In our culture, “bacteria” might as well be a four-letter word. These microorganisms have unfairly become synonymous with filth and sickness.
Sure, some bacteria are harmful. But, nearly 100 trillion “good” bacteria play a critical (and absolutely healthy) role in the digestive system. Most of these microorganisms, also known as gut flora, live in the large intestine. They’re constantly working to kill off the “bad” bacteria, facilitate the digestion of food and vitamins, and boost the immune system.
Gut flora, also called intestinal flora, are happy to go about their business in the intestines unless something goes awry. Taking antibiotics is one of the most common flora-altering actions. While these medications work on killing the harmful, sickness-causing bacteria in the body, they also kill off the “good” bacteria. For some individuals, this results in abdominal bloating and diarrhea.
Many individuals with gastrointestinal diseases (Crohn’s Disease), ulcerative colitis, chronic idiopathic constipation) often have unbalanced gut flora and experience a host of unpleasant digestion problems. Stress, diet, and the environment can also play a role in the delicate balance of gut flora.
What Are Probiotics?
For many years, medical professionals have been researching ways to restore the proper balance of “good” bacteria in the gut. An increasingly popular way to do this is by taking probiotic supplements. These pills contain live microorganisms (the “good” bacteria) that are extremely similar to human gut flora. These healthy bacteria can also be supplemented into a person’s diet through yogurt and other fermented foods.
Do Probiotics Work?
Current scientific research shows promising results for probiotics. Some studies have shown that taking probiotics lessens the duration of diarrhea by one or more days. These results have been found in both children and adults. Other research supports the use of probiotics in treating diarrhea caused by antibiotics, bowel diseases, stomach ulcers, and gastrointestinal issues in infants.
Since probiotics mirror human gut flora so closely, they are generally considered to be safe. However, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve of any health claims regarding probiotics or regulate the probiotic marketplace. The usefulness (and truthfulness) of probiotic supplements varies widely.
If you think that probiotics may be beneficial to your health, be sure to discuss it with your doctor and thoroughly research supplement options. This is especially relevant if you have a compromised immune system or are considering giving probiotics to children. In rare cases, these types of supplements can cause blood infections (sepsis).
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