Bacteria and other microorganisms are in probiotics. Clearly, it’s time to think of bacteria as more than just germs.
In a healthy gastrointestinal tract, and for that matter in a healthy human body, there is an abundance of bacteria. Bacteria and human cells have a symbiotic relationship, meaning that there is a benefit to both when they work together.
Just how many of these microorganisms live on and in the body? That’s a tough question to answer as it is based on estimates that are constantly getting more accurate with the development of advanced tools. Scientists most current estimates are that our bodies are made up of 30 trillion human cells and around 40 trillion bacteria. Wow!
So you may be outnumbered by 10 trillion bacteria at any given moment. That may sound scary, but it’s a serious reduction from previous estimates that our cells were outnumber 10 to 1 by bacteria. While estimates still vary, the leading experts find that the actual ratio of human cells to bacteria is between 1:1 and 1:3.
At this point, it’s important to remember that bacteria aren’t just germs that can make us sick. The bacterias that are present in our intestines help us digest food, produce vitamins, and even destroy microorganisms that are capable of making us sick. In this way, bacteria and your body are on the same team – so keeping a healthy balance of bacteria impacts health. This is the premise of probiotics.
The human microbiota
The combination of human cells and bacteria are known as the human micro-biome or, more recently, the human microbiota. Some people may also refer to this as the microflora or just flora. This is technically incorrect as flora, as a root word, relates to plant life.
Probiotics were conceived by Elie Metchnikoff, the “father of probiotics,” in the early 20th century. His belief was that by eating collections of microorganisms, people could improve their health.
Types of probiotics
With probiotics, it is important to remember that not all products are created equal and there are a variety of bacteria that have been tested for clinical effect by researchers. The most commonly researched probiotics are:
- Saccharomyces boulardi (this is a yeast)
The top two options contain many types of bacteria, but are typically the names found on labels for probiotic supplements. There is much speculation that probiotics would be beneficial for people with Crohn’s disease because the immune system damages the mucossal layer of intestines. The hope of researchers is that probiotics may limit the activity of the immune system.
Do probiotics actually work to initiate remission or for maintenance of Crohn’s disease?
A 2006 review on the research on using probiotics reported that: “Probiotics do not seem to be a therapeutic option for patients with Crohn’s disease, either in the acute phase or for maintenance.”
But, the reviewers continued in the piece that much of the negativity around probiotics is a result of the failure to have large, rigorously conducted trials. Many of the trials conducted at the time of that review were on small patient populations, or with poor control groups.
A 2012 review explored using Saccharomyces boulardii for a number of diseases. The researchers noted a study that the probiotic helped reduce the number of relapses among people that were in remission. However, it is important to note that many of the studies reviewed were also available to the authors that wrote the 2006 review from above. Because of this, it seems like some authors were more concerned with what are potential limitations in extrapolation from small sample studies.
Are probiotics safe?
While it is always a good idea to bring up diet changes with your doctor and/or dietician, probiotics are understood to be safe among people with healthy gastrointestinal tracts. Mild side effects may occur including:
But, there have been more serious reactions for people with compromised immune systems and those that have had surgery. These reactions include an increased risk for dangerous infections.
In short, there may be some benefit for people with Crohn’s disease to eat probiotics. However, there is a risk for side effects and the studies to date have not been powerful enough to reveal a true link. Speak with your doctor before adjusting your diet or treatment regimen.