Probiotics: The “good” bacteria

Did you know you are an ecosystem? We humans are naturally full of bacteria. In fact, trillions of them! Mostly they are “good” bacteria that live in our intestines. They help us digest our food. With more than 500 species, they also crowd out the “bad” bacteria that cause infections.

These good bacteria are called “probiotics” (in Greek, “pro” means “for” or “in favor of” and “biotic” means “life”). They can be found naturally in fermented dairy foods, such as yogurt, kefir, and aged cheeses. Look for “live culture” on the label. They are also present in pickled vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kim chi.

Eating probiotics for health is quite popular in northern Europe, where people traditionally eat yogurt and cheeses. In the United States, interest in probiotics is growing, but the focus is more on supplements.

Researchers in the United States are just starting to explore the benefits of probiotics. At this point there is evidence that probiotics may help with

  • treating diarrhea;
  • digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome;
  • preventing vaginal and urinary tract infections;
  • boosting the immune system to help fight colds and flu.

Probiotics found naturally in food are generally considered safe for everyone. The jury is still out with supplements. Supplements zero in on specific strains of bacteria. Not enough is known about which strains are best for which conditions. Plus, dietary supplements are not held to the same standard of testing and quality control that prescription drugs are.

There are no known side effects from probiotics. However, there is theoretical concern for people with immune system problems (introducing a lot of bacteria to someone on immunosuppressants, for instance, may not be the wisest idea!).

Before you or your relative take a dose of a probiotic supplement, talk with the doctor or a registered dietitian.