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What Is the Purpose of Probiotics?

by
author image Erica Wickham, M.S., R.D., C.D.N.
Erica Wickham covers health, exercise and lifestyle topics for various websites. She completed an internship in dietetics and earned a Master of Science in dietetics from D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y. Wickham now serves as a registered dietitian.
What Is the Purpose of Probiotics?
A woman is holding a variety of pills in her hand. Photo Credit Thiprot/iStock/Getty Images

Probiotics or “friendly” bacteria provide a variety of benefits, especially within the digestive and immune systems. Probiotics found in food and dietary supplements mirror the activity of those found naturally in the gastrointestinal tract. Probiotics work to restore symbiosis between harmful and friendly bacteria in the gut, thereby promoting health and preventing the onset of disease.

Probiotics

More definitively, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine describe probiotics as live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host. Most probiotics are bacteria and function in the same capacity as those found naturally in the human gut. Most probiotic bacteria originate from two strains: Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. However, there a number of different species within each strain. Each probiotic strain promotes optimal health to the host in a distinctly different manner.

Microorganisms Everywhere

Friendly bacteria, such as probiotic strains, are vital to the proper health of the immune system, the protection of disease-causing microorganisms, elimination of toxic materials, and the digestion, absorption and metabolism of food and nutrients. The body is full of microorganisms; bacteria live in and on the skin, in the gastrointestinal tract, the respiratory system and urinary tract. The microflora in each of these areas vary, therefore there is a difference in the bacterial organisms which populate them. Consequently, individuals have their own mixture of beneficial bacteria. Friendly bacteria, such as probiotic strains, are vital to the proper health of the immune system, the protection of disease-causing microorganisms, elimination of toxic materials, and the digestion, absorption and metabolism of food and nutrients. Interactions between microorganisms and the body are crucial for health and well-being.

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Symbiosis

In the human body, there is a constant balancing act between friendly and harmful bacteria. This balance can be disrupted in two ways. The first is the use of antibiotics which kill the friendly bacteria along with the harmful bacteria in the gut. The presence of unfriendly microorganisms, such as disease-causing bacteria, yeast and fungi, can also upset the balance. Probiotics are used to restore symbiosis between the friendly and harmful bacteria. Probiotics have therefore been used to prevent and treat disorders of the digestive and immune systems.

Probiotic Benefits

Probiotics not only enhance the digestion process, but also support the immune system. In the digestive system, probiotics treat diarrhea, vaginal yeast infections, eczema in children and irritable bowel syndrome; absorb and produce vitamins and minerals; and manage intestinal infections quickly. Probiotics promote immunity by reducing bladder cancer occurrence, increasing production of IgA antibodies, increase microphage and phagocytosis activity, and improve overall health.

Safe Use

According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, live microorganisms have long been used as probiotic agents without causing illness. However, the safe use of probiotics has not yet been thoroughly researched. More information is needed to scientifically document its safety, especially for the use by young children, elderly individuals, and people with compromised immune systems. Side effects associated with the use of probiotics include: flatulence, bloating, infection, unhealthy metabolic activity and the stimulation of the immune system. These side effects are rare, and if they occur, they tend to be mild.

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