An Overview of Probiotics and How They Work

What Are Probiotics and How Do they Work?

In the simplest of terms and the most basic of definitions the word “probiotics” means “for life.” It is a combination of the Latin terms “pro” and “bio” and the above is exactly what those Latin terms mean. The early researchers in this field were drawn by evidence indicating that probiotics could improve longevity, boost digestive functionality and strengthen the immune system. And so the term “probiotics” seemed very appropriate as they were clearly “for life.”

Growing Interest in the Use of Probiotics

More and more Americans, as well as in many countries abroad, are adopting the use of probiotics in their lives for a healthier lifestyle.

Take a look at this graph pulled from Google Trends that clearly demonstrates the growth of interest, taken from web searches, in the topic of probiotics.

Note: the graph does not depict search volume but is a graph of interest in a subject.

The graph shows an interest level that hits the highest ranges possible. This level of interest was achieved over the past year and is primarily drawn from US users. It validates the high level of interest in the use of probiotics for a variety of health improving applications.

So what are probiotics and what do they do?

First and foremost, probiotics are live organisms. They are bacteria that are either found naturally in our bodies or are very similar to such naturally occurring bacteria.

Now, while we have all be trained to think of bacteria as “bad” this simply is not true. Without bacteria we would not survive, in fact the complex ecology of bacteria and microorganisms that exist in our bodies is what makes life possible.

Here’s an astounding fact: The amount of microorganism and bacteria cells in the body of an average adult exists in a ratio of 10 to 1! That is a rough estimate but it means that for every human cell there roughly 10 cells of bacteria and microorganisms. (The image on the left give a graphic representation of the number of human cells to microorganisms/bacteria cells in the body)

One of the largest concentrations of these microorganisms is to be found in the intestinal tract, the gut. As an entry point to the intestines and the gut it is not surprising that the mouth also contains a very diverse, and unique, ecology of microorganisms. It is important to note, however, that the bacteria to be found in the gut and that which is found in the mouth are not identical and hence the need for a specific formulation of oral probiotics.

These bacteria and microorganisms carry on a highly complex and diverse set of functions and activities. And while many have been the subject of numerous scientific studies and clinical tests there is still much that remains to be known about this world within us. However the health inducing properties of probiotics have been well demonstrated over the years.

The relationship between beneficial bacteria (probiotics) and improved health

One idea that has seen significant support, in both clinical studies and popular usage, is the relationship between beneficial bacteria and improved health.

Particularly strong has been the studies and results from the use of probiotics to support better intestinal health, digestion and immune system support. Whether though the use of yogurts, probiotic supplements or even “prebiotics” many individuals will swear by the positive benefits of the regular use of these products.

There are several broad zones of activity where researchers see the workings of probiotics to be effective:

  • By strengthening and improving the immune system, thus bringing collateral benefit to the entire system
  • By bringing balance to the internal microorganism ecology. Overgrowth of certain “bad” bacteria is often associated with conditions such as ulcers, gum disease and so forth.
  • The use of probiotics in fighting infections and diseases. This is a very exciting, developing field of health based upon the property of probiotics to produce anti-microbial agents and substances that can fight harmful and pathogenic bacteria and germs.

Additionally there has been quite a bit of work related to the use of probiotics to bolster and improve oral health. There is growing evidence and support for improved gum health, tooth strength, fewer ear/throat/nose infections and definitely battling chronic bad breath. Of particular interest to families is the evidence of a significant reduction in tooth caries when oral probiotics were used in test groups of children.

And, with no known harmful side effects and strong support for positive benefits, it certainly makes sense to boost the oral health of your family and yourself with oral probiotics.

Where did the study of probiotics get its start?

While humans have been eating yogurt and other fermented products for ages, the idea of using probiotics specifically for health benefits is created to a Russian biologist and Nobel prize winner, Elie Metchnikoff. Elie was best known for his inspired research on the human immune system. In his studies he investigated the relationship between certain stomach bacteria with longevity and good health. His work was continued by a Japanese scientist, Minoru Shirota, who carried on to investigate how probiotic bacteria improved intestinal strength and health. In many ways we have these two to thank for the worldwide acceptance of kefirs and yogurts as a healthy addition to our diets.

Research continues across the world into the various benefits of probiotics for different ailments. From Crohn’s disease to “Leaky Gut Syndrome” to tooth decay and even diarrhea there can be multiple potential health benefits available from the use of probiotics.