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A. Defined by a group of experts convened by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, probiotics are beneficial live bacteria or yeast that, when administered in adequate amounts, produce positive health effects for the host in which they live. The term “probiotic” is taken from the Greek words pro, meaning “for,” and bios, meaning “life.”
Among Americans who have used antibiotics for years to kill health-threatening microorganisms known as pathogens, the idea of good microorganisms is a difficult concept to understand. However, there are many more beneficial microbes in the environment and in the human body than harmful ones. By using friendly microbes to control the population of hostile ones—especially after times of intense stress, infection, antibiotic therapy or even a night of heavy alcohol consumption—probiotic practitioners believe that they can maintain or revive health in a variety of situations.
Their thinking is based on the fact that the average human is the landlord to large colonies of bacteria, known as flora. More than 400 species can be found in the intestinal tract, mouth, skin and, for females, the vaginal tract. The population of flora is so vast that some experts estimate there are more bacterial cells than human cells in and on the human body. Similar to other animal relationships, bacteria and humans have come to rely on one another for their existence. This symbiotic association depends on good flora to, among other things, inhibit pathogens and yeast; aid in the synthesis of vitamins, such as niacin, folic acid and pyridoxine; improve the uptake of minerals—especially calcium; prevent or reduce some forms of cancer; and stimulate the immune system. This last action most likely occurs when colonies of friendly flora increase cells—including macrophages and lymphocytes—in the immune system, while triggering the production of disease- and inflammation-fighting biochemicals, including antibodies, cytokines, immunoglobulins and interferon. These biochemical factors represent several large groups of chemicals that are manufactured by the body to fight bacteria, parasites, viruses and cancer cells.