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What Does "Probiotics" Mean?

by
author image Angela Ogunjimi
Angela Ogunjimi has been a prize-winning writer and editor since 1994. She was a general assignment reporter at two newspapers and a business writer at two magazines. She writes on nutrition, obesity, diabetes and weight control for a project of the National Institutes of Health. Ogunjimi holds a master's degree in sociology from George Washington University and a bachelor's in journalism from New York University.
What Does "Probiotics" Mean?
A large bowl of yogurt with fruit on top. Photo Credit Mizina/iStock/Getty Images

Quite literally, the term probiotics come from two words that mean “for life.” Indeed Harvard’s School of Medicine reports that there’s growing evidence that probiotics, in the form of foods and supplements, can help treat and prevent illness, allowing you to enjoy a healthier life. Probiotics are essentially healthy bacteria that, when inside you, can provide a number of health benefits. The most common place in the United States in which you’ll find probiotics is in yogurt, but in Europe and Japan foods and drinks supplemented with probiotics are popular.

Probiotics

Probiotics are helpful, live organisms — usually bacteria — that are used to alter or re-establish your intestinal, or gut, flora. The concept of deliberately introducing anything that is alive to your system may seem strange, especially given that you’ve probably only heard bacteria associated with illness. However, public health authorities, including the World Health Organization, suggest there are many health benefits to eating foods with live bacteria. To be termed a probiotic or have a probiotic effect, the food in which it is added must meet certain standards, as only certain strains of bacteria provide healthful benefits. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, most probiotics placed in foods are bacteria similar to what’s found in people’s guts. The bacteria come from two groups, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Within these groups are different species and strains. According to an article in the November 2005 “Canadian Family Physician,” bacteria cannot be called probiotics unless it was alive at the time of use and enough was used to create a physiological health benefit. Other probiotics, such as Saccharomyces boulardii, are yeasts, not bacteria.

How Bacteria Can Be Safe

In your body right now are trillions of bacteria and other microbes. They’re in your skin, your mouth and clinging to the walls of your intestinal tract, colon and other parts of your body. You’ve existed this long with a mutually beneficial relationship, even if you didn’t know it. You give them a warm place to live. In return, these organisms protect you by simply being there, preventing the growth of bacteria that is harmful and possibly helping your immune system to fight off the bad stuff. Like plants on the ocean floor, your gut is very much alive and active in guarding your health.

Probiotics as Treatment

The concept of treatment with probiotics comes from a belief that modern humans don’t adequately consume or replenish the beneficial microbes in their bodies, according to the authors of the “Canadian Family Physician” article. Taking probiotics through supplemented food and other forms can help return the healthy balance of microbes you need. There’s no guarantee that eating more bacteria will guarantee good health, however. In addition to blocking bad bacteria, current evidence suggests that probiotics have a host of other functions, including producing anti-infection agents, cell signals and preventing toxins from being released. Probiotics may help with digestion and treat diarrhea, Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, according to NCCAM and Harvard. In addition, probiotics may maintain the health of your urinary and genital systems. For example, they may treat vaginosis, yeast infections and urinary tract infections. Probiotics may reduce bladder cancer recurrence, speed the treatment of certain intestinal infections, prevent and treat eczema in children, as well as prevent or reduce the severity of colds and flu.

Where You Can Get Probiotics

Probiotics get into your gut through the foods you eat. Dairy foods like milk and yogurt are usually the most popular foods to which probiotics are added. Yogurts labeled "containing live active cultures" usually contain the probiotics that are used to start the fermentation process that creates yogurt from milk. You can also find probiotics in miso, tempeh, some juices and soy beverages. In addition to being used as additives in foods, probiotics can be administered in a powdered, tablet or capsule form. These helpful microbes can also be injected directly into the intestines, under medical supervision, or through the skin via probiotic-infused creams. NCCAM advises caution when considering probiotics for health treatment since their safety has not been thorough studied scientifically, and more information is needed particularly on how safe they are for young children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

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