by Nick Lewis
Why take probiotics? Thanks to some rigorous marketing on the part of breakfast yogurt manufacturers, probiotics have become common knowledge over the last few years. However, beyond vague notions of ‘good bacteria’ and ‘healthy tummies’, most people don’t really understand what benefits may be derived from increased probiotic intake.
Why take Probiotics?
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are microorganisms that confer health benefits to their host (to paraphrase the World Health Organisation definition). The widespread phrase ‘good bacteria’ is pretty close to the mark. Probiotics are very similar organisms to what we normally think of as bacteria.
They are present in the digestive tract and make up what is otherwise known as ‘gut flora’ – a catch-all term for the beneficial microorganisms found in the gut. The healthier your gut flora, the healthier your immune system (so the theory goes).
The best-known, and most studied benefits of probiotics are in digestive health – after all, the gut is where they live.
Some studies have found probiotics to be effective in reducing bloating in patients suffering from IBS. Most significantly, they have been found to reduce antibiotic associated diarrhoea as well as having a positive effect when administered in conjunction with vaccines against rotavirus infection.
These are very specific benefits, but many people think that the evidence can be generalised to more widespread digestive health.
Healthy immune system
Generally,probiotics are also thought to help maintain a healthy immune system, and overall good health as a result.
Research has shown that by tipping the good/bad scale of bacteria in the gut to the good side, probiotics may prevent harmful bacteria from causing infections and the like.
The main reason this may work is that both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria feed off the same resources from our body. By winning on a simple numbers game, the ‘good’ bacteria can starve off the ‘bad’ bacteria. They can also take up space on the gut wall that ‘bad’ bacteria needs.
Some probiotics may also help to amplify pre-existing healthy bacteria in the gut and possibly even aid the production of infection fighting white blood cells.
There is also some evidence to suggest that some probiotics may produce lactic acid, causing problems for harmful, pathogenic bacteria that prefer a more alkaline environment.
It’s important to realise that ‘probiotic’ is actually a very broad term that encompasses hundreds (at least) of different microorganisms. As research into the field matures, our understanding of the effects of different strains matures with it but it is a complex area of study.
As such, generic probiotic supplements may not provide the right probiotics for what you want. It’s worth getting to know the most common strains and what they are thought to help with.