Bacteria have a reputation for causing disease. But not all bacteria are harmful. Ironically, some illnesses can be treated with bacteria. These beneficial microorganisms which play an important role in our health are known as probiotics. They have been used since the mid-1990s to treat several digestive disorders, delay the development of allergies in children and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women.
It is estimated that there are trillions of probiotics residing in our normal, healthy intestines and different strains have different effects on our body. The most common probiotics are strains of two main species. These species are also the most studied of probiotics:
1. Bifidobacteria: This species of bacteria is commonly used in foods and supplements. They are thought to:
· Help digest fibre, reduce weight gain and lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease and other chronic disorders,
· Support the immune system,
· Prevent infection by limiting the growth of harmful bacteria in the intestine,
· Produce nutrients like vitamins and essential fatty acids.
2. Lactobacillus: These bacteria produce lactic acid. They can:
· Help control the population of unfriendly bacteria,
· Serve as muscle fuel,
· Increase the body’s absorption of minerals.
Probiotics have been used widely in maintaining vaginal health. The vagina has an intricate balanced ecosystem of microflora. Normally, the dominant Lactobacilli produces acid which suppresses the growth of the harmful microorganisms. But the balance can be disrupted by antibiotics, spermicides, and birth control pills. As a result, the unfriendly pathogens cause common vaginal disorders such as bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, and urinary tract infections. Probiotic therapy helps in these situations by restoring the balance of the microflora.
Probiotics may play an important role during pregnancy. Lack of certain strains may increase the risks of miscarriage, premature rupture of membranes (water-bag) and preterm birth. Taking probiotics during pregnancy has been shown to reduce the risks of developing gestational diabetes, lower postnatal depression and anxiety and decrease the incidence of breast inflammation in the puerperium .
Until recently, organs of the upper genital tract-ovary, fallopian tubes and uterus-previously thought to be sterile are found to have live probiotics with lactobacillus being the most prevalent. Similarly, seminal fluid has probiotics that are protective to the sperm. Studies have suggested that probiotics therapy may improve vaginal health and may have a positive impact in fertilisation and conception.