Has your mother ever told you, â€œDon’t forget to take your vitamins?â€ Probably. But most likely, she has never said to you, â€œDon’t forget to take your bacteria pills.â€ Bacteria pills? That’s right. The latest craze in modern health is known as probiotics, microflora of good bacteria that’s found naturally in the human body.
Bacteria is found everywhere. It’s in the air, food and water, and on that guy’s hand you shook today. Bacteria has a bad reputation for making people sick, but not all bacterial is harmful.
Many different types of bacteria are extremely beneficial to human survival. Collectively, the helpful bacteria is referred to as â€œprobioticsâ€. The Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, classifies probiotics as â€œlive microorganisms administered in adequate amounts which confer a beneficial health effect on the hostâ€. But what exactly is this vague â€œbeneficial health effect?â€
Probiotics balance out the bad bacteria in the human body. Since there is no feasible way to completely eliminate all of the bad bacteria, as long as the good bacteria outnumbers the bad, our human bodies are healthy.
When bad bacteria overwhelms the body, humans become ill. Doctors will then often prescribe antibiotics to rid the body of the bad bacteria. Unfortunately, the antibiotics destroy not only the bad bacteria, but the good bacteria as well.
Antibiotics are not the only way to kill off good bacteria. Stress, disease, drugs, excessive alcohol, and exposure to other toxic substances will kill off the good flora in the human body.
The body depends on good bacteria to function properly. Eliminating the good bacteria from the body provokes susceptibility to dominant bad bacteria. So, if a person is on long-term antibiotics, all of their naturally-occurring good bacteria will repeatedly die. Then, if a stronger bad bacteria invades the body, his good bacteria are not capable of preventing illness. The antibiotics may be able to kill off any weaker threats to the body, but a â€œsuper bacteriaâ€ is capable of surviving a dose of antibiotics.
Probiotics therefore can provide additional protection against infection when the body is in a weakened state. But there is additional promising benefits that probiotics can provide. The FAO vaguely mentions â€œpositive benefitsâ€ in their definition of probiotics, but who, exactly, will benefit?
Sufferers of allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, oral health, and vaginosis might feel a reduction in symptoms with the help of probiotics. Probiotics can tip the scale of bacterial balance in favor of good bacteria. For example, lactose intolerant people may benefit from the specific strain of bacteria called lactobacillus acidophilus (lacto meaning milk, bacillus meaning rod-like in shape, and acidophilus meaning acid-loving) because it helps ferment lactose into lactic acid.
Since most of the good bacteria in the body are found in the gastrointestinal tract, probiotics are administered orally. In fact, approximately 3.3 pounds of bacteria inhabit the large intestine alone! Probiotics are considered safe since they are already part of the normal digestive system. Given the optimal benefits of consuming probiotics, it’s no wonder probiotic pills have inundated vitamin stores. But probiotics are not only found in a pill supplements, they are also found in grocery stores.
Many probiotics occur naturally in many foods, like yogurt. However, many yogurts previously did not enhance probiotics in production. Dannon introduced the first popularly marketed probiotic yogurt in America, Activia, in January of 2006. Their sales totaled more than $100 million in less than a yearâ€”something less than 1/10th of 1% of all newly marketed items can achieve. The next year, General Mills introduced Yo-Plus under Yoplait yogurt in response to Dannon’s success.
Building on the response to probiotic-enhanced foods, other companies took initiative to pluck a portion of the probiotic profits. Kraft Foods Inc.’s Live Active probiotic cheese, Nestle’s Probiotic Good Start Natural Cultures baby formula, Swiss Firm Barry Callebaut’s probiotic chocolate, and Naked Juice’s Probiotic Juice introduced new lines in late 2007.
The race for probiotic food is colloquially known as the â€œprobiotic crazeâ€. The National Institute of Health reports that Americans’ spending on probiotic supplements has nearly tripled from 1994 to 2003 alone. University of Michigan researcher Gary Huffnagle calls probiotics â€œa new essential food groupâ€ in his new book, â€œThe Probiotics Revolutionâ€. People are increasing looking towards natural defenses against disease to incorporate into their daily lifestyles.
A course of probiotic treatment should not by any means take the place of a doctor-recommended treatment for a health condition. Critics of probiotic supplementation argue that studies are mostly anecdotal; quantities necessary for health benefits are not certain; lasting effects of supplementation are not certain; and that the survival rate in human digestion is not known.
Production of probiotics in the American food market has skyrocketed to unbelievable amounts. But are probiotics a positive new health advocacy, like eating seven grains of whole wheat bread, or an unnecessary fad, like mesh shirts from the 80s, only time will tell.