Acidophilus is an "umbrella" name for a category of probiotics. These probiotics, as defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, are "live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." (1) One of the main functions of probiotics in the acidophilus group is to provide aid in the digestion process. Some of these bacteria include: Lactobacillus (L.) acidophilus, L. bulgaricus and L. fermentum.
Lactobacillus acidophilus is found naturally in humans in the mouth, the intestines and the vagina. Classified as "healthy" bacteria, L. acidophilus helps guard against infections and disease. There are a number of ways in which L. acidophilus performs. It assists in the breakdown of foods and thereby produces hydrogen peroxide, lactic acid and other substances that create an acidic, unfriendly environment for harmful organisms. L. acidophilus also creates lactase, which is an enzyme that converts lactose (milk sugar) into a simple sugar. Because of this latter capability, ingestion of L. acidophilus may be useful for people who suffer from lactose intolerance.
Scientists began to use Lactobacillus acidophilus for its probiotic benefits as far back as the early 20th century. Russian scientist and Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff, studying the helpful properties of yogurt, speculated that the lactic acid produced during yogurt fermentation could conquer decaying gut microbes. Metchnikoff proposed that when the probiotics found their way into the intestines, they would prevent the formation of the harmful microbes. While investigating the diets of people living in the Balkans and the Near East, Metchnikoff came to believe in a connection between long-term consumption of yogurt and longevity.(2)
In the 1920s, acidophilus milk was administered to treat diarrhea as well as constipation. (3) Dannon, a leading manufacturer of yogurt products, began producing yogurt for delivery to pharmacies in the early 1920s. In the 1970s, the company produced a television commercial (the first ever filmed in the then-Soviet Union) that featured a purportedly 89-year-old man from Soviet Georgia eating his yogurt with his mother, allegedly 114 years old, smiling in the background. The campaign sparked sales of Dannon yogurt, and helped create awareness of yogurt among a new generation of users.
In addition to being present in yogurt, lactobacillus acidophilus is available as a supplement, in the form of tablets, liquids and powders.
Lactobacillus Acidophilus Benefits
Helps Prevent Yeast Infections
Urogenital infections such as bacterial vaginosis, yeast vaginitis and urinary tract infections affect millions of women. In many instances, the affliction recurs, particularly due to a buildup in resistance to certain antimicrobial therapies. L. acidophilus may prove to be effective in inhibiting the growth of candida albicans, which is the fungus responsible for many of these infections. An abstract from a 2003 article in the Post Graduate Medical Journal of the British Medical Journal states: "daily oral intake of probiotic strains Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus fermentum RC-14, resulted in some asymptomatic bacterial vaginosis patients reverting to a normal lactobacilli dominated vaginal microflora." (4, 5) "When lactobacilli are introduced vaginally ... there will be an impact on the subject's microflora. If this is dominated by yeast, Gram-negative coliforms and anaerobes, or gram-positive cocci, then the outcome might significantly benefit the patient." (6)
Assists in the Absorption of Nutrients
Microflora such as Lactobacillus acidophilus are also necessary for the body's assimilation of nutrients. They assist in the production of key enzymes, and increase the rate at which vitamins are absorbed. Some of the nutrients best absorbed with L. acidophilus are the vitamins K and B, calcium, lactase and fatty acids.
Helps Reduce Lactose Intolerance
A 1984 study demonstrated that lactose is absorbed more effectively in yogurt and products containing L. acidophilus than in milk, and the other items sampled, which include sweet acidophilus milk, pasteurized yogurt and cultured milk. (7) The study also showed that pasteurization greatly inhibited the body's ability to digest lactose and significantly decreased yogurt's natural lactase activity.
Decreases Antibiotic Side Effects
Antibiotics kill bacteria in the body, both the good and the bad. While antibiotics are a crucial therapy for many illnesses, they can cause the demise of "friendly" flora. They can also produce unpleasant side effects such as diarrhea. Ingestion of L. acidophilus can reduce the likelihood of these side effects. A study conducted among healthy volunteers taking 400 mg of erythromycin showed that those who ate yogurt containing Lactobacillus probiotics exhibited fewer instances of diarrhea than those who ingested pasteurized yogurt. (8) Diarrhea is sometimes reported as a side effect among infants and young children who have been administered antibiotics for respiratory infections. L. acidophilus, when used as a prophylactic, decreases the likelihood of diarrhea among these young subjects. (9)
Safety of Acidophilus
Few negative effects have been reported with appropriate use of this probiotic. During initial use, there may be a period of excessive gassiness and flatulence. These conditions will decrease in frequency as the body becomes accustomed to the presence of Lactobacillus acidophilus.
(1) FAO/WHO: Health and Nutritional Properties of Probiotics in Food including Powder Milk with Live Lactic Acid Bacteria. Report of the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations/World Health Organization (WHO) Expert Consultation on Evaluation of Health and Nutritional Properties of Probiotics in Food Including Powder Milk with Live Lactic Acid Bacteria.
(2) Metchnikoff O. Life of Elie Metchnikoff 1921 Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, MA.
(3) Kopeloff N. "Lactobacillus Acidophilus" Williams and Wilkins Co., 1926.
(4) Reid G, Bruce AW, Fraser N, et al. Oral probiotics can resolve urogenital infections. FEMS Immunology and Medical Microbiology 2001;30: 49–52.
(5) Reid G, Charbonneau D, Erb J, et al. Oral use of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and L fermentum RC-14 significantly alters vaginal flora: randomized, placebo-controlled trial in 64 healthy women. FEMS Immunology and Medical Microbiology 2003;35: 131−4.
(6) Burton JP, Cadieux P, Reid G. Improved understanding of the bacterial vaginal microflora of women before and after probiotic instillation. Applied Environmental Microbiology 2003; 69:97–101.
(7) DA Savaiano, A AbouElAnouar, DE Smith and MD Levitt. Lactose malabsorption from yogurt, pasteurized yogurt, sweet acidophilus milk, and cultured milk in lactase-deficient individuals. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 1984, Vol. 40, 1219-1223.
(8) Effect of Lactobacillus GG Yoghurt in Prevention of Antibiotic Associated Diarrhoea. Annals of Medicine, 1990, Vol. 22, No. 1, Pages 57-59
(9) Arvola T, Laiho K, Torkkeli S, et al. Prophylactic Lactobacillus GG reduces antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children with respiratory infections: a randomized study. Pediatrics 1999; 104(5): e64.
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