The word “bacteria” usually brings to mind a harmful organism that can damage the body and cause sickness, but this idea is not entirely based in science. The truth is the body is both full of and covered by an array of different types of bacteria and other microorganisms that are considered good bacteria and assist the body in certain types of functions. When the populations of these helpful microorganisms decrease, it can be helpful to replace them through the use of probiotics.
Probiotics is a term used in relation to a wide range of products from yogurt to lotions to supplements in pill form. But the World Health Organization simply defines a probiotic as a live microorganism that is intended to have a health benefit.
“Our bodies are full of bacteria, both good and bad bacteria,” says Dr. Aneri Gupta, a physician with OU Physicians Family Medicine. “Probiotics are believed to be good bacteria that can help keep our lower gastrointestinal tract – our gut – healthy,” she says.
These good bacteria already exist in the body. Using probiotics can potentially increase these helpful organisms and regain balance in the body. Probiotics can include a wide variety of different types of bacteria and yeasts. According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common types are from the groups Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. These broad groups include many specific types of bacteria.
Dr. Aaron Fieker, a gastroenterologist at St. John Medical Center, explains that when taken for the correct reasons, probiotics can help reduce intestinal inflammation, promote the balance of the microorganisms living in the gastrointestinal tract and block the effects of harmful or pathogenic bacteria.
“They also help with nutrition in breaking down certain food products and help reduce intestinal sensitivity,” he says.
Because of these properties, some evidence has shown probiotics to be useful in preventing or treating conditions such as diarrhea caused by infection and the use of antibiotics, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, allergic disorders such as eczema and hay fever, certain oral health problems, colic in infants, liver disease, the common cold and other conditions. However, it is important to note that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any of the health claims of probiotics. More research is still needed, with the main challenge being the sheer number of different kinds of microorganisms and understanding what role each plays in the human body.
“Our gut microbiome is made up of over 500 different species of bacteria and treating with one or two different species in probiotic formulations may or may not be effective,” Dr. Fieker said. “Different strains of bacteria have unique effects on gut physiology, and one probiotic will not treat all gastrointestinal illnesses.”
Though probiotics have been shown to be very safe, causing few, if any, side effects, patients should always discuss a new supplement with their doctor before taking it. This is especially true for anyone with underlying health issues.
Though the effectiveness of probiotics is not entirely proven at this time, there are many studies being conducted to learn more about how they work in the human body and how they can be used most effectively in the future.
“Probiotics are under considerable research,” Dr. Gupta said. “Although the body’s complex microbial ecosystem is not entirely understood at the present, there is strong scientific consensus on the benefits of using probiotics in addressing certain medical states or conditions.”
She suggests trying a probiotic out for a month or two after discussing it with your doctor to see if it helps in your overall health.