Probiotics are slowly becoming the popular heroes of a society plagued by a variety of gastrointestinal illnesses. The word "probiotic" translates literally as “for life”. Scientists define probiotics as live, single-celled microscopic bacteria, which may have a positive effect on the digestive system. Probiotics are available in capsule form, liquid and certain types of yoghurt. Some companies now make a non-dairy probiotic drink. These products are used to treat diarrhoea, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis and other gastrointestinal disorders. A 1999 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicates that probiotics may also help treat lactose intolerance. It should be noted, however, that scientists do not have a clear understanding of the exact workings of probiotics. As such, all information presented is speculative.
All about bacteria
The skin, the mouth, the gastrointestinal tract and a woman's vaginal tract play host to close to 100 trillion bacterial cells. Many of these contribute to overall health, but some may be harmful. For optimum health, the good cells must outnumber the bad cells.
A basic understanding of the mechanisms of the gastrointestinal tract is crucial to the understanding of probiotics. Digestion begins with the first bite of food. The process of chewing mixes the food with saliva, making it more susceptible to digestive enzymes. When the food reaches the stomach, it is mixed with gastric juices, which contain digestive enzymes and hydrochloric acid. This mixture is then pumped out of the stomach and into the small intestine, where it is mixed with additional enzymes and bile. Most nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine, but any carbohydrates not digested by enzymes will pass directly into the colon. An assortment of good, bad or neutral bacteria or microbes may be produced during the digestive process.
Bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract
The microbes or bacteria produced in the gastrointestinal tract may have either a neutral, positive or negative benefit on digestion. The good cell/bad cell balance can be thrown off in a number of ways. For example, certain antibiotics, while killing the bad bacteria in the gut, may also destroy the good bacteria. This may result in gas, cramping or diarrhoea. It has been speculated that probiotics may be used to replace the good bacteria that have been destroyed by the antibiotics.
Probiotics and lactic acid production
Probiotics can produce lactic acid, which increases the acidity of the stomach. This may prevent the growth of harmful bacteria.
Blocking adhesion sites
Probiotics may work in a manner that can be compared to stealing someone's parking space. By attaching themselves to adhesion sites along the intestinal wall, they prevent the adhesion of harmful bacteria.
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