The word “bacteria” certainly doesn’t have a pleasant ring to it. It calls to mind pictures of uncleanliness and disease. And if something called E. coli can cause outbreaks every now and then, we may never get beyond our initial perception of bacteria being harmful.
Nevertheless, despite our childhood prejudices brought about by our parents’ instruction of always having to wash our hands before eating, not all bacteria are harmful to humans. Although it is true that many diseases can be attributed to bacterial infections, there are bacteria that are completely harmless. Some perform beneficial functions like converting milk to cheese and others live in our stomach and see to it that we stay healthy.
Bacteria that live in our stomach are called gut flora or popularly known as probiotics. We have a symbiotic relationship with these microorganisms and they are sometimes, in fact, called our “forgotten organ.” Ideally, the ratio of beneficial bacteria to harmful bacteria should be 85 percent to 15 percent respectively. If it were the other way around, problems are bound to arise.
Why do we need probiotics?
First, research has shown that probiotics assist the immune system by preventing colds and flu while speeding up recovery and preventing diseases like irritable bowel, allergies and diarrhea. (Probiotics Prevent Colds and Flu)
A strong immune system protects the body from infections brought about, ironically, by harmful bacteria. Moreover, if it doesn’t function properly, we tend to suffer from allergies and auto-immune disorders. Recent studies on newborns suffering from asthma and eczema have linked these conditions to abnormal immune responses. Although word has yet to be heard on its ability to prevent asthma, Finnish researchers discovered that children, who at birth were exposed to probiotics, were less likely to develop atopic eczema by 40 percent. (Probiotics prevent asthma)
Second, probiotics play a large part in keeping our digestive tract healthy. Lifestyle, emotional stress, poor food choices are just some of the many reasons that shift the balance of the stomach health in favor of harmful bacteria. Ideally, a healthy digestive tract filters out and eliminates toxins, chemicals, waste products and other harmful bacteria. It also takes in the necessary nutrients and absorbs and delivers them to cells in the body that needs them.
A recent study revealed that probiotics were effective in treating constipation in infants. Italian scientists who were conducting the study studied 44 infants who were suffering from chronic constipation. After eight weeks, they noticed that the infants who were given probiotics experienced a significant improvement in their condition. In fact, the frequency of their bowel movement increased from three to five times in a week.
Another study also revealed that probiotics were successful in treating stomach aches in children. Another Italian study led by Dr. Ruggiero Francavilla discovered that Lactobacillus rhamnosus, a strain of beneficial bacteria, was successful in treating stomach aches when the scientists noticed that those children taking the probiotics experienced a drop in the frequency of their stomach aches from four times to one per week. Furthermore, the children experienced a significant lower level of pain. (Probiotics help children with constipation, colds and belly aches)
Other benefits attributed to probiotics include:
• The production of vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, D, K
• Helping to maintain healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels and even blood pressure
• Lower the risk of colon cancer
• Ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and serious bowel disease
It has also been observed that problems in the stomach create not only physical but also psychological imbalances. Recently, it has been reported that disorders like ADD and autism in children, depression and mental fogginess in adults have been connected with intestinal bacteria imbalance creating inflammation of the stomach. This relationship has been identified as the “gut-brain axis.” (Second Brain – Manage your gut and gut flora)
The recent studies on the benefits of probiotics
Probiotics prevent incidents of colds and flu. – In a study conducted in China, 326 children between the ages of three and five-years-old were followed for six months. They were given milk containing either Lactobacillus acidophilus by itself or combined with Bifidobacterium animalis.
Results of the study revealed that those who took Lactobacillus only experienced lesser incidents of coughs or runny noses. If they became sick, their convalescences were shorter and were less likely to miss school. The frequency of antibiotic use was also 68 percent lower.
For the group who took a combined dose of probiotics, they displayed a more positive development by having even lesser incidents of coughs and colds. Their period of convalescence was much lesser compared to the group who took only one probiotics supplement and they used 84 percent fewer antibiotics. The findings of this study suggest that one probiotic supplement may be helpful in dealing with colds and flu but the benefits are more enhanced when two probiotic supplements are taken together.
(Probiotics Prevent Colds)
Probiotics successfully treat ulcers – Scientists from Spain who were studying the beneficial effects of probiotic strains discovered that several unique strains of Bifidobacterium were 95 percent effective in dealing with inflammatory bowel diseases especially ulcers caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacteria.
Accordingly, antibiotic treatment for Helicobacter pylori was found to be neither sufficient nor satisfactory with eradication rates pegged at 70 to 90 percent only.
Long term administration of probiotics in animal subjects, on the other hand, revealed that probiotics can reverse damage to gastric tissues caused by ulcers.
Probiotics can protect the stomach from radiation damage – People fearing the adverse effects from the Fukushima incident and even cancer patients will certainly find this welcoming news. Scientists from Washington University conducted a study comparing radiation effects on mice by giving a group of them probiotics before and after exposure. This group, they discovered were protected against radioactive damage in their intestine.
Normally, cancer patients receiving radiation treatment experience intestinal damage as radiation will destroy both healthy and malignant cells. When probiotics were introduced, however, the damage appears to have been effectively reduced. Beyond radiation treatment, individuals wishing to protect themselves from radiation can certainly derive protection from probiotics.
(Study: Probiotics help protect gut from radiation damage)
Probiotics versus antibiotics
Antibiotic literally means against life as opposed to probiotics which means for life. Antibiotics are antibacterial drugs used to treat bacterial infections. It kills bacteria and stops them from multiplying. Before bacteria multiply and cause disease, our immune system can normally destroy them. It is believed, however, that there are times that the body cannot deal with the infection and may need some help from antibiotics. If overused or used incorrectly, there is the chance that bacteria may become resistant or the drug may become less effective against bacteria.
It has long been known that antibiotic use can result in short-term health problems such as diarrhea, stomach aches or rashes. 5 to 39 percent of patients taking antibiotics experience diarrhea as a complication with incidents even occurring up to several weeks after stopping use as antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria; increasing the susceptibility of an upset stomach.
Thankfully, recent studies have revealed that the use of probiotics offset some of the negative consequences of antibiotic use. In a meta-analysis that looked at 22 different studies, it was found out that probiotics prophylaxis reduced the chances of developing antibiotic diarrhea. Researchers at Harvard Medical School were also able to show that probiotics were effective in preventing diarrhea in both children and adults regardless of the type of probiotics used. It was also discovered that probiotics prevented diarrhea when antibiotics were taken for treatment of H. pylori. (Treat ulcers with probiotics, not antibiotics)
Is it possible to overdose on probiotics?
There appears to be no reported adverse side effects on the over consumption of probiotics. However, there is the possibility that flatulence or bloating may be experienced but such discomfort goes away. People with short bowel syndrome may be more likely to develop a lactobacillus infection. Consult with your doctor before taking lactobacillus.
Among children and the elderly, especially people with compromised immune systems, infection is also a possibility. People with artificial heart valves are advised not to take probiotics on the rare chance of possible infection.
Allergic reactions may also be a possibility. The University of Maryland reports a rare case of an allergic reaction in a person taking a prebiotic. Allergic reactions may also happen such as when certain foods are consumed for probiotics reasons such as yogurt but the patient is allergic to dairy.
Although probiotics appear to have limited drug interactions, the University of Maryland reports that probiotics may interact with sulfasalazine, a drug used to treat ulcerative colitis, speeding up its metabolism.
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