We’re all familiar with antibiotics, but many are unaware of the benefits of probiotics. While the role of an antibiotic is to kill off potentially harmful bacteria, the word probiotic literally means “for life.” Probiotics refer to live bacteria that are beneficial to the host. In other words, probiotics are the good germs that live in our bodies.
Isn’t Bacteria a Bad Thing?
Approximately 90% of the cells found in the human body are comprised of normal flora, the bacteria species that resides inside or on the body. The majority of normal flora lives within the gastrointestinal tract (gut), and it serves a number of valuable, protective functions. A symbiotic relationship occurs between these bacteria and our bodies. The bacteria benefit by obtaining nutrients from us through dietary components and intestinal secretions. The gut flora perform a number of positive functions, such as stimulating our immune systems and aiding in the production of essential vitamins and short-chain fatty acids. A healthy number of these microorganisms is necessary to prevent illness.
The idea of using probiotics to cure and prevent illness is hardly new. Fermented milk products (such as yogurt) contain probiotics and have been used for centuries to promote good health. Research has been conducted on the benefits of yogurt and acidophilus for the prevention and treatment of yeast infections. Many physicians routinely recommend acidophilus supplements to ward off the potential effects of antibiotics, which kill the good bacteria as well as the bad and may lead to unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea or yeast infection.
Our bodies first acquire helpful microorganisms during the birth process. The lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium species are present in the birth canal and a newborn is (ideally) inoculated upon delivery. The baby then acquires more bifidobacteria from breastfeeding. Babies who are delivered by cesarean section also acquire these beneficial bacteria, but the rate of colonization is typically much slower. Similarly, formula-fed babies or those whose mothers were exposed to antibiotics prior to or during delivery may also have lower levels of good bacteria. For these infants, a supplement may be beneficial.
Supplementing with Probiotics
Dysbiosis refers to a disturbance or imbalance in the normal gut flora, and it often results in a state of inflammation. Inflammation can manifest as any number of conditions, including but not limited to:
- Digestive problems (diarrhea, constipation, Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis, etc.)
- Respiratory illness (asthma, allergies, chronic sinusitis, frequent ear infections, etc.)
- Skin conditions (acne, eczema, psoriasis, etc.)
- Genital/urinary tract problems (cystitis, vaginitis, prostatitis, yeast infection, etc.)
Probiotics supplements may be given to prevent or treat the above conditions. Dave Mason, owner of Edmond’s Innovative Pharmacy Solutions and a pharmacist for over twenty years, recommends a probiotic combination as a regular dietary supplement for all ages. “The use of probiotics is slowly becoming more mainstream. I have pediatricians sending moms in to pick up probiotics for babies with digestive problems, and many doctors are recommending them to patients who are on a course of antibiotics.”
In addition to probiotic therapy, Mason recommends prebiotics for many patients. Prebiotics refer to a source of food that is consumed by the bifidobacteria and stimulate their growth and production. “Using a prebiotic in conjunction with a probiotic supplement can increase the level of good bacteria in the body within 24 to 48 hours,” says Mason. “Everyone can benefit from probiotic supplementation.”
One thing is certain—probiotics are not harmful. If you suffer from any of the conditions listed above, consider giving probiotic therapy a try. Promoting the growth of the body’s good bacteria will lead to greater immune response and better overall health. A doctor or pharmacist can assist you in choosing the proper supplement.
Shannon Fields is a freelance writer and a Certified Pharmacy Technician at Innovative Pharmacy Solutions. She holds a BA in Psychology with a minor in English from the University of Central Oklahoma. Shannon lives in Edmond with her husband and two daughters.