The Health Benefits of Probiotics

When you think of bacteria, you normally think of a germ that causes disease- so it's understandable if the thought of downing a few million of them makes you cringe. However, an ever-growing body of research suggests that there are many illnesses that can be treated and even prevented with probiotic supplementation. 

Probiotics are live bacteria that are beneficial to the body in some way, and the people of northern Europe have known of these benefits for many years. Also, the sale of probiotic supplemental beverages is at an all-time high in Japan.

There is a growing market for these supplements in the United States. Some digestive disease specialists are prescribing them for issues that cannot be cured through conventional medicine, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Since the mid nineties, studies have established that probiotic supplementation can cure or prevent gastrointestinal problems, treat urinary infections in women, and delay the onset of allergies in children. 

Although taking bacteria may sound strange, it really isn't. Already present in your bowels are over a hundred trillion bacteria, from over five hundred species. These beneficial bacteria don't make us sick, rather, they inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, aid in digestion and the absorption of nutrients, and they also aid in the normal function of the immune system. 

The biggest benefit of probiotic therapy is the treatment of diarrhea. Trials have shown that lactobacillus bacteria can shorten the duration of diarrhea in babies and children, but is not effective in adults. Studies and data are limited, but the available data suggests that probiotics can reduce the incidence of antibiotic-related diarrhea by up to 60%. 

Probiotic supplements may also benefit those with Crohn's disease and irritable bowel syndrome. Clinical trial results are mixed, but some studies suggest that the probiotics may send ulcerative colitis into remission, and prevent relapses of Crohn's and pouchitis (a complication of colostomy). Many with these disorders are finding that probiotic therapy is beneficial, but further research is needed to find out which strains of bacteria are effective. 

Probiotics may also be able to maintain urinary health. Just like the intestinal tract, a woman's vagina is a delicately balanced system. Lactobacilli strains usually make the environment much too acidic for harmful bacteria to exist, but that balance can be upset by any number of factors- antibiotic use, spermicide, and even contraceptives.

Probiotic supplementation can restore the numbers of beneficial bacteria, and thus combat problems such as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infection, and urinary infection. However, more research is needed to be able to safely recommend this treatment instead of conventional remedies. 

Probiotics are usually considered safe, as they are naturally present in your digestive system, but those with compromised immune systems can be at risk. Be sure that you know exactly what's in your supplement, and that you discuss its benefits and risks with your doctor. In the US, probiotics are sold as dietary supplements, which are not regulated by the FDA. That leaves it up to the manufacturer to make sure they're safe, and that they live up to their promises. Not all strains are beneficial, so make sure that you speak to a probiotic specialist and your doctor to make sure you're on the right track.