Probiotics: Just another health trend?


(flickr, Nathan Reading)

Probiotics has been a buzzword in the health market just long enough that consumers recognize the name but don’t quite understand what they are or what they do. Allow us to shed some light on the subject.

Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff introduced the idea of probiotics at the start of the 20th century. A century’s worth of research later, probiotics now corner a significant part of the natural health industry. In 2007, they were listed as the fifth most common natural product used for children’s health issues, and the yogurt industry has been quick to develop lines of probiotic-enhanced products.

What do probiotics do?

The human gut is teeming with bacteria. We usually think of bacteria as dangerous and to be avoided. But the bacteria present naturally in the gut, or “normal flora” are actually good for you. They increase the body’s immunity to outside diseases and help it function properly. In fact, the number of normal flora bacteria found in the gut outnumbers the number of cells in the entire human body by a 10 to 1 ratio.

Probiotic bacteria adds to the beneficial bacteria naturally found in the human gut and, in doing so, enhances the health benefits that normal flora provide. To use a military analogy, think of probiotics as reinforcements for the front-line troops.

Where are they found?

Probiotics occur naturally in some foods. Yogurt, for example, has a wealth of probiotic bacteria present in it. Some yogurt is enhanced with even more probiotics and marketed as a product to help regulate digestion and ease irritable bowel syndrome. The legitimacy of these claims, however, is still debated among scientists and has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Other foods contain what are called prebiotics. Prebiotics are non-digestible compounds that stimulate the growth and activity of probiotics; in other words, they are fuel for probiotics.  Prebiotics are found naturally in whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, honey and artichokes.

Both probiotics and prebiotics are also available as additives to food and in supplement form.

What do they treat?

So, we’ve diversified our normal flora with outside bacteria called probiotics. Great, how does that help us?

Probiotics are used to treat several ailments, from the annoying to more pressing health problems. For example, probiotics are used with some frequency to treat diarrhea caused by antibiotics, vaginal yeast infections, urinary tract infections, irritable bowel syndrome and other intestinal infections.

A 2012 study suggests adding probiotics to baby formula to boost infants’ immunity.  Ordinarily, the normal flora in breast milk would begin to populate the infant’s growing normal flora and jump-start its immune system. The probiotic-enhanced formula would attempt to mimic the same immune-boosting effects of breast milk.

Also, new research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that probiotics could help lower the risk of infection and inflammation for HIV patients taking antiretroviral drugs.

Do they work?

That is the question that is hotly debated in medical circles today. There are studies that sing the praises of probiotics and others that question the medical claims about them. It’s important to remember that while probiotics have recently joined the ranks of antioxidants and ‘superfoods’ as the next new health obsession, the FDA has yet approved any health claims for probiotics. You’ll notice that the health benefits that these probiotic-enhanced products do claim are intentionally vague.

The best that doctors and scientists can tell us is that probiotics probably won’t hurt you and might help you. Researchers caution, though, that probiotics should never be used as an alternative to medical attention and more reliable medical interventions.

** Sources:**

National Institutes of Health (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine), Oral Probiotics: An Introduction. December, 2012.

Mayo Clinic, Are probiotics and prebiotics important for health? (September, 2011).

The Harvard Medical School, Health Benefits of taking probiotics (September, 2005).