Probiotics are live microorganisms (in most cases, bacteria) that are similar to beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut. They are also called “friendly bacteria” or “good bacteria.” Probiotics are available to consumers mainly in the form of dietary supplements and foods. They can be used as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
Experts have debated how to define probiotics. One widely used definition, developed by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is that probiotics are “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” (Microorganisms are tiny living organisms—such as bacteria, viruses, and yeasts—that can be seen only under a microscope.)
Probiotics are not the same thing as prebiotics—nondigestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial microorganisms already in people’s colons. When probiotics and prebiotics are mixed together, they form a synbiotic.
Probiotics are available in foods and dietary supplements (for example, capsules, tablets, and powders) and in some other forms as well. Examples of foods containing probiotics are yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso, tempeh, and some juices and soy beverages. In probiotic foods and supplements, the bacteria may have been present originally or added during preparation.
Most probiotics are bacteria similar to those naturally found in people’s guts, especially in those of breastfed infants (who have natural protection against many diseases). Most often, the bacteria come from two groups, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. Within each group, there are different species (for example, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidus), and within each species, different strains (or varieties). A few common probiotics, such as Saccharomyces boulardii, are yeasts, which are different from bacteria.
Some probiotic foods date back to ancient times, such as fermented foods and cultured milk products. Interest in probiotics in general has been growing; Americans’ spending on probiotic supplements, for example, nearly tripled from 1994 to 2003.
There are several reasons that people are interested in probiotics for health purposes.
First, the world is full of microorganisms (including bacteria), and so are people’s bodies—in and on the skin, in the gut, and in other orifices. Friendly bacteria are vital to proper development of the immune system, to protection against microorganisms that could cause disease, and to the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients. Each person’s mix of bacteria varies. Interactions between a person and the microorganisms in his body, and among the microorganisms themselves, can be crucial to the person’s health and well-being.
This bacterial “balancing act” can be thrown off in two major ways:
Another part of the interest in probiotics stems from the fact there are cells in the digestive tract connected with the immune system. One theory is that if you alter the microorganisms in a person’s intestinal tract (as by introducing probiotic bacteria), you can affect the immune system’s defenses.