. The dominant Lactobacilli strains normally make it too acidic for harmful microorganisms to survive. But the system can be thrown out of balance by a number of factors, including antibiotics, spermicides, and birth control pills. Probiotic treatment that restores the balance of microflora may be helpful for such common female urogenital problems as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary tract infection.
Probiotic therapy may help people with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Clinical trial results are mixed, but several small studies suggest that certain probiotics may help maintain remission of ulcerative colitis and prevent relapse of Crohn’s disease and the recurrence of pouchitis (a complication of surgery to treat ulcerative colitis).
Probiotics are strain-specific, and not all strains are necessarily useful. As always don’t self-treat if you believe you have a bacterial infection or have a serious illness. See your physician and discuss probiotics along with his or her recommended treatment. Probiotics may be dangerous for people with weakened immune systems.
Some conditions which may be helped by Probiotics:
- Childhood diarrhea
- Preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea and infectious diarrhea
- Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Aid in digestion and metabolism
- Diarrhea caused by C. difficile bacteria
- Treating Crohn’s disease
- Treating ulcerative colitis
- Treating necrotizing enterocolitis, a type of infection and inflammation of the intestines mostly seen in infants
- Preventing pouchitis, an inflammation of the intestines that can follow intestinal surgery
- Treating and preventing eczema associated with cow’s milk allergy
- Aiding the immune system
Two genuses of bacteria—Lactobacillus (L.) and Bifidobacterium (B.)—are the most beneficial strains commonly used in probiotics, and a complete probiotic should contain strains of both in order to provide protection for both the small and large intestine. Here are a few examples of specific strains of these genuses that have unique capabilities:
L. acidophilus strains predominantly live in the mouth, small intestine and vagina. They greatly benefit digestion by producing enzymes that break down food (e.g. lactase, which breaks down dairy), assisting in absorption of vitamins K and B, calcium and fatty acids, and protecting against infection and disease by lowering the pH of the gut to make it uninhabitable by bad bacteria.
B. bifidum predominantly live in the large intestine and vagina, and adhere themselves to the walls of each, thus preventing bad bacteria from colonizing. B. Bifidum also produces substances that lower the pH of their environment so bad bacteria cannot thrive, and enhances assimilation of minerals.
Many more strains exist that have shown specific beneficial properties – they aid nutrient absorption, produce key vitamins, improve digestion and immunity, balance intestinal and vaginal flora, protect us from antibiotic use damage and improve overall wellbeing. Consult with a qualified health practitioner for strains that are specific to helping certain health conditions (e.g. L. Rhamnosus, called the “travelers’ probiotic,” because it has shown protection against diarrhea while traveling).
But really, how DO they count those 10 billion microorganisms in each capsule:-))