Natural Stomach Care: The Many Benefits of Probiotics
by Anil Minocha, M.D.

When most people think of bacteria in the body, the first thing that comes to mind is usually infection and the need for antibiotics to get rid of them. But there are billions of bacteria in your digestive system, both good and bad, all the time and sometimes we even need to supplement with the good bacteria in order to prevent the bad bacteria from doing damage.

Friendly bacteria manufacture nutrients, get rid of toxins, safeguard against putrefaction in the digestive tract, crowd out and destroy "bad" bacteria, improve digestive processes and enhance our body's immune defenses. A shift in the balance of power among the intestinal bacteria can have major consequences on your health. Widespread use of antibiotics has perhaps been the biggest factor responsible for upsetting the ecological balance in the gut. Probiotics are the organisms that protect and enhance our life. They support the life of friendly bacteria. Some common supplemental probiotics include the yeast Saccharomyces and the bacterias Lactobacillus, Streptococcus and Bifidobacterium. L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus are essential organisms in any commercially available yogurt, although many additional probiotics may be contained in yogurts sold in health food stores.

Prebiotics are foods that digested by bacterial enzymes to produce nutrients for the colonic health. Common examples of prebiotics include fiber, especially oat and barley. Lactobacillus GG (LGG) produces a bactericidal substance which is active against several kinds of bacteria, including E. coli and Salmonella. Several scientific studies have documented the beneficial role of LGG in preventing in preventing intestinal problems. One study demonstrated that LGG results in a 47% reduction in traveler's diarrhea among subjects visiting developing countries.

Administration of probiotics has also been shown to prevent spread of diarrhea among kids in day care. Widespread use of Lactobacillus has been shown to prevent diarrhea among malnourished children in developing nations. Several scientific studies have documented the beneficial effect of probiotics in illnesses like food allergies, antibiotic associated diarrhea, infantile diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer.

In general, probiotics are more helpful in viral than in bacterial diarrhea suggesting immune enhancement as the mechanism of their action. Probiotics exert their healing properties beyond gut too. They have been shown to decrease infectious complications in severe pancreatitis. Oral administration of probiotics is helpful in bacterial vaginosis. Some probiotics inhibit carcinogenesis in animals and may be valuable against cancer. Studies also suggest that they help lower blood cholesterol.

When buying yogurt or another probiotic product, relying on the term "live" bacteria or cultures is not sufficient. Make sure some of the bacteria that I mentioned earlier are present and check the number of bacteria per gram or capsule, as the case may be. Some experts recommend that yogurt should contain at least 3-5 billion live bacteria per gram in order exert its probiotic effects. If there are not sufficient bacteria present, enough of them may not survive the digestive process in order to make a difference. The quantity of live bacteria in most popular brands of yogurt is one hundred to a few hundred million per gram but nowhere close to 3-5 billion needed to achieve benefit as a probiotic.

Are probiotic bacteria safe for use as dietary supplements or to treat disease? The answer is yes. Probiotics have been used in various cultures and lack of evidence of their migration from the gut to the blood, attests to their safety. The beneficial effects of probiotics in HIV patients supports their usefulness even among immune suppressed patients. However, one should not use an organism as a probiotic without scientific evidence that it is indeed safe and effective. Purchase a probiotic product that has been proven to be beneficial in clinical studies. Not all probiotics are effective against every disease. In fact, even different strains of a probiotic like Lactobacillus confer different healing properties.

It's possible that certain combinations of probiotics may be superior to using just one strain. For example, probiotic VSL#3 has been documented to be beneficial in several digestive disorders. It contains four strains of Lactobacillus, three strains of Bifidobacterium, one strain of Streptococcus salivarius. Each dose pack contains 450 billion live bacteria.

Anil Minocha MD is author of the new book, "Natural Stomach Care" (Avery Penguin Putnam; 2003; $15.95). He is a practicing gastroenterologist and currently serves as Director of Digestive Diseases at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. For more info, please visit: