What are Probiotics?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

We share a complicated relationship with bacteria. It exists on our skin, in our intestinal tract, urinary tract, among other places. Too much bacteria can make us very ill, but too little can also make us more vulnerable to illness. Probiotics, which are bacteria naturally occurring in, or added to food, can actually be of some benefit when consumed.

Yogurt with live cultures can be considered a probiotic food.
Yogurt with live cultures can be considered a probiotic food.

Though most natural food stores will claim a number of beneficial effects of eating probiotics, only a few of these effects have been proven clinically. Most of the beneficial effects of these bacteria relate to those who are taking antibiotics. Antibiotics are fantastic for killing off germs that are making us sick. But they do not discriminate between “bad” germs, and the “good germs” like those contained in probiotics.

Yogurt is considered a probiotic food.
Yogurt is considered a probiotic food.

As a result, the delicate balance of “good” bacteria in our bodies can be disturbed. Antibiotic use has been indicated in causing yeast infections, jock itch, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and urinary tract infections. One of the theories behind probiotics is that taking them during antibiotic treatment may maintain a healthy balance in these areas of our body by replacing "good" bacteria.

Probiotics can be included in powdered drink mixes.
Probiotics can be included in powdered drink mixes.

Most commonly people think of yogurt as a probiotic food. Yogurt has been shown to keep the intestinal tract, and the vaginal area from suffering a loss of healthy bacteria. Yogurt is probiotic when it contains lactobacillus, or other bacteria. Usually yogurt will have a label reading, “contains live cultures.” Many doctors now recommend consuming foods like yogurt during a course of antibiotics to prevent yeast infection or long-term IBS. Since bacteria has also been indicated in yeast infections occurring in the groin, like jock itch, men are also encouraged to eat yogurt with probiotics.

Another probiotics favorite is kefir, a drink made with cultures that is usually flavored with fruit. What is not generally probiotic, however, is frozen yogurt. So, as good as this may taste, a scoop of frozen vanilla yogurt will not prevent or help heal a yeast infection. These beneficial bacteria can be easily obtained in regular yogurt, kefir, cottage cheeses, preserved vegetables and powdered drink mixes. Be sure to look on the label for the presence of probiotics.

When we take these foods, we are actually adding bacteria back to our system. Not all bacteria are considered safe to digest, however. Our intestines contain bacteria that can be intensely harmful, like E. Coli, Strep and Staph. Good hygiene practices when using the restroom is essential to prevent life-threatening infections. Group B Strep, which can be present on skin cells, in the anus and the vagina, can affect newborns exposed to the bacteria when traveling through the birth canal. Normal bacteria on skin may also make one more vulnerable to infections from cuts or burns.

Most commercial preparations include only healthy probiotics that will not harm us. But claims about additional benefits of of the bacteria are not clinically tested. Common unproven claims say the compounds slow aging, are anti-oxidants or anti-carcinogenic, cure headaches, restore energy, and may regulate mood for those with bipolar or depression.

Further clinical studies need to be undertaken to prove the veracity of these other claims. For now, however, research suggests ingesting these compounds during and after taking antibiotics may be helpful. If one is prone to frequent yeast infections or jock itch, probiotics may also help reduce incidence of these conditions. Those suffering from IBS may find the compounds in yogurt particularly helpful as well.

Probiotics can help maintain healthy amounts of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract.
Probiotics can help maintain healthy amounts of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon170854

What are some probiotics for patients who are on ventilators?

anon157038

Can i simply ask "what is a list of probiotic foods"; and get a list of probiotic foods? Thank you, Albert

anon49405

should you drink a probiotic everyday?

zogg118

are probiotics as good an antioxidant as alpha lipoic acid?

anon1899

Do probiotics help Lupus and Fibromyalgia? If so how?

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