The term probiotic is derived from the Greek and means “for life.” It is used to describe the beneficial bacteria that inhabit the human intestinal tract.
Probiotics are not only found as freeze-dried bacteria in capsules available at your health food store, but are also found in fermented foods such as yogourt, sauerkraut, and kefir. The specific micro-organisms found in these products are usually lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. These bacteria are the major probiotics in the human intestinal tract.
The quality of probiotic supplements depends on the characteristics of the strains contained in the supplement and adequate viability, so that sufficient numbers of bacteria are viable at the point of consumption. Viability at consumption depends on a number of factors, such as proper manufacturing and the hardiness of the strain, as well as packaging and storage of the product in the right amount of moisture and at the correct temperature.
Within each species of bacteria there is a multitude of strains. Some probiotic strains are resilient and strong, able to survive passage through the upper gastrointestinal tract and inhibit pathogenic bacteria, while others are weak and cannot survive long enough to kill pathogenic bacteria.
The intestinal flora play a major role in the health of the host, and probiotic supplements can be used to promote overall good health. However, there are numerous specific uses for probiotics based upon clinical studies. One of the most well-documented applications of probiotic supplements is in the prevention and treatment of urinary tract infections (UTIs). The normal microflora of the vagina and urethra in women is dominated by lactobacilli, where they play a significant role in acting as a barrier to UTIs.
Another important application of probiotic supplements is preventing and treating antibiotic-induced diarrhea. It is commonly believed that acidophilus supplements are not effective if taken during antibiotic therapy. Research actually supports the use of probiotics during antibiotic administration as long as the probiotic supplement and the antibiotic are taken as far apart in time as possible.
Lastly, probiotics are important for children; they boost immune function and prevent gastrointestinal infection. Formulas specially designed for children are preferable.
The Right Dosage
The dosage of probiotic supplements is based solely on the number of live organisms present in the product. I recommend using products that list the number of live bacteria at expiration versus at time of manufacture. Successful results are most often attained by taking between five and 20 billion viable bacteria per day.
Health Benefits of Probiotics
Probiotics can help in the prevention and treatment of:
- antibiotic-induced diarrhea
- traveller’s diarrhea
- urinary tract infection
- vaginal yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis
- food allergies
- irritable bowel syndrome
- inflammatory bowel disease
- lactose intolerance