Have you ever wondered – what exactly are probiotics and what are they used for?  The word ‘probiotics’ means ‘for life.’  Essentially, they are live microorganisms – often referred to as ‘good bacteria’ which already live in our bodies (intestines) or may be beneficial to health.

Mechanisms for action

You may find the idea of bacteria in your body as a reason to rush out and take antibiotics, but believe it or not, we need bacteria throughout our small and large intestine to help digest food and keep our immune system functioning properly.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the effects of probiotics on health include reducing harmful organisms in the intestine, producing antimicrobial substances that destroy or suppress the growth of microorganisms, and stimulating the body’s immune response.  Basically, the research is still out about all of the health benefits and efficacy due to the lack of randomized controlled, double-blind studies that have been conducted with probiotics.

Healthy digestive tract = Healthy immune system

Probiotics were identified around the turn of the century.  Researchers were looking at correlations between longevity and milk fermented with lactic acid bacteria in European and Russian communities.  Remember those Dannon commericials with the dancing 100 year-old Russians?  In addition to breathing in pathogens, eating food and drinking beverages is another way of bringing germs into the body, so a healthy gastrointestinal tract is a good first line of defense.

Probiotics and antibiotics

In some individuals, antibiotics can cause diarrhea because of the disruption of the microflora – some of the good “germs” are being killed while fighting off an infection.  Often doctors or pharmacists will tell a patient to eat yogurt.  Probiotics have been quite popular in Europe for many years, but have not caught on as quickly in the U.S. as a means of functional food or supplements.  This may be due to name confusion – as we have been made aware of problems with over-use of antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.  In addition, there are many different strains – which can make research challenging; however, the most common strain used is lactobacillus.

Why use probiotics?

The use of probiotics for diarrhea has been acceptable for decades.  Current research is studying its impact on gastrointestinal health for conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel, colitis, lactose intolerance, cholesterol, weight loss, and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).  Some children with autism spectrum disorder also have disturbances of their intestinal microflora, and probiotics appear to have brought them some relief.

How to take probiotics

Probiotics come in the form of capsules, liquid shots, and as a functional ingredient (like in yogurt and bars such as Attune).

Siobhan Delancey, spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said probiotics can be one of three categories: a supplement, a conventional food, or a drug.  She added, “They are a biologic – because they are live compounds.”

The real issue is how they are marketed.  As a supplement, probiotics fall under the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA).  This means that the FDA does not regulate these products.  If a company attempts to make a health claim regarding probiotics, then it becomes a drug.  Drugs have stricter guidelines and must have research showing effectiveness.  If probiotics are used in food – like yogurt – it is considered an ingredient, which much be an “approved food additive” and be “generally recognized as safe.”

The FDA relies on a passive surveillance for adverse effects to spot trends in reporting on supplements.  Delancey said that there have not been many, if any, reports about probiotics.

Other food sources

In addition to yogurt and kefir, probiotics can be found in pickled cabbage like kimchi or sauerkraut, fermented beans like tempeh and miso, soy sauce and buttermilk.  Probiotics are a benign product, meaning there is very little documentation of harm from consuming them in foods or supplements.

As an additive to your diet, probiotics found in foods or in supplements may certainly be beneficial to your health.  However, if you have a medical condition you'd like to use probiotics for, consult with your physician.