Probiotics are bacteria that help repopulate the beneficial bacteria in the large intestine when it has been damaged through illness, antibiotic use, or poor diet. It has been said that they provide a temporary effect that lasts as long as the supplements are taken. But this effect is still important in that it can give our bodies time to regrow their own natural positive bacterial population.
The benefits of these bacteria are many. They have helped babies with colic, may prevent eczema in children, and help people of all ages with gastrointestinal diseases, including colitis and IBS. This article will discuss these gastric and immune benefits.
Colic is a problem many mothers face, with up to 28% of newborn babies crying for long periods, for no identifiable cause. Yet in a study conducted at the University of Turin, the probiotic L reuteri was found to lower the crying time of babies by 74%, to only 51 minutes a day. This was achieved after the babies taking 108 CFU of L. reuteri daily for 28 days. There were actually improvements seen after only 7 days, with crying time reduced by 21%. The other babies in the study received simethicone, which is an anti-gas medication. After 7 days, this group of babies only reduced their crying time by 10%, and after 28 days, by 26%. Probiotics were the clear winner here.
Eczema, also called atopic dermatitis, is a chronic skin problem that is on the rise in more affluent countries. Both children and adults can develop it, although it usually appears when people are very young. For this reason, researchers in Finland decided to study the effect of probiotics on children up to 4 years of age. The mothers were given probiotic supplements whilst they were still pregnant. When they were breastfeeding, either the mothers or babies took them. Significantly, these babies had a 40% lower chance of developing eczema by the time they were 4 years old.
Yet, it’s not only children who can reap the benefits of these friendly bacteria. People with ulcerative colitis, where the large intestine is inflamed, sore, and often bleeding, have been helped with probiotics also. There is anecdotal reports on many forums of the benefits of probiotics for colitis sufferers. However, the Canadian study I saw used very high concentrations of bacteria, in the order of 3,600 billion per day, for 6 weeks. Compare this with the average supplement, which at most will have around 5 billion per tablet. Still, it represents promising research.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is another gastrointestinal illness that is being studied in relation to the good bacteria in our intestines. Doctors and researchers are increasingly seeing a role for probiotic supplementation there, as they believe that certain problematic bacteria are implicated in the disease. However, despite some promising studies on individual bacterial strains, such as a non-pathogenic variety of E. coli, it is currently believed that no single strain will benefit all IBD sufferers. This is partly due to the fact that many different pathogenic bacteria may be involved, and also because our understanding of exactly what good bacteria should naturally be there is not complete.
Thus probiotic supplementation can be seen to have many uses, for people of all ages. No doubt more work will be done to unearth new friendly flora, that may allow more precise improvements particularly in relation to gastrointestinal disease. Despite the specialized nature of some studies, with very high doses that are expensive to replicate with regular shop supplies, probiotics have a place in child and adult health. And even for those without a serious illness, probiotics, in their many forms, provide serious benefits. The relationship of probiotics with the immune system is more complex, but can be understood with a greater awareness of how the various systems of our body support and mesh with each other.
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