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Health-Promoting Actions of Probiotics

By Dr. Michael T. Murray
Whole Foods August 2006

An explosion of scientific research on the importance of probiotics to human health has created renewed interest in the benefits of probiotics, but humans have been consuming fermented foods containing probiotics for many thousands of years.

The formal definition of probiotic substances recognized by medical experts is "microbial dietary adjuvants" (translation: tiny microbes added to the diet) "that beneficially affect the host physiology" (translation: that are good for the body) "by modulating mucosal and systemic immunity, as well as improving nutritional and microbial balance in the intestinal tract" (translation: by supporting immunity and improving digestion and the balance of healthy microbes (bacteria) in the intestines).

The quantity, types and characteristics of one's intestinal flora play a major role in one's health. Probiotic supplements are very often used to promote overall good health, however, there are many specific conditions that can benefit from probiotic supplementation as well, based on clinical studies:

Treatment of Intestinal Disorders Constipation, Lactose intolerance; Prevention and treatment of gastrointestinal tract (GIT) infections; Flatulence; Diarrhea: infantile, antibiotic-associated, traveler's; Inflammatory bowel disease; Irritable Bowel Syndrome; and Intestinal hyper-permeability (leaky gut syndrome)

Other Conditions and Uses Treatment of high cholesterol levels; Prevention and treatment of vaginal infections; Prevention and treatment of urinary tract infections; Treatment of hepatic encephalopathy; Prevention of alcohol-induced liver disease; Stimulation of gastrointestinal and systemic immunity; Prevention of cancer; Improvement in digestion; and Prevention and treatment of eczema and food allergies

Probiotics and Urinary Tract Infections

The normal microflora of the vagina and urethra in women is dominated by lactobacilli. These bacteria playa significant role in prevention of urinary tract infections (UTIs). Recent research has found that colonization of the urinary tract by E. coli-the leading cause of UTIs-is associated with low levels of vaginallactobacilli. Women who did not have these lactobacilli in their vaginal flora were 650% more likely to have vaginal E. coli colonization. A number of studies have also demonstrated the efficacy of some strains of lactobacilli in preventing UTIs. These studies included the use of oral supplements as well as the use of vaginal suppositories containing lactobacilli.

Many strains of lactobacilli have been shown to retard the growth of Candida albicans, the major yeast involved in vaginal yeast infections. Clinical studies have also shown that oral or vaginal insertion of lactobacilli can help clear up and prevent recurrent vaginal yeast infections as well as bacterial vaginosis.

It is especially important to supplement with a prebiotic during antibiotic use as antibiotics suppress the growth of vaginal lactobacilli and raise the pH of the vagina as well as increasing the growth of yeast, E. coli, and other unhealthy bacteria.

Probiotic Characteristics

The quality of probiotic supplements depends on two main factors: (l) the characteristics of the strains used in the supplement, and (2) adequate viability, so that sufficient numbers of bacteria are present and available to the body.

Viability at the point of consumption depends on a number of factors, such as proper manufacturing and the "hardiness" of the strain, as well as packaging and storage of the product at the correct temperature and humidity.

The Advantage to Multi-Probiotic Strain Formulas

Based on the fact that the use of different lactic species in a single formula more closely approximates the normal composition of intestinal flora, we should favor probiotic formulations composed of many strains. These complexes better reflect the natural flora composition and since probiotic properties are different from one strain to another, each will contribute specific inhibitive functions against pathogenic or putrefactive microorganisms.

Probiotic complexes are also more deserving of recommendation, since each human's intestinal flora has a unique bacteria community (very similar to fingerprints) and is personalized to each individual.

Therefore, each person will react differently to absorption of the same probiotic strain. For some individuals, L. acidophilus might be the most efficient strain while for others L. rhamnosus or L. casei might adapt more easily to their intestinal flora.

Probiotics are essential not only to maintain healthy intestinal flora but for overall good health. Probiotic supplements should be taken every day, on a full stomach. By regularly supplying the intestinal tract with beneficial bacteria, this will help maintain a well-balanced flora, reinforce the immune system and prevent harmful bacteria from colonizing the gut.

Michael T. Murray, N.D., is a graduate of Bastyr University in Seattle, WA, and the author or co-author of over 20 books, including How to Prevent and Treat Cancer with Natural Medicine. Dr. Murray is director of product development for Natural Factors Nutritional Products.

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