By Eduardo Gonzales, MD
What are probiotics? Do they really have health benefits? —firstname.lastname@example.org
The term probiotic was coined by German bacteriologist Werner Kollath in 1953 to describe various supplements believed to restore the health of malnourished patients. Since then, people used the word to mean different things, which is why it took a long time for the scientific community to arrive at a consensus on its meaning. The current, widely accepted definition of the term, which was formulated by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2001, states that probiotic refers to a live microorganism, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confers a beneficial health effect on the host. Simply stated, probiotics are “good bacteria” that are akin to the ones that naturally occur in our body.
Good bacteria are essential to our health
Countless “good bacteria” reside throughout our body. They are, in fact, vital to our survival, health, and well-being. Examples of “good bacteria” include bifidobacteria, eubacteria, clostridia, gram positive cocci, and lactobacilli, microorganisms that populate our intestines. These bacteria perform numerous useful functions, such as inhibiting the growth of pathogenic or disease-causing bacteria, training the cells of the immune system, and producing vitamins such as biotin and vitamin K.
Why people are gaga over probiotics?
Probiotics that belong to the genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium currently abound in the market as part of fermented food products such as yogurt, soy yogurt, and milk-like products like Yakult. There are also numerous probiotic-containing cereals, juices, candy bars, and cookies. We do not have local figures, but among American adults, probiotics are the third most commonly used dietary supplement behind fish oil, glucosamine, and chondroitin.
The popularity of probiotics is anchored on the notion that they benefit us by augmenting the “good bacteria” in our intestines beyond the amount already existing. Manufacturers of probiotic-containing products attribute a host of health benefits to their products. Their products supposedly improve digestion, protect the skin from harmful bacteria, build immunity, and promote general well-being.
The real score
The health benefits attributed to probiotics are not necessarily false but they are unfounded. The fact that probiotics are marketed as food supplements instead of drugs attest to this. To be able to market anything as drug, proof of safety and efficacy is required.
To date, numerous researches have been undertaken to find out whether probiotics might help prevent or treat a variety of health problems. Results of some of these scientific studies suggest that probiotics may indeed have health benefits. A few show probiotics might help alleviate the symptoms of certain chronic gastrointestinal tract conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome. A number indicate probiotics may help prevent diarrheas that are caused by infections or antibiotics, decrease the incidence of respiratory infection and dental caries in children, and help lactose-intolerant individuals. Some strains of lactobacilli have demonstrated anti-mutagenic effects, which imply they could prevent colon cancer. Animal studies have shown that some probiotics could lower serum cholesterol levels. A limited number hint that probiotics may help maintain immune system activity and decrease the risk of developing allergies.
All of these scientific studies, however, are preliminary in nature, none is conclusive. Also, not all probiotics have the same effects.The European Food Safety Authority summed it all up when it said that as of 2012, the scientific evidence remains insufficient to prove a cause and effect relationship between consumption of probiotic products and any health benefit.
In any case, people who wish to take probiotic supplements need not really worry about possible ill-effects because probiotics are evidently safe. Their adverse effects are few and generally benign—abdominal discomfort, bloating, gas pain. In people with weakened immune systems, however, infections have occasionally been reported.
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