Bacteria to the Rescue 'Friendly' Bacteria Can Help Gastrointestinal Health

By Stevens, Susan | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), November 8, 2004 | Go to article overview

Bacteria to the Rescue 'Friendly' Bacteria Can Help Gastrointestinal Health


Stevens, Susan, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Susan Stevens Daily Herald Health Writer

Not all bacteria are bad guys.

Some of the trillions of bacteria living in our guts keep pathogens at bay. Others break down molecules for digestion. Some boost our immune systems.

In the best of conditions, these so-called "friendly" bacteria coexist peacefully in the digestive tract in a symbiotic relationship with their host. When something goes wrong - an infection, a virus, even some antibiotics - the natural flora go AWOL, and we end up in misery.

Enter probiotics, a word that means "for life." Scientists are learning that probiotics, taken as supplements, can treat a host of disorders by restoring those beneficial bacteria.

Probiotics have been used successfully to treat children's diarrhea for decades. Now doctors are seeing an explosion of interest in similar treatments for adults. In the past five years, researchers have published hundreds of studies examining probiotics' effectiveness.

"It's no longer a snake oil or some alternative treatment," said Gregor Reid, a microbiologist at the University of Western Ontario in Canada and a prominent researcher in the field. "There is growing, exciting science in probiotics."

Several factors are driving this interest, according to Reid. The public is clamoring for more natural cures and is increasingly wary of the dangers of over-reliance on antibiotics.

This demand is supported by new science that suggests probiotics can alleviate gastrointestinal upsets and other ailments.

Some strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium - the heavyweights among our friendly microorganisms - have been shown in some clinical studies to alleviate symptoms of inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.

In a study of 40 patients who had surgery for ulcerative colitis, those taking high doses of a probiotic called VSL-3 had a lower chance of relapse than patients in a control group. Only three patients on probiotic therapy saw their symptoms return, compared to everyone taking the placebo.

A study in Finland found that allergy-prone mothers who swallowed capsules of benign bacteria during pregnancy were less likely to have children suffering from eczema. Only 23 percent of the children exposed to the Lactobacillus GG bacteria developed skin allergies, compared to 46 percent of the control group.

The effect of the benign bacteria remained four years later.

This and other research supports the "dirt hypothesis" that suggests our immune systems form around early exposures to bacteria.

At birth, the human gastrointestinal tract is sterile. The organisms that colonize first tend to dominate the system. For much of human history, babies got their first gulp of bacteria - usually Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria - from their mother's birth canals and breast milk.

Babies born in the hospital or via C-section are exposed to different bacteria, such as Streptococci and Clostridia. With the wrong programming, the immune system is more prone to overreaction.

Likewise, women with autoimmune diseases SUCH AS might not have the "right" bacteria, which could affect their children, according to the researchers in the Finnish study.

Help for diarrhea

Other studies suggest probiotics might reduce the risk of some cancers, bacterial vaginosis and even high cholesterol.

The best-documented benefit is for the treatment of diarrhea. In numerous studies, strains of Lactobacillus reuteri reduced the duration of diarrhea from the rotavirus by a day or more. Some studies have also suggested probiotics provide protection from traveler's diarrhea.

Dr. Hector Hernandez, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, said some patients suffer prolonged diarrhea after taking a broad-spectrum antibiotic.

Such drugs can wipe out not only the bad bacteria causing an infection, but also most of the good bacteria that aid in digestion and keep pathogens in check. …

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