Early in the 20th century, research by Nobel Prize–winning biologist Dr. Elie Metchnikoff led him to propose the "intoxication theory" of disease. Metchnikoff believed that aging was accelerated by toxins secreted by unfriendly bacteria that putrefy and ferment food in the intestines. He also believed that the harmless bacteria in fermented milk products might explain the longevity of certain ethnic groups—most notably the peoples of the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia.
Accordingly, Metchnikoff recommended consuming "cultured" foods, such as yogurt, that contain healthful bacteria. His ideas spread rapidly, and in short order, both yogurt and the concept underlying probiotics garnered world attention. And because Metchnikoff identified lactic acid–secreting bacteria as among the most beneficial, these so-called lactobacilli became an early focus of popular efforts to put Metchnikoff's hypothesis into practice. Today, probiotic microbes are routinely fed to livestock, and it is widely accepted that various lactobacillus and bifidobacteria species hold great promise for enhancing human health.
In humans, probiotic microbes help the body's ongoing fight against infectious diseases by competing with the pathogens for food, nutrients and survival. This is why human breast milk is rich in nutritional factors that foster the growth of bifidobacteria—a beneficial bacterial family that keeps babies' intestinal ecosystems healthy and disease-resistant.
Probiotics vs. Disease
Preliminary research supports probiotics' potential to prevent or treat many common conditions (more research is needed, however, so don't rely on probiotics to help treat any health condition without medical supervision). Probiotics:
- Ameliorate vaginal (bacterial and yeast), urinary tract and bladder infections
- Ameliorate inflammatory intestinal disorders, including inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Ameliorate food allergies and inflammatory, allergic conditions like asthma and eczema
- Reduce several risk factors for cardiovascular disease
- Reduce several risk factors for intestinal cancers
- Reduce the duration of gastroenteritis and rotavirus-induced diarrhea in infants
- Reduce the rate of childhood respiratory infections
- Ameliorate microbe-induced traveler's diarrhea
- Help prevent tooth decay
Probiotics, Inflammation and Immune Function
Researchers have found that people whose diet is rich in probiotics foods enjoy enhanced immune function. It appears that probiotics normalize immune responses, inhibit chronic subclinical inflammation and may improve inflammatory conditions with an autoimmune component, such as asthma, eczema and Crohn's disease.
Today there is an alarming emergence of disease-causing agents (viral, bacterial, etc.) that are resistant to antibiotics. These dire and potentially life-threatening circumstances have prompted urgent research into the use of probiotic bacteria to battle infections. We now know that probiotics can raise antibody levels in the body. This immune-system boost reduces the risk of infections taking hold in the first place, thus avoiding the need for antibiotics. Many doctors recommend live yogurt for patients on antibiotics to replenish good bacteria and some argue that yogurt live cultures may also reduce the occurrence of colds, allergies and hay fever.
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