Probiotics, which are also known as friendly bacteria or good bacteria, can be defined as living microorganisms that are beneficial to the health of their host. In fact, the etymology of probiotics is literally, “pro health”. The idea that probiotics could be used to restore a healthy gut microbiome originated in the early 1900s. First in 1906, the French pediatrician Henry Tissier realized that if specific bacteria were administered to patients with diarrhea, they could help create a healthy gut flora. Gut flora are the microscopic organisms living in the intestinal systems. Then again in 1907 the Russian scientist Eli Metchnikoff suggested that, “the dependence of the intestinal microbes makes it possible to adapt measures to modify the flora in our bodies and to replace harmful microbes with useful microbes.”
Based on these original ideas it is now widely accepted that probiotics can be useful for many areas of health. Probiotics can support healthy immune, digestive, and respiratory systems. They can also help high risk groups such as children avoid infectious disease. However, there is more decisive research confirming the idea that probiotics are more successful in the prevention of health issues, than in treating them once they start. Probiotics are found naturally in foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, kim chi (fermented cabbage), and cultured milk. However, they are also available in nutritional supplements and commercial products.
In order for probiotics to work, or restore a healthy gut microbiome several things must be true. The probiotics microorganisms have to be able to survive the passage through the digestive tract, they also must people able to inhabit the gut or grow in the presence of bile. Two commonly used types of probiotics are lactobacillus and bifodobacterium. Probiotics work in several different ways.
They prevent damage bacteria spreading in the body, can produce vitamins and enzymes, and change the acidic environment. Overall, the goal of probiotics is to restore the microbiome to its natural and healthy state, which could have been altered by dietary or environmental influences such as the use of excessive antibiotics. It is important to note that findings on the success of probiotics are still in the process and many other factors could be at play such as how long will the new bacteria survive, and if the effects are possibly from the healthy food itself.
Live probiotic cultures are available in fermented dairy products and probiotic fortified foods. However, tablets, capsules, powders, and sachets containing the bacteria in freeze-dried form are also available. Probiotics taken orally can be destroyed by the acidic conditions of the stomach. A number of micro-encapsulation techniques are being developed to address this problem.
Probiotics are considered generally safe, but may cause bacteria-host interactions and unwanted side effects in rare cases.