Probiotics are microorganisms such as bacteria or yeast that are believed to improve health. They are available in supplements and foods. The idea of taking live bacteria or yeast may seem strange at first. After all, we take antibiotics and use antibacterial substances to fight bacteria. But our bodies naturally teem with such organisms.
The digestive system is home to more than 500 different bacterial species. They help keep intestinal linings healthy and assist in breaking down food. Beneficial organisms are also believed to help regulate healthy immune response.
“Probiotics can improve intestinal function and maintain the integrity of the lining of the intestines,” says Stefano Guandalini, MD, professor of pediatrics and gastroenterology at the University of Chicago Medical Center. These friendly bugs may also help fight off diarrhea-causing organisms.
Although evidence is still being gathered, researchers say there are enough data to rate the effectiveness of probiotics for several specific illnesses. In 2008, a panel of experts at Yale University reviewed the latest findings. They concluded that probiotics are most effective for:
- Acute childhood diarrhea
- Preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea
- Preventing pouchitis, an intestinal inflammation that can follow serious intestinal surgery
- Regulating immune response
- Treating and preventing eczema associated with cow’s milk allergy
The Yale University panel of experts concluded that probiotics may be helpful in other ways, although the evidence so far is less convincing. These include:
- Easing symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Preventing childhood diarrhea
- Treating diarrhea caused by Clostridium difficule bacteria, which can infect the colon
Probiotics may also be useful in unexpected ways. A study published in 2010 suggests that probiotics may decrease the risk of common childhood problems such as ear infections, strep throat, colds, and diarrheal illness. The study included 638 children aged 3 to 6 in day care centers/schools. The children who drank a yogurt drink containing a probiotic were 19% less likely to come down with a common infection.