In a word, probiotics are bacteria. For our purposes we are talking about the bacteria that live in our intestines and impart many known healthful benefits to us.
In actuality we know very little about these squatters in our guts but new findings are coming fast and furious.
What is known is that they are indispensible for proper digestion, absorption, elimination and provide numerous housekeeping duties and a broad array of protective measures.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), both specialized agencies of the UN, have adopted an official definition of probiotics; namely, "...live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host".
I'm comfortable with just calling them friendly bacteria that our gastrointestinal system needs. Normally, we wouldn't need to supplement with probiotics; they are inside us and self-sustaining. The best source of probiotics is whole foods, particularly fermented foods such as yogurt.
If someone lives on processed food and doesn't like yogurt or dairy products, then it might be a good idea to use a dietary supplement designed for colon support; one that is rich in fiber and contains various probiotics, prebiotics and enzymes. My personal experience is that such a supplement did seem to help my colon deal with the irritable bowel syndrome that I had been living with most of my adult life.
Probiotics are not the same thing as prebiotics. A prebiotic is a non-digestible food ingredient that selectively stimulates the growth and/or activity of beneficial microorganisms already in people's colons. In plain language, probiotics need to be fed and prebiotics are the food that sustain them.
Fiber products are the best and most prevalent souce of prebiotic compounds; particularly, inulin and its metabolites, fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) and galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS).
It is so important that we are now seeing fiber cereals fortified with inulin. Many liquid meal replacement drinks on the market now contain inulin. Be advised, however, that an intake over 15 grams at a time can cause gastic upset.
When probiotics and prebiotics are mixed together, they form a synbiotic. OK, new word time; what's a synbiotic?
A synbiotic is a substance, either whole food or supplement, that contains both a prebiotic and a probiotic that work together to improve the “friendly flora” of the human intestine. A synbiotic product should be considered a “functional food” rather than some obscure chemistry formulation.
One of the mysteries that is drawing big research dollars now is why our immune system, which is known to attack and kill invading bacteria and viruses, doesn't attack the beneficial bacteria living in and on our bodies.
It is starting to look like we and the bacteria that live within us have evolved together and learned to co-exist in a symbiotic relationship.
Microbial organisms that inhabit our bodies are so numerous that the National Institutes of Health has launched its Human Microbiome Project.
It's a five-year, $125 million dollar research effort to analyze entire communities of bacteria at once; a process they call metagenomics.
By contrast the former Human Genome Project analyzed one microbe at a time.
To put it in perspective, we have about 60 trillion cells in our body, give or take 10 or 20 trillion. It is estimated that we have about 10 times that number of microbes crawling around in us spread throughout our nasal and respiratory system, urogenital areas, skin, gastrointestinal system and mouth.
Photo: NIH depiction of areas of microflora concentration in the human body
These bugs are largely unstudied. Their influence on our development, physiology, immunity, and nutrition are still big question marks.
As such, the NIH launched the Human Microbiome Project to generate resources leading to the characterization of human microbes and analysis of their role in human health and disease.
The project aims to take advantage of recent technological advances and to develop new ones. Phase 1 ran from 2007 through 2012 and was to catalog the composition and diversity of the microbes that inhabit our bodies. Phase 2 runs from 2013 to 2015 and aims to create a database of biological properties of the microbiome.
For now, the Paris food company Group DANONE has taken the lead in turning human probiotics into big bucks. Activia, their latest big thing, has a bacteria called bifidus animalus as its key ingredient.
This is one tough bug in that it is able to pass through the stomach without getting zapped by the hydrochloric acid bath, then move into the intestine where it teams up with other microorganisms to push fecal matter through the colon.
From that description, it should be no surprise that Activia is marketed as an aid to regularity. It racked up almost $2 billion in worldwide sales in 2006.
Another introduction from DANONE was DanActive, containing the bacteria Lactobacillus casei which is purported to give the immune system a boost. There are other probiotic products coming to nourish the skin and fight obesity.
The profit projections from the DANONE products is attracting competitors and this is one market that is destined for huge growth.
Probiotics have two sides to their family. Genus Lactobacillus is a group of organisms that inhabit the digestive system but resides mainly in the small intestine; the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum.
The other side is the genus Bifidobacterium. These family members are found in the colon and exhibit changes and alterations throughout the human life span.
Lactobacillus is a group of probiotics that convert lactose and other sugars to lactic acid and the genus currently listed about 125 different species.
Photo: Lactobulgaris bulgaris
The species most commonly found in probiotic dietary supplements are:
Bifidobacteria is a major genus of bacteria that make up the gut flora, specifically, the bacteria that reside in the colon.
Bifidobacteria aid in digestion, are associated with a lower incidence of allergies and also prevent some forms of tumor growth. Some bifidobacteria are being used as probiotics as shown below.
There are approximately 35 species of bifidobacterium.
Photo: Bifidobacterium cells on colon epithelium
All of the probiotics mentioned above have many, many more benefits than were presented here. Since anyone can go to Wikipedia and find the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation on each of them, the only purpose here is to raise awareness and highlight some of their benefits.
Besides the yogurt products we read about above, probiotics are available in foods and dietary supplements of all forms and in some other forms as well.
Examples of foods containing probiotics are fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh (fermented soybean cake), and some juices and soy beverages. In probiotic foods and supplements, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation.
Two sources of probiotic supplements that I am familiar with are from Udo Erasmus and Garden of Life.
I currently use Udo's Choice Probiotic Blends which are available from my local Vitamin Shoppe and are probably available in your local health food store as well.
He has dedicated almost 2 decades to understanding the effects of fats and oils on human health. As more and more people strive to improve health through diet and other natural means, being "informed" on these levels makes total sense.
Check it out, click on the "enter here" when you get to the site and see Udo's great smile. By the way, I get no monetary consideration for the plug; my objective is simply to bring the best of the best to my readers attention.
Second is Garden of Life's Primal Defense probiotic formula which should also be available from your local health food store.
Probiotics' side effects, if they occur at all, tend to be mild and digestive in nature such as occasional gas or bloating. Probiotics might theoretically cause infections that need to be treated with antibiotics,
especially in people with underlying health conditions.
They could also cause unhealthy metabolic activities such as too much stimulation of the immune system, or gene transfer, meaning insertion of genetic material into a cell.
Messing around with the microflora in our bodies can have unforeseen consequences, a situation that demands much more research. One example is from the Helicobacter pylori experience. The Wall Street Journal's Friday, October 3, 2008 issue carried a half page article titled, "The Body as Bacterial Landlord" by Robert Lee Holz.
He reports that a microbiologist, Martin Blaser, and his colleagues at New York University began to document some odd findings since people adopted antibiotics to treat gastric ulcers.
The incidence of ulcers dropped dramatically as did stomach cancer. H.pylori has almost disappeared among children but coincident with the deficit of H.pylori; asthma, hay fevers and allergies have tripled in children.
In adults, acid reflux disease (GERD) and some forms of esophogeal cancer have become more common. The question is unanswered as to whether or not the elimination of the harm these bacteria caused came at the expense of the protection they provided us.
After examining the health records of 7,412 people, Dr. Blaser and NYU epidemiologist Yu Chen reported those children between 3 and 13 years old who tested positive for H. pylori were 59% less likely to have asthma and 40% to 60% less likely to have hay fever or rashes.
Perhaps the NIH Human Microbiome Project mentioned above will someday answer these questions.
It is looking like we need the bacteria in us as much as it needs us. It goes to show you; some marriages are made in heaven, others are made in the gut.
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