What are Probiotics?

Gut Microbiome
Gut microbiome

The term probiotic is becoming more widely known as people are becoming more aware of it it.

The definition of a probiotic adopted by the World Health Organisation is "Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”.

Do you consume yoghurt regularly? While not all yoghurts contain probiotics, in consuming yoghurt you will have consumed bacteria in these products.

Often, people think of bacteria as something that causes diseases. However, our body is full of bacteria, both good and bad. Probiotics are often called "good" or "helpful" bacteria because they help keep your gut healthy.

In fact, by far the majority of the bacteria that live on us and in us are good bacteria that are essential for our survival. Good bacteria are naturally found in your body. You can find probiotics in some foods and supplements.

The root of the word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning "promoting," and biotic, meaning "life." The discovery of probiotics came about in the early 20th century, when Elie Metchnikoff, known as the "father of probiotics," had observed that rural dwellers in Bulgaria lived to very old ages despite extreme poverty and harsh climate. He theorized that health could be enhanced and senility delayed by manipulating the intestinal microbiome with host-friendly bacteria found in sour milk. Since then, research has continued to support his findings along with suggesting even more benefits.

Normally folks get concerned as soon as they hear the word "bacteria". After all, probiotics are all about good bacteria. At this point, it is best that we talk about the disease-causing pathogens first.

Pathogens- includes bacteria, viruses and fungi

A pathogen is anything that causes a disease. Pathogens include:

(1) Bacteria. A group of microscopic organisms that are capable of reproducing on their own, causing human disease by direct invasion of body tissues. Bacteria often produce toxins that poison the cells they have invaded. Numerous bacteria also live in harmony with the body and are necessary for human existence, such as bacteria that aid in digestion in the gut. Bacterial diseases include "strep" tonsillitis, pneumonia, and meningitis. (example: bacterial meningitis or strep throat)

(2) Viruses.

(3) Fungi (example: athlete’s foot)

We come in contact with pathogens every day. Most of the time our body’s immune system destroys them before they can cause harm.
The microorganisms in our mouth are the first line of defence against pathogens and an important part of our immune health. If a healthy balance of oral bacteria is affected by stress, exposure to disease or antibiotics, it can quickly lead to problems such as throat infections, ear infections and bad breath.

Do you know that Humans Carry More Bacterial Cells than Human Ones?

90% of the human body is bacteria, and 70% of them are good and helpful bacteria.

A human body is believed to carry around 100 trillion microorganisms in the intestines; ten times more than the total number of human cells. A Microbiologist would say that you are more bacteria than you are you. 90% of the cells within us are not ours but microbes.
According to Science Daily, the number of bacteria living within the body of the average healthy adult human are estimated to outnumber human cells 10 to 1."We compulsively wash our hands, spray our counter tops and grimace when someone sneezes near us—in fact, we do everything we can to avoid unnecessary encounters with the germ world. But the truth is we are practically walking petri dishes, rife with bacterial colonies from our skin to the deepest recesses of our guts." (Scientific American)

The infestation of bacteria begins at birth. Babies ingest mouthfuls of bacteria during birthing and pick up plenty more from their mother's skin and milk. A baby's interaction with their mother is the biggest burst of microbes they get. This is just the beginning because, throughout our lives, we consume bacteria in our food and water...

Changes in our microbial communities throughout life may be responsible for digestive disorders, skin diseases, gum disease and even obesity.
Modern humans are bacteria-killing machines. We assassinate microbes with hand soap, mouthwash and bathroom cleaners. It feels clean and right.

But some scientists say we're overdoing it. All this killing may actually cause diseases like eczema, irritable bowel syndrome and even diabetes. The answer, they say, is counter-intuitive: feed patients bacteria.

Friendly bacteria are vital to proper development of the immune system, to protection against microorganisms that could cause disease, and to the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients. Each person's mix of bacteria varies. Interactions between a person and the microorganisms in his body, and among the microorganisms themselves, can be crucial to the person's health and well-being.

This bacterial "balancing act" can be thrown off in two major ways:

1. By antibiotics, when they kill friendly bacteria in the gut along with unfriendly bacteria. Some people use probiotics to try to offset the side effects from antibiotics like gas, cramping, or diarrhoea. Similarly, some use them to ease symptoms of lactose intolerance -- a condition in which the gut lacks the enzyme needed to digest significant amounts of the major sugar in milk, and which also causes gastrointestinal symptoms.

2. "Unfriendly" microorganisms such as disease-causing bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and parasites can also upset the balance. Researchers are exploring whether probiotics could halt these unfriendly agents in the first place and/or suppress their growth and activity in conditions like:

Infectious diarrhoea
Irritable bowel syndrome
Inflammatory bowel disease (e.g., ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease)
Infection with Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacterium that causes most ulcers and many types of chronic stomach inflammation
Tooth decay and periodontal disease
Vaginal infections
Stomach and respiratory infections that children acquire in daycare
Skin infections

Another part of the interest in probiotics stems from the fact there are cells in the digestive tract connected with the immune system. One theory is that if you alter the microorganisms in a person's intestinal tract (as by introducing probiotic bacteria), you can affect the immune system's defences.

How do probiotics work?

Researchers are trying to figure out exactly how probiotics work. Here are some of the ways they may keep you healthy:

When you lose "good" bacteria in your body (like after you take antibiotics, for example), probiotics can help replace them.
They can help balance your "good" and "bad" bacteria to keep your body working like it should.

Types of Probiotics

Some of the probiotics are:

Lactobacillus. This may be the most common probiotic. It’s the one you’ll find in yoghurt and other fermented foods. Different strains can help with diarrhoea and may help people who can’t digest lactose, the sugar in milk.

Bifidobacterium. You can also find it in some dairy products. It may help ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and some other conditions.

Saccharomyces boulardii is a yeast found in probiotics. It appears to help fight diarrhoea and other digestive problems.

Risks and side effects of probiotics

Some live microorganisms have a long history of use as probiotics without causing illness in people. Not all probiotics' safety has been thoroughly studied scientifically, however. More information is especially needed on how safe they are for young children, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems.

Probiotics' side effects, if they occur, tend to be mild and digestive (such as gas or bloating). Probiotics might theoretically cause infections that need to be treated with antibiotics, especially in people with underlying health conditions. They could also cause unhealthy metabolic activities, too much stimulation of the immune system, or gene transfer (insertion of genetic material into a cell).

Probiotic products taken by mouth as a dietary supplement are manufactured and regulated as foods, not drugs.

Questions and Answers

There is much more to learn about probiotics. Also, have you heard about prebiotics? We have done questions and answers for probiotics that cover topics like: