Probiotics: Friendly Bacteria that No One Can Live Without
As we are in the midst of the back-to-school season with the winter months ahead, now is a good time to start thinking about what we can do to keep healthy as the weather gets colder. People will start to spend more time indoors, becoming more susceptible to colds and flu. Probiotics, sometimes called friendly bacteria, might just be the vital component of a healthy lifestyle that helps ward off these ailments.
For centuries, lactic acid bacteria have been used in the preservation of food for human consumption. Indeed, fermented milk, vegetables, and meat products have historically constituted a vital component of the human diet for many throughout the world. The main objective of fermenting foods has been to preserve these precious substances which otherwise would deteriorate rapidly under ambient temperatures, long before the age of refrigeration. Yogurt is the most well known of these foods, being the result of the fermentation of milk by lactic acid bacteria.
Yogurt is one of the oldest and most popular cultured dairy products worldwide. Anecdotal health claims from regular consumption of cultured dairy products circulated for centuries without scientific proof. Then, in 1908 Russian professor Elie Metchnikoff, the Nobel Prize recipient who discovered phagocytes (white blood cells), provided scientific evidence that the probiotic microorganisms may be responsible for these health claims. Metchnikoff was enchanted by the fact that so many people in Bulgarian villages lived beyond 100 years, and he wanted to know why. The longevity of the Bulgarians, he found, could be attributed to their regular consumption of large quantities of yogurt fermented with lactic acid-producing bacteria, which inhibited pathogens and detoxified their system.
But what exactly are these so-called friendly bacteria? The word probiotic is derived from the Latin preposition pro, meaning for, and the Greek word for life, or bios. According to the World Health Organization of the United Nations, probiotics are “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” Most of the bacteria called probiotics belong to two groups of lactic-acid producing bacteria (LAB), lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacterium longum are some of the strains of probiotic bacteria that have been highly researched and are used in food and food supplements today.
Didn’t our mothers tell us that germs are bad for us? Generations of us have grown up believing that all bacteria are bad, and entire industries have been built on the eradication of bacteria from our food, water, and environment. Well, mom wasn’t entirely wrong; there are lots of pathogenic bacteria that can potentially cause us harm. But there are many species of bacteria that are not only harmless, but actually essential for maintaining our good health and possibly prolonging our lives. Unfortunately, most of us no longer get the probiotic bacteria we need in our food supply, and we do things that discourage the proliferation of the good bacteria in our bodies. We eat highly processed over-cooked foods, drink purified and sterilized water, and take lots of over-the-counter and prescription medications, all of which can have a detrimental effect on probiotic bacteria.
A major cause of the deficiency of probiotic bacteria in our bodies is the use and over-use of antibiotics. It is important to realize that antibiotics, which can be very effective in the treatment of bacterial illnesses and infections, also kill friendly bacteria. Sometimes antibiotics are prescribed if there is a suspicion of infection, and this can lead to the over-use of antibiotics. In addition, antibiotics are also added to the feed of animals raised for food, so we are often consuming antibiotics without even realizing it.
Each and every person alive naturally has trillions of bacteria in his or her intestines. In fact, there are more bacteria on and in us than there are human cells that make up our body! These bacteria fall into three groups:
1) bacteria that are definitely bad for us, called pathogenic bacteria,
2) bacteria that don’t seem to have any discernible purpose for being in us, and
3) bacteria that have been shown to have a positive or health-giving effect on us.
This third group contains the probiotic bacteria. Most of the probiotic bacteria we have live in our intestines, or gut. Pathogenic bacteria are always there too, but because they are kept in check by the probiotic bacteria, they don’t have a chance to multiply in great numbers and take over. Under favorable, healthy conditions the probiotics are present in large numbers, but in an unhealthy or diseased situation, the pathogenic organisms dominate.
Friendly bacteria do not just take up residence in the gut and do nothing in return. They perform many important functions in the body, such as helping us to digest food by producing enzymes like lactase, producing B vitamins and folic acid, and preventing the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria. They live in symbiosis with our bodies. As long as we provide the bacteria with a healthy food supply and as long as they stay healthy, these bacteria perform important services in return. It is important to know that not all these probiotic bacteria take up residence in our gut permanently. While some species may remain permanently in the gut, many species are transient bacteria, meaning that after they are ingested, they stay in us for awhile, doing the good that they do, and they either die off or pass through us. Some of these transient bacteria stay for as little as a few days, while others can persist for weeks. It depends on the particular strain and on the physiology of the individual person.
In fact, the various strains of bacteria and their numbers present in the human gut vary quite widely from person to person, and are highly individualized. It is said that the gut microbiology of an individual is almost like a fingerprint; being unique to that person in most cases. Two people living in the same household, eating the same food, and living a similar lifestyle might have very different gut microflora composition. This can help explain why one person might succumb to a mild bout of food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea while another person eating the same food or drinking the same water isn’t affected.
Lactobacillus acidophilus, commonly called just acidophilus, was one of the first of these kinds of bacteria to be studied for its health- giving benefits. At the University of Nebraska, research on Lactobacillus acidophilus was started as early as 1925, then in 1959 Dr. Khem Shahani isolated and started studying a particular strain of L. acidophilus that was hardier and faster-growing than any of the others he had studied. It also had certain properties that Shahani found made it especially beneficial. He called this strain “DDS-1” for the Department of Dairy Science number 1 strain. Shahani has often been called the “Probiotic Pioneer,” and his research on the DDS-1 strain laid the foundation for much modern research on probiotic bacteria. Shahani also founded Nebraska Cultures, Inc., to commercially produce probiotic bacteria as raw materials to be used in functional foods and food supplements.
Retail probiotic products vary drastically. Some products might not have sufficient numbers of live bacteria in them to make them effective. Also, some products might not be well cared-for, and the number of live bacteria on the label might not be correct. It is important for consumers to look for strains of bacteria that have been researched and have a proven track record of stability and efficacy.
The bottom line? You might benefit from taking a good quality probiotic supplement! With the cold and flu season fast approaching, we’re all going to need all the help we can get to keep from getting sick. Maintaining the probiotic bacteria in your body is one way you have of helping make sure you stay healthy this year, and for many years to come.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Shahani serves as the Director of Operations at Nebraska Cultures, Inc. He oversees all aspects of manufacturing, new product development, customer service and marketing, as well as coordinates all scientific resources and activities for the company.
Michael obtained his B.M. from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, M.A. from the University of California at Davis and D.M.A. from the University of Hartford, and worked for his father in business development for several years prior to formally joining Nebraska Cultures, Inc. full time in 1996. He is currently an Executive Committee Member of the International Probiotics Association Board of Directors.