The History of Probiotics
Probiotics are living microorganisms, usually bacteria, which are found naturally in the human digestive system. The microorganisms have essential roles in digestion, absorption of nutrients and augmentation of the body’s immune system. Probiotics occur naturally in some foods, especially those which are fermented, and can be cultivated for use in foods and dietary supplements.
Probiotics, with their characteristic actions and beneficial effects, currently have a renewed popularity, but they’re actually ancient history. Probiotics are mentioned in the Bible and the sacred books of Hinduism. The geographic region from which these sacred books originated have a climate which favors the souring of milk products. They were recommended for intestinal illness – marking the early use of probiotics, even before bacteria were recognized.
In 1899, Henry Tissler, a scientist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, identified organisms which forked into two parts. He named the organisms bifidobacteria. Tissler reported that infants with bifidobacteria in their digestive tracts had fewer gastrointestinal problems, evidenced by fewer diarrheal illnesses.
The scientist Eli Metchnikoff, was studying lactobacillus at the same institute. He noted that impoverished rural dwellers living in Bulgaria, who drank fermented milk products, lived longer than wealthier people. He surmised that a strain of lactobacillus, associated with fermented milk products had health benefits contrary to aging. He named the bacterial strain Lactobacillus bulgarius.
Metchnikoff and his colleagues began drinking sour milk to populate their digestive tracts with the lactobacillus, marking the introduction of probiotics as dietary supplements. Metchnikoff received the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work demonstrating that harmful microbes can be replaced by beneficial microbes to treat intestinal illnesses. He became known as the “father of probiotics.”
Many scientists, on numerous dates and at numerous locations, have made contributions to the understanding and development of probiotics, but each had their own definition of the term. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations developed the commonly accepted definition: “Probiotics are live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” The microorganisms can be bacterial, viral or yeast, visible only under a microscope.
The contemporary renewal of interest in probiotics is multifactorial. Antibiotics, considered the greatest achievement in medicine of the 20th century, also created new problems. They can disturb the balance of protective bacteria in the intestines. There is also fear that new, effective antibiotics can’t be developed fast enough to keep up with bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics which are currently available.
The Future of Probiotics
Most people associate probiotics with the digestive system. Research is in progress on the use of probiotics for many purposes and body systems, some of which are:
- Lactose Intolerance (inability to tolerate milk products).
- Atopy (sensitivity to allergens).
- Lowering cholesterol.
- Weight loss.
- Peptic ulcer disease.
- Diarrheal illnesses in children.
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
There is much interest in developing personalized probiotics, especially for the management of diseases that affect metabolism. How probiotics work, how to keep the organisms alive in the body, and the changing nature of the microorganisms over time must be determined before personalized probiotics are possible.
If you’re looking for a basic background explanation, you’re invited to read this article: What are Probiotics?
History and Future of Probiotics – References
- Goldin, BR. Gorbach, SL, Clinical indications for probiotics: an overview. Clin Infect Dis. 2008 Feb 1;46 Suppl 2:S96-100
- Snydman, DR, The safety of probiotics. Clin Infect Dis. 2008 Feb 1;46 Suppl 2:S104-11
- Reid G, Jass J, Sebulsky MT, McCormick JK. Potential uses of probiotics in clinical practice. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2003 Oct;16(4):658-72 (link)