Friday, April 10, 2009

The good bugs: Probiotics

A key to optimal health is keeping the intestinal microflora in your digestive system in balance. Once our immune system is weakened this balance is compromised and one way to restore this balance is by taking 'probiotics'. Probiotics improve the intestinal microflora balance and this allows our natural immune system to work more effectively.

What is a Probiotic?

The Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization (FAO/WHO, 2001) defines probiotics as ‘Live microorganisms* which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host’. These live microorganisms are found in foods such as yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, some juices and soy beverages.

The term 'probiotic' however does not refer to a single type of microorganism. There are about 20 probiotic strains. The most common probiotic strains used in dairy products belong to the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria family. However, within each family there are different species. For example, in the Lactobacillus family you can have the following species L. casei, L. acidophilus, L. plantarum, L. reuteri, L.brevis......and the list includes another 6 species.
*Microorganisms are tiny living organisms—such as bacteria, viruses, and yeasts.

What are the health benefits of probiotics ?

Probiotics have a number of health benefits. For example, they have been used to

  1. Treat or prevent diarrhea (induced by some antibiotics)

  2. Improve symptoms of lactose intolerance - a condition in which the gut lacks the enzyme needed to digest significant amounts of the major sugar in milk (lactose) and this causes gastrointestinal problems

  3. Treat irritable bowel syndrome

  4. Prevent and treat infections of the urinary tract or female genital tract

  5. Prevent and manage atopic dermatitis (eczema) in children

  6. Treat allergic conditions

  7. Support cardiovascular health and wellness

A friend recently asked me whether all probiotic products on the marketplace were the same, and whether they all had the same health benefits. Think of when you hear the term 'vitamins'. There are many different types of vitamins and we would never suggest for example, that the functional properties of vitamin D are the same as vitamin E. The same argument can be made for probiotics. The health benefits obtained from one strain may not be the same as that of another strain. It's a complicated topic and to be honest, I don't know the answer to my friends question - there are so many probiotic products available and we need to consider the probiotic strain.

Some scientists believe that the term 'probiotic' is too broad, while others feel that more scientific knowledge is needed about about their safety and appropriate use. Since each probiotic is different, some would argue that it's time to stop lumping them all together!

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