You may have heard of probiotics – they’re in yoghurt and certain supplements, and you would be told to take them when on a course of antibiotics. But just what are probiotics?
Probiotics are bacteria that help to maintain the natural balance of organisms in the intestines – also known as microflora.
The human digestive tract generally contains 400 types of probiotic bacteria, whose job is to promote a healthy digestive system and reduce the growth of harmful bacteria. The best known of these is Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yoghurt with live cultures.
What are probiotics used for?
Probiotics have been shown to play a positive role in immune regulation, the absorption of nutrients, and the treatment of diarrhoea.
Many people use probiotics to prevent flatulence, cramping and diarrhoea. Broad spectrum antibiotics kill "good" bacteria along with the bacteria that make us ill, but a decrease in these beneficial bacteria may lead to other infections, such as vaginal yeast and urinary tract infections, and symptoms such as diarrhoea from intestinal illnesses.
It is believed that taking probiotics may help replace the lost beneficial bacteria.
How do I take probiotics?
Different strains of probiotics provide different benefits. If you have been prescribed a course of antibiotics, it’s important to ask your doctor about how and when to take probiotics, as they can interfere with the medication.
Are probiotics safe?
Some probiotics have been used for most of human history, such as in cultured milk products and fermented foods, and these don't appear to cause illness.
However, more research is needed on the safety of probiotics in people who have weak immune systems, young children and the elderly. As with any supplement, discuss it with your doctor.
Exciting on-going research
Probiotics are being studied for benefits in colon cancer, skin infections, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Research has shown that only certain types of bacteria or yeast work in the digestive tract. It still needs to be proved which probiotics work to treat which diseases. At this point, the strains of probiotics that have been proved to work for a specific disease, are not widely available.
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