Probiotics are “good bacteria” which inhabit healthy humans in a similar way to humans inhabiting the Earth. On our skin, in all our orifices (mouth, nose etc) and especially in our gut there are hundreds of probiotics living out their lives and helping us to stay healthy. Without them our health starts to break down, so it’s true to say that we have a symbiotic relationship.
Antibiotics are indiscriminate. They kill all bacteria (except resistant strains) including probiotics, so after finishing a course of antibiotics it’s wise to replenish the ones in your gut, which are essential for digestion and many other functions we’re only just beginning to understand. For example, it’s recently been discovered that mental health is linked to the flora in the gut – including probiotics.
Probiotics are often recommended for improving digestion and normalising bowel health, reducing intestinal irritation, improving lactose tolerance and for the treatment of halitosis and bacterial vaginosis.
They can be obtained from foods such as kefir, kimchi, kombucha, miso, sauerkraut, tempeh and yogurt. There are also various supplements available.
Although often present in commercial yogurt, the quantities found are generally very low unless it’s labelled specifically as “live acidophilus yogurt”. Another good way to get sufficient acidophilus for positive health benefits is to add lots of fermented vegetables to your diet or you may prefer to take an over the counter supplement.
Many practitioners recommend taking “prebiotics” along with probiotics. Some probiotic supplements include prebiotics in their formulation. Prebiotics is the medical name for soluble fibre. The most well known of these are fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin. They are found in asparagus, bananas, barley, beans, garlic, honey, onions, tomatoes, wheat and many other foods, also in breast milk.
There are many different probiotics which are helpful specifically for the gut, but the majority are Lactobacillus species. The most well known is Lactobacillus acidophilus, considered by many to be the best probiotic for human health, and in fact many of the others are now regarded as varieties of L. acidophilus (sometimes called just acidophilus), even though they are called by different names.
Lactobacillus acidophilus was discovered in the early years of the 20th century by a pediatrician called Dr Ernst Moro, who also discovered the pathogen E. coli (Escherichia coli).
Acidophilus is naturally found in the intestines, mouth and the female genitals. In the gut it produces lactase (the enzyme required for the digestion of lactose in milk products) and vitamin K. It also produces hydrogen peroxide, lactic acid and the natural antibiotics acidophilin, acidolin and lactocidin, so it is helpful for suppressing pathogens, and it also aids absorption of vitamins and minerals. It’s been found to boost the immune system, in particular against E. coli.
The strength of probiotic supplements is usually expressed in colony forming units (CFUs). Adults should take 1-2 billion CFUs a day unless advised to take more (up to 15 billion CFUs) by their doctor. Do not use oral supplements for vaginal use; there are vaginal probiotic suppositories designed for this purpose.
Use specific childrens’ probiotic products for kids, and follow the dosage instructions on the label.
Research has shown that L. acidophilus is beneficial for:
- preventing candidiasis (Candida, yeast infection, thrush)
- as a daily dose to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- to suppress growth of Helicobacter pylori (formerly called Campylobacter pylori) – gastroduodenal disease, peptic ulcers
- to reduce fecal enzymes in the colon which could otherwise convert procarcinogens to carcinogens
- to reduce symptoms of antibiotic-induced diarrhea and diarrhea caused by rotavirus
- to help prevent leaky gut syndrome
- may lower blood cholesterol
- as a topical treatment for vaginal thrush (yeast infection)
- as a topical treatment for bacterial vaginosis (BV) (some doctors may prescribe oral probiotics for this purpose)
Contra-indications and warnings
Lactobacillus acidophilus is generally regarded as safe. However, it should be avoided for children with short-bowel syndrome.
Some people should take medical advice before supplementing with acidophilus, including:
- Patients with abnormal heart valves
- Newborns and infants (0 to 1 year)
- People with weakened immune systems (including those on chemotherapy or taking immunosuppressants)
- Patients taking sulfasalazine, azathioprine (Imuran), basiliximab (Simulect), cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune), daclizumab (Zenapax), muromonab-CD3 (OKT3, Orthoclone OKT3), mycophenolate (CellCept), tacrolimus (FK506, Prograf), sirolimus (Rapamune), prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone) and corticosteroids (glucocorticoids)
If you take more than 1 to 2 billion CFUs of L. acidophilus daily you may suffer from wind/gas, upset stomach and/or diarrhea. Reduce the dosage if affected.
If you decide to take L. acidophilus in the form of supplements you should store them in the refrigerator unless the label says there’s no need.