New research is establishing how important the supplementation of probiotics can be for a variety of health conditions. Probiotics are believed to help the immune system, which defends against microbial pathogens that have entered our bodies.
The number of studies currently being conducted on probiotics and the health benefits of their consumption is staggering. With experts at Yale University, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Chicago Medical Centre, to name just a few, all recognising the important role probiotics may potentially play in the treatment of a vast variety of ills.
The digestive system is home to hundreds of different types of bacteria that help keep the intestines healthy and assist in digesting food. While the word ‘bacteria’ usually conjures up unwelcome images of invasive, pathogenic germs intent on wreaking havoc with one’s health, not all bacteria are bad.
Many of these microorganisms are in fact crucial to health, existing in a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship with the human body as host.
SOME OF THESE HEALTH BENEFITS INCLUDE:
- DIARRHOEA: Many types of diarrhoeal illnesses, with many different causes, disrupt intestinal function. The ability of probiotics to decrease the incidence or duration of certain diarrhoeal illnesses is perhaps the most substantiated of the health effects of probiotics.
One common form of diarrhoea is that associated with the consumption of antibiotics. The purpose of antibiotics is to kill harmful bacteria. Unfortunately, they can kill normal bacteria as well, and consequently disturb normal intestinal function.
BRAIN FUNCTION: The role of probiotics on different aspects of brain function is an emerging area of research, and care should be taken not to over interpret early studies in spite of claims the gut microbes can impact brain function.
- ELEVATED BLOOD CHOLESTEROL: Studies show probiotics may reduce serum cholesterol levels, presumably by breaking down bile in the gut and thus inhibiting its reabsorption where it enters the blood as cholesterol.
- HYPERTENSION: Research suggests consumption of certain lactobacilli may reduce blood pressure in mildly hypertensive people.
- IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME (IBS): Some symptom relief (primarily from diarrhoea or abdominal pain or bloating) has been reported.
- VAGINOSIS: The vagina and its microbiota form a finely balanced ecosystem. Disruption of this ecosystem can lead to a microbiological imbalance that may result in bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. Some small studies have found that L. acidophilus may help prevent infection, manage an already active one, or support antibiotics as a treatment.
- IMMUNE SYSTEM MODULATION: One of the main functions of healthy bacteria is to stimulate immune response. Probiotics help a person to maintain a healthy immune system.
- ALLERGY: Microbial colonisation of the gut in early life is important to the development of a properly functioning immune system. Research suggest that exposure to the right types of microbes early in life may decrease the risk of atopic dermatitis.
Although minimal research has been done into them, preliminary results suggest probiotics may play a role in the following too:
- OBESITY AND METABOLIC SYNDROME: Stanford University researchers found that obese people had different gut bacteria to normal-weighted people. A first indication that gut flora plays a role in overall weight.
Some preliminary research shows that probiotics can help obese people who have received weight loss surgery to maintain weight loss. It’s still unclear how exactly probiotics play a role in weight loss and there is some controversy about how significant the probiotics-associated weight loss is.
- CANCER: Research suggests the consumption of probiotic cultures may positively influence the gastrointestinal environment to decrease the risk of cancer.
- COMMON INFECTIOUS DISEASE: Probiotics reduced episodes of acute upper respiratory tract infections and reduced antibiotic use. Certain probiotic strains can help avoid acute common infectious illnesses.
- LACTOSE INTOLERANCE: Ingestion of certain active strains of probiotics may help lactose-intolerant individuals tolerate more lactose than they would otherwise have been able to.
- NECROTISING ENTEROCOLITIS (NEC): Is a gastrointestinal disease that mostly affects premature infants. Probiotic supplementation may reduce the risk of NEC in preterm infants. When combined, studies suggest that probiotics lower the risk of mortality in preterm infants, but additional studies on best strains for this application, short- and long-term safety and required dose must still be conducted.