When you think of the term 'bacteria', it immediately conjures up an image of a faceless, ruthless enemy-one that requires your poor body to maintain constant vigilance, fighting the good fight forever and always. And should you happen to lose the battle, well, the after effects are always messy. But what some people might not know is that bacteria are our silent saviours as well. These 'good' bacteria are known as probiotics, where 'pro' means 'for' and 'bios' is 'life'.
The WHO defines probiotics as "live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health bene?t on the host". Discovered by the Russian scientist Metchnikoff in the 20th century; simply put, probiotics are micro-organisms such as bacteria or yeast, which improve the health of an individual. Our bodies contain more than 500 different species of bacteria which serve to maintain our health by keeping harmful pathogens in check, supporting the immune system and helping in digestion and absorption of nutrients.
From the very first breath you take, you are exposed to probiotics. How so? As an infant passes through it's mother's birth canal, it receives a good dose of healthy bacteria, which in turn serve to populate it's own gastro-intestinal tract. However, unfortunately, as we go through life, our exposure to overly processed foods, anti-bacterial products, sterilized and pasteurized food etc, might mean that in our zeal to have everything sanitary and hygienic, we might be depriving ourselves of the beneficial effects of such microorganisms.
For any health care provider, the focus should not only be on eradicating disease but improving overall health as well. Here, probiotic containing foods and supplements play an important role as they not only combat diseases but also confer better health in general. Self dosing yourself with bacteria might sound a little bizarre at first-after all, we take antibiotics to fight bacteria. But let's not forget that long before probiotics became a viable medical option, our grandparents (and their parents before them) advocated the intake of yoghurt drinks (lassi). The fermented milk acts as an instant probiotic delivery system to the body!
Although they are still being studied, probiotics may help several specific illnesses, studies show. They have proven useful in treating childhood diarrheas as well as antibiotic associated diarrhea. Clinical trial results are mixed, but several small studies suggest that certain probiotics may help maintain remission of ulcerative colitis and prevent relapse of Crohn’s disease and the recurrence of pouchitis (a complication of surgery during treatment of ulcerative colitis). They may also help to maintain a healthy urogenital system, preventing problems such as vaginitis and UTIs.
Like all things, probiotics may have their disadvantages too. They are considered dangerous for people with impaired immune systems and one must take care to ensure that the correct strain of bacteria related to their required health benefit is present in such supplements. But when all is said and done and all the pros and cons of probiotics are weighed; stand back ladies and gentlemen, there's a new superhero in town, and what's more-it's here to stay!