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The Power of Probiotics

By Gary W. Elmer, PhD
Review by Irene Alleger
The Townsend Letter, December, 2007

All bugs are not bad. You would never guess this from the constant advertising of anti-bacterial products. Advertisers would have us believe that any bacteria left alive is a threat to our health. Ironically, the use of these products has now produced antibiotic-resistant bugs that are a threat to health. Most bacteria in the human body are beneficial. What happens, for instance, when we take antibiotic medicine to treat bacterial infections; we also kill the good bacteria in our guts that help to digest food, produce vitamins, and stimulate the immune system. This is where probiotics can replenish the good bacteria, keeping our systems in balance.

Although the public mostly is not aware of probiotics, there have been almost 1300 articles published on them since 1990, expanding our knowledge and use of these microorganisms. Dairy products, such as yogurt, have been known for centuries to have health benefits - this is because they contain lactic acid-producing bacteria (the good bacteria). Lactobacilli are the most widely used probiotic microorganisms in fermented dairy products. Many other lactic acid-producing bacteria with desirable probiotics properties are being studied today and are described in detail in The Power of Probiotics.

This new research is finding many other potentially beneficial uses for probiotics. What is known today is that probiotics can kill disease-killing bacteria, destroy toxins, boost antibodies, and form a barrier to disease-causing bacterial overgrowth. Because probiotics enhance intestinal health, they are especially useful in treating traveler's diarrhea and inflammatory bowel disease. Traveler's diarrhea is a common occurrence these days, especially in Third-World countries, and can be an unpleasant interruption to a vacation. The most effective strategy, of course, is to prevent exposure: "Boil it, cook it, peel it, or forget it." Probiotics are most useful for the prevention and treatment of various types of diarrhea.

Another important area of use for probiotics is with acute pediatric diarrhea. In developing countries, millions of children die every year from pediatric diarrhea. As most cases are due to viruses, there are not effective antibiotics for these infections. Probiotics are very effective for the treatment of this type of illness, and the cost is minimal (an important issue in poorer countries). Diarrhea is common among all children, because their gastrointestinal tracts are developing and maturing, and they often do not wash their hands. Antibiotics are useless against virus-caused illness, but your pediatrician may not know about probiotics. The Power of Probiotics can educate doctors about this safe, inexpensive, and very effective treatment for children's diarrhea. It addresses important clinical areas, and each chapter provides a summary of clinically relevant information, including standard treatments.

Another recent use for probiotics is in treating antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD) - one out of every five people who take antibiotics develops this type of diarrhea. Probiotics are the most effective way to reestablish the normal microbial flora disrupted by antibiotics and to restore gastrointestinal health. Naturopathic doctors recommend taking a probiotic any time one takes a course of antibiotics. Cases of AAD are becoming more frequent due to increased use of broad-spectrum antibiotics and to the increase in hospital outbreaks.

Inflammatory bowel disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and other digestive problems such as constipation are being studied for treatment with probiotics. The few studies done to date all show positive benefits, both in prevention and treatment. The authors - all experts in the field of probiotics - cite exciting new research on the use of probiotics with allergies and with autism. The microbial flora of infants with allergies has been shown to differ from that of non-allergic infants. Higher numbers of clostridia and staphylococci have been seen in infants with allergic dermatitis, whereas the healthy controls had higher numbers of bifidobacteria in their stools. Scientists theorize that if atopic dermatitis can be prevented in infancy, the risk of allergic rhinitis and asthma may be decreased in adulthood. This is based on the evidence that probiotic administration can favorably influence immune response, which makes probiotics an exciting new tool in non-pharmaceutical medicine.

The Power of Probiotics is written by researchers and is a great resource for practitioners and consumers. The format of using "Frequently Asked Questions" as a springboard for educating the reader about probiotics works well, and this book should be added to the library of all those interested in "natural" medicine.


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