The proven benefits of probiotics
The probiotics craze has been doing the rounds for a good few years. But do probiotics actually improve health? Read on to find out about the latest research and proven benefits of probiotics.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are living microscopic organisms that boost your body’s natural functions. They’re all different, and each one has specific benefits for your health. Their classification is complicated, and it’s hard to tell which probiotics to go for. Here’s an overview of the different benefits of these friendly bacteria.
Probiotics have numerous beneficial effects for your health, but while some have been scientifically proven, others are less certain. First, here’s a look at the proven effects.
Digestive transit: The gut is full of bacteria that we know is essential for the body. Research has shown that regular consumption of certain probiotics builds on the natural bacteria in the intestines, not only improving digestion of certain foods but also aiding digestive transit. Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptoccocus thermophilus in yoghurts help the body digest lactose (the sugar in milk). This allows people with lactose intolerance to consume dairy products more easily.
Many probiotics have been shown to speed up digestive transit, including Bifidobacterium animalis, Lactobacillus delbrueckii bulgaricus and Streptococcus salivarius thermophilus. Their effects depend largely on the quantity of probiotics ingested, but many studies have indicated a particularly beneficial effect in people who suffer from constipation.
Diarrhoea: Probiotics such as Lactobacillus casei (in Actimel for example) and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG prevent diarrhoea in young children. Studies have shown that regular consumption of these little bacteria can shorten a bout of diarrhoea caused by travelling or taking antibiotics. However, research data on the prevention of infectious diarrhoea is much more limited.
Digestive discomfort: Irritable bowel syndrome is common in adults. It causes abdominal pain, bloating and problems with digestive transit without any physical signs of illness in the intestines. Not all probiotics will have an effect on these problems, but some bacteria, such as Lactobaccilus and Bifidobacteria, can help improve digestive discomfort in IBS sufferers. These probiotics reduce intestinal secretions, which can cause diarrhoea. Chronic inflammatory diseases of the intestine, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative rectocolitis, are rarer and more serious. The effects of probiotics on these illnesses are the subject of much current research. Certain probiotics seem to be able to prevent recurring pouchitis (inflammation of the ileal pouch in colectomy patients) as well.
Fight against infection: Probiotics are used to fight infection caused by Helicobacter pylori, which is associated with stomach ulcers and stomach cancer. When combined with normal treatment, probiotics boost the body’s ability to fight infection and help relieve symptoms.
Other possible effects
Among the effects probiotics are thought to have on the body, there are many different areas that are yet to be explored.
Prevention of eczema: Probiotics could have a positive effect on eczema and atopic dermatitis by acting as a protective barrier in the body. Eczema is linked to diet, while atopic dermatitis (another form of this skin condition) is a chronic illness that appears at the age of three to six months. Lactobacillus F19, Lactobacillus GG and Lactobacillus sakei supplements, or a combination of Bifidobacterium bifidum and Lactoccocus lactis (Ecologic® Panda), have also proved very effective in reducing the symptoms of eczema in children likely to develop the condition. But the results of this research depend on the strain of bacteria, and it’s not clear whether some probiotics are more effective than others. Moreover, the methodology in these studies has come under fire, and probiotics are not officially recommended for eczema sufferers as a result.
Prevention of colorectal cancer: Certain probiotics could protect against cancer of the colon by stopping carcinogenic microorganisms becoming attached to the walls of the gut. They could also reduce the presence of toxins and prevent inflammation. Although promising, this theory hasn’t been put to the test in humans yet.
Boosts your immune system: By acting on the gut’s natural bacteria, probiotics can have an effect on the immune system. Studies using in vitro methods and animal subjects have indicated a connection between ingesting probiotics and a stronger immune system. There have been very few human clinical trials, but a lot of research has linked certain strains of bacteria to a drop in respiratory infections and flu-like illnesses in young children and the elderly. These potential benefits need to be confirmed by further research. Lastly, some probiotics could also prevent the proliferation of pathogens (bacteria and fungus) in the vagina.
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