In many of my readings from blogs, newsletters, journal articles and reviews, I noticed that there are two things that had been the focus of microbiology research for the past 3 decades (I might be biased, hopefully not). The battle between (1) good [probiotic] and (2) bad [pathogenic] bacteria. Most of the research done in the West (particularly the US) focused more on the pathogenic mode of action from Clostridium difficile and everything in between to Salmonella causing enteritidis. On the other hand, in Asia, particularly in Japan, South Korea and many countries in South East Asia, probiotic mechanism has been one of the hot research topics for many years. Both are good topics, but today I want to focus on probiotics.
What are probiotics? The World Health Organization define “probiotics” as live microorganisms with beneficial or health-promoting effects to its host. When a fellow scientist asked me, “What does probiotics really do? I’ve taken an over-the-counter probiotic capsule but I actually feel weird.” Many people (especially lay people) might have some difficulty understanding what are the “benefits” probiotics entail?
Let’s talk about specific health-promoting effects and the kind of live microorganisms that might have these effects. The most common effects of probiotics are:
1. for good bowel movement.
2. for increasing resistance against pathogenic bacteria.
3. for increasing the “chemicals” in the body for good immune response
4. for breaking down hard-to-break food particles (i.e. vegetables) and convert it to energy or vitamins and minerals
However, not all probiotics have an all-inclusive effect. It is difficult and a great challenge to get all the answers and cure from one bacterium after all.
The names (genus level classification) of the most common probiotic bacteria are:
- Bifidobacterium (found in human and animal gut, and some food products)
- Lactococcus (found in cheese and other related foods)
- Lactobacillus (found in human and animal gut, fermented vegetables and meat)
These bacteria have been the focus of many probiotic research, however, not every member in each “genera” have beneficial effect, so don’t just be fooled by someone telling you it contains “Bifidobacterium… and Lactobacillus…” because some might not just work for you. And ever since the gut microbiota has been quantified and identified, researchers are redefining the concept of probiotics. Now it can be any natural resident of the gastrointestinal tract or food products that have beneficial effects to its host. Recently, there are non-bifidobacteria, non-lactobacilli, non-lactococci “probiotic” bacteria that might have weight-loss effects, cancer-treating properties, radioactive substance-decreasing abilities, and even inducing reproductive fertility to the one taking it. And like I said, you need to know the “specific” ailment or problem you want to address before you take a pill from your local drugstore.
But the research keeps going, because actually there are people that would take a probiotic pill from their local drugstore that says “good for bowel movement”, however, after taking the pill for several days, no effect has been realized. It might be that the response to the “probiotic” might not be the same from everyone due to some unknown genetic factor. This is a major challenge to many researchers today. But as a beginner to probiotic treatment, you should also do your own research and ask the probiotic-loving experts and even your health-conscious friends and relatives. So before taking that blue or red pill in front of you, ask professional help or assistance. Have a great day!