What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are functional components of food that are active cultures that help promote healthy bacteria growth in the intestine by either changing or reintroducing new bacteria. Some of the most common strains are of lactic acid bacteria, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria found in yogurt and other fermented dairy products. Lactobacillus acidophilusand Lactobacillus reuteri are other common strains you may see on labels. It is estimated that in the human body, the cells of microorganisms outnumber human cells by a factor of ten to one! So your body is a living host to many bacteria.
Why consider Probiotics?
Probiotics are have been gaining mainstream notice and addition to many different types of food products. Research has suggested that these cultures of bacteria may help keep your immune system healthy, as well as maintain balance of healthy bacteria in your intestines. They have also been linked to helping reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome, shortening the duration of diarrhea, and even preventing some cancers and allergies. Specifically, the effects of infectious diarrhea cause by parasites, viruses and bacteria or antibiotic-related diarrhea are reduced by using probiotics to promote a healthy intestinal flora.
Further research is being done on if they have an effect on skin conditions, oral health, vaginal and urinary health, preventing colds and allergies, as well as specific types of cancer. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health has recently funded research looking at some of the following ways probiotics may be helpful.
- Enhancing the effects of the flu vaccine and the rotavirus vaccine
- Preventing necrotizing enterocolitis in premature infants
- Reducing Colic and diarrhea in infants
- Assuaging irritable bowel syndrome and GI issues in adults and children.
- Reducing minimal hepatic encephalopathy (a complication of liver disease)
- As an antibiotic-resistant type of bacteria and preventing antibiotic-induced diarrhea
- Yogurt beverages as a way of giving high doses of probiotics to young children
- Slowing the growth of certain tumors
The National Institutes of Health reiterate that "although some probiotic formulations have shown promise in research, strong scientific evidence to support specific uses of probiotics for most conditions is lacking." They also further state that there can be consequences for people using probiotics that have underlying health conditions but they do not list what those conditions are, just that you should talk to your doctor.
Despite the many ways that products with probiotics are being marketed, the FDA has still not approved any health claims because the scientific evidence for supporting specific uses is still limited.
Things to keep in mind when using probiotics
1. Not recommended for children or pregnant women due to the limited research available.
2. The effects of probiotics will vary from person to person.
3. As with any other complementary approaches to staying healthy, tell your health care providers that you are purposefully using probiotics.
4. Probiotics are supposed to support a healthy lifestyle and intestinal flora, but do not postpone seeing your health care provider when you are ill and attempting to self-treat with probiotics.
5. The ability to measure the amount of probiotics in food sources can be difficult and actual amounts of bacteria can vary.
Boost or No Boost?
Probiotics are more likely to support healthy immune function than "give your immune system a boost," but for people who need support in maintaining a healthy intestinal flora, adding foods with probiotics to your diet may be beneficial.
Emily DeLacey MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and currently working in Jamaica as a HIV/ AIDS Prevention Specialist. She attended Central Washington University for her Bachelor's Degree in Science and Dietetics and continued on after her internship to Kent State University for her Master's Degree in Science and Nutrition, with a focus on public health and advocacy. She served as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi 2012-2014 working as a Community Health Advisor in a rural village, immersing in the joys of life without electricity or running water. She has been to 20+ countries and 47 of the 50 states in the US. Traveling, adventuring and experiencing new cultures has made her a passionate advocate for the equality of nutrition and wellness for all people.