(NaturalNews) This year alone, over 150 new probiotic and prebiotic food products have hit the market, more than three times the number that were introduced just a few years ago in 2005. To help understand this trend, and to make smart choices with your nutrition dollar, it is necessary to understand these substances and the claims being made about them. This article will focus on probiotics (a word so new that my Word 2003 spellchecker does not recognize it).
Probiotics are live microorganisms, usually bacteria, that are similar to the helpful microorganisms naturally occurring in the human gut. (Prebiotics are essentially food for the helpful bacteria.) Probiotics can be found in foods such as yogurt, milk, miso, tempeh, and some juices and soy beverages. They are also available as dietary supplements in the form of capsules, tablets, and powders. They are claimed to promote a healthy immune system, to help to promote regularity, to help maintain healthy colon cells, and to help manufacture vitamins such as B and K, to name a few of the most common marketed health benefits linked to their use.
Recently, these tiny critters have made the leap from health food store to mainstream supermarket shelves. From 1994 to 2003, spending on probiotic supplements in America has tripled. Sales of probiotic foods and supplements are projected to reach $1 billion by 2010.
But what exactly is contained in the products labeled probiotic and do these products live up to the claims being made about them by manufacturers? According to the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, probiotics are "live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." But how much is an "adequate" amount, and what specific health benefits can they confer? While there is limited evidence from a few studies supporting some uses of probiotics, more research is needed. What has and hasn't been concluded concerning the health benefits of probiotics?
First of all, what we know:
Millions of helpful bacteria live in the intestinal tract. These "good" bacteria are necessary for the proper development of the immune system (breastfed infants have large amounts of these good bacteria, and consequently, protection against many diseases). They are also necessary for the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients, and to protect against the "bad bugs" that can cause disease.
Disease-causing bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and parasites can upset the healthy balance of microorganisms in the gut, as can antibiotics because they kill good as well as bad bacteria indiscriminately (as the name implies). Problems that may arise from this imbalance include diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, H. pylori infection, tooth decay, vaginal infections, stomach and respiratory infections in children, and skin infections.
Most probiotics come from one of two groups of bacteria: Lactobacillus (found in the small intestine) and Bifidobacterium (found in the large intestine).
Secondly, what does the research say?
Conclusions of various conferences since 2005:
* Specific benefits are linked to certain species and even specific strains of species of probiotics.
* Large quantities of living bacteria are most likely necessary to effect real health benefits.
Encouraging evidence was found for the potential of specific probiotic formulations to treat diarrhea, urinary tract infections, and irritable bowel syndrome, to reduce the recurrence of bladder cancer and to prevent and manage atopic dermatitis in children. (Unfortunately, my source does not list the specific formulations, but the article and its references can be found at the National Institutes of Health site listed below.)
In studies of probiotics as cures, beneficial effects were usually low, and a strong placebo effect was often observed.
Some specific findings:
* Results from a Canadian study suggested that fermented milk containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus caseii may help prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea.
* A study from Finland found that an oat drink containing Bifidobacterium lactis bacteria improved bowel function in nursing home residents.
Most side effects, when observed, were mild and digestive in nature. However, more information is needed on the safety of probiotics for young children, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems.
Studies are currently being conducted to determine:
* whether fermented milk containing lactic acid bacteria might reduce cancer-causing substances in the intestine
* whether probiotic supplements can treat allergy-induced skin rash in babies
* whether probiotics can improve complications of liver disease
Lastly, what does this mean for you the consumer?
Be wary of products that don't specify how much or what type of bacteria.
Verify that the type of probiotic being purchased has shown evidence of efficacy for the particular symptom or condition being treated.
Always consult your healthcare provider if you are thinking about using probiotics, and be sure to contact your healthcare provider if you experience an effect that concerns you while using probiotics.
There appears to be great potential for probiotics as a natural form of prevention and possibly treatment of a wide variety of symptoms and disorders. But as the science catches up with the marketing hype, consumers should arm themselves with reliable knowledge as they walk the aisles of health food stores or the local supermarket and peruse the labels of the increasing number of products labeled probiotic.
More information and the sources used for this article are available through the following links:
National Institutes of Health: (nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics/)
Mary Sichi is a research analyst in the field of psychological testing, and is currently considering making the leap from pescetarian to vegetarian, motivated by what she learned while researching this article.