Knowing probiotics

Key line of defence against toxins.
By Archana Dhawan

Wonderful critters
Who defined probiotics as, live… “probiotics” are defined by WHO as, “live organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. Easily available in most Indian kitchens, dahi or yogurt as it is popularly known, is made out of fermented milk, just like buttermilk, paneer (cottage cheese). It is an excellent source of calcium, protein, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and the B vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, B6, B12. Its most endearing quality is that it is a natural probiotic. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that curd is a superior form of probiotics.

Probiotics were first identified more than 100 years ago when Russian scientists and Nobel Laureate Elie Metchnikoff observed that Belgian peasants who ate a lot of curd lived a healthy and long life. It is a form of bacterium that lives in human beings and has tremendous health benefits. Probiotics refers to live microor­ganisms that survive in the gastrointestinal tract and nourish the inner lining.

Though we may not know it, we are living in peaceful coexistence with more than 500 species of bacteria in our gut. Probiotics contain strains of yeast or bacteria­­­­­­­­­ that live naturally in our intestines. Nature has provided us with wonderful tonic in which these critters are found in abundance. We have all heard of harmful bacteria that cause disease. But this bacterium lives in humans and in return provides us with numerous health benefits. The fact is that without these tiny creatures we’ll be in a poor state of health.

Living microorganisms

Gastroenterologists say that there are billions of good bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract, where they serve as a key line of defence against toxins that invade our bodies. An appropriate microbial balance in the intestine is crucial for health.

Superior to milk

When compared with milk, it is curd which scores well though both have similar vitamin and mineral content. During fermentation, vitamins B12 and C are consumed and folic acid is produced. Though milk and yogurt have the same type and quantity of mineral, they are absorbed into the blood more easily from curds than from milk.

Aids digestion

During the fermentation process, the lactose present in the milk changes to a lower lactose concentration in the resultant curd. This also explains why curd is better tolerated than milk by persons with lactose maldigestion. When curd was eaten on a regular basis by people with poor digestion, their digestion significantly improved.


The number of good bacteria in the gut get depleted by stress, drugs, alcohol and specially when we take antibiotics. Probiotics bring them back to healthy levels faster and prevents infections and diarrhoea. A group of 10 healthy people were on antibiotics and on the seventh day, developed diarrhoea. Probiotics worked wonders and the misery days were reduced considerably. Probiotics also helped people who suffered ‘traveller’s diarrhoea’ by a good percentage.

It has been seen that diarrhoeal diseases can be prevented and can be cured by yogurt. The healthy bacteria compete with the pathogenic ones to survive and settle inside the intestines, creating a home for themselves.

Changes the gut flora

Human intestines are like a fragile ecology where the lining consists of a layer of cells, highly specialised to absorb nutrients and water and exclude the entry of harmful bacteria residing inside and create all sorts of problems. Antibiotics kill good bacteria in the intestines along with the bad ones. Hence, it makes sense to replenish them with probiotics.

Apart from boosting the number of ‘good bacteria’ in the gut, they also have direct effects on the cell lining the intestine and switch off the inflammatory process. Some affect the immune system by changing the way the white cells and antibodies work.

A paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia confirmed probiotics are beneficial for several forms of diarrhoea including infectious types, especially rot virus and diarrhoea associated with antibiotic use. Children with gastroenteritis recovered faster when treated with probiotics. Infant diarrhoea also reduced significantly with oral administration of these beneficial bacteria.

In irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), probiotic proved to be helpful for such bowel disorders. Curd also strengthens immune response of the body, creating resistance against diseases related to the immune system. Example eczema and asthma. One recent European study found that babies whose mothers took probiotics during pregnancy had fewer infections, diarrhoea and allergies.


Elie Metchnikoff also stated that bacteria in curd also suppresses toxins produced by the decaying food particles and harmful bacteria in the human intestines. Increased amounts of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) species suppresses the growth of disease-producing bacteria, which contribute to reduced infections as well as anti-cancer activity in the intestines. The immunity of the gastrointestinal tract is increased by LAB. Studies on animals have shown that LAB exerts anti-carcinogenic effects and retards the development of colon cancer. Regular intake of curd produced anti-tumour cells in the Gl tract. This is because LAB has the ability to survive in the human GI tract.

Stomach ulcers

Amazingly, probiotics have proven to be the more effective form of treatment even more than the medicine itself. A Spanish research has found that probiotic strains such as bifidobacterium have an incredible success rate in fighting inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcers. According to a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Applied and Environmental Microbiology, ulcers caused by H. Pylori bacterial strain may be more effectively treated by beneficial probiotics rather than by conventional antibiotics.

Boon for elders

Probiotics benefit the elderly as their immune system is weak due to age, lifestyle diseases, lack of movement, etc. Probiotics help in maintaining this balance.


Most often, lactobacilli bacteria are naturally present in the vagina making it too acidic. Hence, harmful microorganisms cannot survive. But, as in the case of the gut, here too the balance is disturbed by antibiotics, birth control pills, poor hygiene, etc which prevent the good bacteria from flourishing. Here too probiotics come in handy by boosting the body’s count of lactobacilli which in turn restores the balance of mircoflora in the vagina.