The human body contains billions of bacteria and other microorganisms. According to Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist Dr. Michael Picco, probiotics are those dietary supplements or foods that contain the sort of good bacteria naturally found in the body. "Although you don't need probiotics to be healthy, these microorganisms may provide some of the same health benefits that the bacteria already existing in your body do, such as assisting with digesting and helping protect against harmful bacteria," he says.
While probiotic supplements are widely available, probiotics also can be incorporated into the diet by eating foods such as yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, miso and some juice and soy drinks. They work by restoring the balance of intestinal bacteria and raising resistance to harmful germs. Some supplements can run up to $20 a bottle, with yogurts costing up to $8 for a pack of 16.
Dr. Picco says that while more work is needed to confirm their effectiveness, research suggests that those who suffer from diarrhea (especially after treatment with certain antibiotics), yeast and urinary tract infections, irritable bowl syndrome and bladder cancer recurrence are especially helped by probiotics. A 2005 Swedish study found that employees who were given the probiotic Lactobacillus reuteri missed less work because of respiratory and gastrointestinal illness than those who were not given the probiotic.
New York Times health reporter Tara Parker-Pope wrote in a September 2009 article that only a handful of probiotics have proven effective in clinical trials. It's difficult to ascertain which products contain those effective strains, she writes, given the lack of standardized labeling requirements for probiotic products. Lactobacillus GG is the most widely studied strain and, according to a 2008 report in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, has helped in the treatment of children who suffer from eczema.
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