Not all bacteria cause illness. In fact, some kinds of bacteria help to defend the body against the bad bacteria that cause infection. These "friendly" bacteria live in the intestinal tract where they help to maintain the health of the mucous layer and help to aid in digestion. These friendly bacteria, also known as probiotics, are believed to play a role in a healthy immune system. Surprisingly, more than 70% of a person's immune system is located in the intestinal tract. This gut "immune system" is called gut-associated lymphatic tissue or GALT. Probiotic bacteria are in contact with this tissue and "prime" it so the tissue recognizes potential infection-causing pathogens so it can kill them quickly. Probiotics keep the gut immune system on "high alert."
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There are a variety of different strains of bacteria that have earned the distinction of being called probiotics. One such strain of friendly bacteria is called acidophilus. Preliminary research suggests acidophilus may be effective at reducing the risk of certain types of infectious diarrhea in children – likely due to its effects on immune tissue in the intestines. It may also reduce the severity of symptoms of diarrhea in people taking antibiotics. Antibiotics not only kill off the "bad guys," they also destroy the good bacteria that live in the intestinal tract and act as "good citizens." Probiotic bacteria may be good for digestion too, enhancing the absorption of some minerals. Based on some studies, probiotic bacteria like acidophilus help to maintain a healthy bacterial balance in the intestines that aids digestive function. This may reduce bowel symptoms such as gas, bloating and diarrhea.
Vaginal infections caused by yeast or bacteria are a common problem among women of all ages. Probiotic bacteria like acidophilus also help to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the vaginal tract. This helps to keep the growth of yeast that can cause infections in check and may reduce the risk of bacterial vaginosis, a common vaginal bacterial infection according to a study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
There are natural sources for probiotic bacteria. Acidophilus is found in fermented foods, cultured milk products and in yogurt with live cultures, but not everyone eats these foods on a regular basis. Probiotic supplements are a way to seed the gut with friendly bacteria in concentrations higher than what can be easily obtained through diet. They appear to be safe for most people although there are still questions as to whether they're safe for people who have a suppressed immune system.
All in all, probiotic bacteria including acidophilus help to maintain a healthy intestinal balance, aid digestion and support immune health based on preliminary research. There are ongoing studies looking more closely at the health benefits of probiotics like acidophilus and although they're safe for most people, talk to your doctor about whether probiotic supplements are right for you.
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