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Trisha NagarPrateeksha (Trisha) Nagar is the Web Content Manager at AAPS.

“All diseases begin in the gut.” Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, cautioned us with this statement more than two thousand years ago. Current and ongoing medical research is now revealing how true that statement really may be. While bacteria have a notorious reputation of causing disease, a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that many illnesses can be treated and even prevented with foods containing certain strains of healthy bacteria called probiotics (from pro biota or “for life”).

It is estimated that a healthy human bowel is home to 100 trillion microorganisms that represent several hundred species. The microbiome in the human intestinal tract influences the overall health of an individual. Gut microflora control the number of pathogens or harmful microorganisms, help in digesting food and absorbing nutrients, and influence immune function. A new study published in the Journal of Genome Biology shows that the composition of gut bacteria and in turn, the development of immune systems in infants is determined by whether they are fed breast milk or formula. Babies that are fed only breast milk as opposed to only formula have more diversity in their gut bacteria and stronger immune systems. Studies have also found that probiotics are known to inhibit allergies and prevent vaginal infections. The most common strains of probiotic bacteria are: lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, and saccharomyces boulardii.

A recent troubling matter in public heath is that most of our illnesses are treated with an abundance of antibiotics. Apart from poor dietary habits that are insufficient in probiotics, antibiotics are known to wipe out the microflora in the gut microbiome. In his article published in Nature in 2011, Dr. Martin Blaser of New York University’s Langone Medical Center highlights the potentially dangerous long-term consequences on the intestinal microbiome that arise from the rampant use of antibiotics.

Antibiotics upset the delicate balance of the intestinal terrain and cause large colonies of yeasts and other pathogens to grow unchecked. Yeast overgrowth triggers a person to binge on foods rich in carbohydrates and gain weight, and in some cases, causes permeable intestinal walls, otherwise known as “leaky gut syndrome.” An overgrowth of the pathogen Clostridium difficile, or C. diff, in the gut is known to cause a life-threatening disease called Antibiotic-associated diarrhea. C. diff infection can be treated using the fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) procedure, which involves transplanting fecal bacteria from a healthy individual into a recipient to restore healthy gut microbiota. FMT is delivered by enema but new study findings presented at IDWeek 2013 suggested that delivery of fecal bacteria in an oral pill form is an effective and viable option in treating recurrent C. diff infections.

In many parts of the world, such as Northern Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, probiotics are traditionally consumed in fermented foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, cheese, miso, kimchi, tempeh, yoghurt, kefir, and Kombucha tea. In the United States, enthusiasm for many of these foods and an interest in taking probiotics in supplementary form is on the rise. The FDA does not currently regulate probiotics since they fall into the category of food and supplements. When choosing a probiotic supplement, make sure that the product mentions the name of the precise probiotic it contains along with the number of live organisms a single dose provides.

For more information and research news on probiotics, click here.

What could be the safety issues associated with strain-specific probiotics in preventing chronic disease?