Probiotics are generally considered to be bacteria or microorganisms that are good for your health. Probiotics may be included in foods such as yogurt or kefir, which can be digested. Probiotics often include bacteria such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, which may be found in different dairy products and fermented foods.
Probiotics are different from prebiotics ,which are foods that cannot be digested and feed good bacteria, particularly in the lower intestine. Prebiotic foods can include asparagus, Jerusalem artichoke and dandelion greens.
The history of the use of probiotics goes back many thousands of years to different systems of traditional and natural health. In modern times, the concept was introduced in 1907 by Nobel Prize Laureate Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov who postulated that yogurt-consuming Bulgarian peasants lived longer lives because of this tradition.
Probiotics are often prescribed by doctors after antibiotic use to help replace “good” bacteria that may have been destroyed. They may also be prescribed for a number of disorders of the digestive system including:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Infectious diarrhea (caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites)
- Antibiotic-related diarrhea
Most companies report the number of bacteria that are contained in their pills at the date of manufacture. Unfortunately, different storage conditions will reduce this number so the actual number of bacteria at the time of consumption is difficult to calculate. The European Commission has the stricter labeling requirements and has placed a ban on putting the word “probiotic” on the packaging of products because they do not feel there is enough scientific evidence to justify any assumed health benefits. The FDA allows the use of the word but has tried to limit the listing of benefits for specific diseases. Despite these restrictions there has been a large increase in the use of these products, as well as foods containing probiotics, worldwide.
Since in its natural state the gut contains many hundreds of different strains of bacteria, one of the main limitations on current products is the lack of diversity of types of bacteria. Another problem is the means of delivery. Are the bacteria in the probiotic product able to reach the lower intestine where they are most needed without being digested or destroyed? Finally, it has been argued that because there are some 30 trillion bacteria in the lower digestive tract that even if a few million were able to make it to this destination would they be enough to make a change in the existing ecology. Some physicians have suggested that it may be more effective to introduce the bacteria through enemas to make sure they are able to reach the lower intestine in the most efficient manner. (e.g. The Brain Maker by Dr. David Perlmutter). Currently, there is not enough scientific research to determine the best probiotics and the most effective manner of delivery.
The Microbiome Solution: A Radical New Way to Heal Your body From Inside Out by Robynne Chutkan, MD, Penguin Random House, 2015
The Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter, Little Brown and Company, 2015