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Probiotics: The Good Bacteria Your Digestive System Needs

By John Walker, MD 

Probiotics are a class of beneficial bacteria that help support good health. In humans, there are thousands upon thousands of strains and billions of bacteria that may inhabit the intestinal tract. Often times, an imbalance between beneficial "good bacteria" and pathogenic, or harmful, "bad bacteria" can mean the difference between health and disease. Probiotics exert their benefits through a variety of mechanisms, including modulating the immune response, preventing attachment and colonization of pathogenic bacteria, and possibly providing an "antibiotic" effect against harmful bacteria.

Probiotics are emerging as an important adjunct to good health, and as important supplements for many health concerns. It has long been held that certain strains of probiotics may reduce incidence of diarrhea or lessen the severity of diarrheal illness of a variety of causes. One of the most common is antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Numerous studies support the use of probiotics for this reason. I routinely recommend that all my patients who use antibiotics also take probiotics to help restore normal intestinal flora balance.

Newer research has indicated that these helpful bacterial strains may also be important for patients with ulcers. Peptic ulcers, which can cause pain, bleeding and even perforation (rupture) of the intestine, are commonly caused by two things: use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin and aspirin-like medicines such as Alleve, Motrin, Ibuprofen and Cox-2, and others. They're also caused by a bacterial infection called Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori.

This bacterium resides in the stomach, buried beneath the mucus layer that protects the stomach from acid, but also protects the H. pylori from being damaged and killed by acid normally present in the stomach. This bacterium is known to cause gastritis, and has also been implicated in the development of two types of gastric cancer: lymphoma and adenocarcinoma.

Emerging data suggests that probiotics may help destroy H. pylori. In a study out of Taiwan, patients were treated with standard antibiotic therapy and compared to a group receiving standard antibiotic therapy plus the probiotic bacteria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. In the probiotic group, there was a significantly higher eradication rate. In other words, the probiotic helped the antibiotics clear the infection in more people. This is very important information, since the resistance of H. pylori to antibiotics is increasing, making it harder to treat.

A recent review from the journal Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics discussed the role of probiotics in destroying H. pylori1. This paper suggests that probiotic strains may secrete organic acids which can directly kill H. pylori that they may help stabilize the gastric mucus barrier and they may help lower the number of H. pylori bacteria present in individuals who are colonized. The authors suggest that Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria may be important nutritional supplements for patients with H. pylori.

Probiotics also help promote healthy immunity and digestion.
While we're on the subject of intestinal health, I want to make special mention of the importance of fiber in your daily diet. Fiber has been well-documented to have numerous health benefits. When taken before a meal, it can produce a feeling of fullness, and help reduce the amount of food consumed. Certain types of fiber, such as oat bran, promote healthy cholesterol levels. Fiber is essential for patients suffering from several gastrointestinal disturbances, such as chronic constipation and irritable bowel syndrome. It may even help reduce risk of colon cancer. Additionally, Friendly Fiber contains a "pre-biotic", fructooligosaccharide (FOS). Studies indicate 1 gram (1,000 mg) per day of FOS dramatically increases colonies of friendly bacteria by several hundred percent after just 30 days. When combined with probiotics, FOS is a powerful nutrient to support a healthy GI tract.

1. Gotteland M, Brunser O, Cruchet S. Systematic review: are probiotics useful in controlling gastric colonization by Helicobacter pylori? Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2006 Apr 15;23(8):1077-86.

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