What is Lacobacillus acidophilus?

L. acidophilus is the most popularly used probiotic or “friendly bacteria.” They live in the intestines and vagina and prevent the entrance and proliferation of disease-causing organisms, thus protecting the individual.

Are there other friendly bacteria in the body?

Yes. Actually there are several trillion friendly bacteria (over 400 species) in the human gastrointestinal tract. Literally, we carry about four pounds (1.8 kilos) of microbacteria in our guts. A healthy predominance of the good bacteria over the bad bacteria spells well-being for the person. If the bad or pathogenic bacteria “outnumber” the friendly ones, ill health occurs.

How does L. acidophilus do it?

There are a variety of mechanisms through which L. acidophilus accomplish its good job. Example: the breakdown of food by this probiotic results in the production of lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide and a few other by-products that create a hostile environment for the bad bacteria. Lactase, the enzyme that breaks down lactose (milk sugar) into simple sugars, for proper digestion and absorption, is produced by L. acidophilus too. Those with lactose intolerance or lactase deficiency may be helped by L. acidophilus.

Who develops lactase deficiency?

While it is possible that some people could be born with lactase deficiency state, most of those with lactose intolerance (lactase deficiency) develop the condition secondary to lifestyle. People who, during childhood, do not drink milk or do not eat dairy products regularly, acquire lactase deficiency. Lack of this enzyme prevents milk and dairy products (cheese, ice cream, even beans) from being digested and absorbed and properly. This leads to what is known as lactose intolerance, where the milk sugar (lactose) is not effectively broken down to simple sugars, a process needed for proper digestion.

How prevalent is lactase deficiency?

To some degree or another lactase deficiency is found in 75 percent of adults worldwide. Among Chinese, it is 100 percent. Twenty five percent of the U.S. population has some degree of lactose intolerance. About 90 percent of Asian-Americans, 80 percent of Afro-Americans, 53 percent of Mexican-Americans, about 80 percent of Native-Americans (American Indians), and 15 percent of Caucasians suffer from lactose intolerance of varying degrees. The incidence for southern Italians and Ashkenari Jews, 70 percent. A high prevalence is also reported among the majority of Meditarranean Arabs. Exception includes northwest Europeans, where the incidence is below said to be 20 percent.  It has been postulated that those with lactose-intolerance also have a higher risk of stroke, colon cancer, hypertension, osteoporosis.  Whether decreased calcium intake (as a result of lactase deficiency) is a predisposing factor in the development of these diseases is still not known.

What are the symptoms of lactose intolerance?

Diarrhea and abdominal discomfort/distention, nausea, bloating, passing a lot of flatus, intestinal cramps following ingestion of lactose-containing food items, like ice cream, cheese, even salad or beans. Children who have lactase deficiency will fail to gain weight. The symptoms of lactose intolerance could be mild to severe, depending on the degree of lactase deficiency.

Are there pills for those with lactose intolerance?

Yes. One popular brand in the U.S. is Lactaid, an over-the-counter medication that has really been effective for those individuals with lactase deficiency. Taking this pill allows them to drink milk and eat dairy products in moderation. For children, pretreated milk (where commercially prepared lactase has been used to predigest the lactose) are available, labeled as lactose-free milk. For infants, strict glucose-galactose-free diet is a must, and where fructose becomes the main carbohydrate. For those people on lactose-free diet because they have lactose intolerance, calcium supplementation is highly recommended. Some of the non-diary sources of calcium include green leafy vegetables, fish (especially salmon, tuna and sardines, where the bones are soft and edible), Brussels sprouts, tofu, and broccoli.

What are the claims about Lactobacillus?

The major claims include the assertions that L. acidophilus lowers cholesterol, boosts the immune system, maintains a healthy flora in the digestive tract, and that it prevents cancer. While there are some probably positive preliminary studies on the first three claims, the last one has yet to be proven. Currently there is no scientific support for the claim that L. acidophilus prevents cancer, or that it is safe to take this substance regularly.

Is it effective for bacterial vaginal infection, diarrhea?

L. acidophilus, when taken by mouth (like yogurt) or as a vaginal douche, tablet or suppository, has been proven effective in treating vaginal infections caused by bacteria. For chronic or recurrent diarrhea, this “friendly bacteria” may be of some help but further clinical studies are needed to determine the safe and effective dosage.

How about for other illnesses?

L. acidophilus has also been tried in dozens of other conditions, like Acne, AIDS, cancer, canker sores, constipation, cardiovascular illnesses, Cohn’s disease, heartburn, hives, indigestion, infections, stomach ulcers, ulcerative colitis, urinary tract infection, thrush, asthma, and many others. The studies done on some of them were flawed and scientifically not significant and worthless. There is no medically validated study to date that proves L. acidophilus is effective in any of those conditions listed above, or any other illnesses, except for the bacterial vaginal infection and some form of diarrheas.

Is L. acidophilus safe?

As aptly reported by Natural Standard in cooperation with Harvard Medical School, “there is limited scientific evidence about the safety and effectiveness of L. acidophilus in humans”. Interactions with other drugs or herbs have not been adequately studied. Some people with weak immune system may be at risk of acquiring serious infections when taking L. acidophilus. The naturally occurring lactobacillus acidophilus in our intestines is a friendly bacteria, but the commercially manufactured and sold preparations are the ones that need further clinical evaluation in humans before it is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Before taking any lactobacillus preparation, consult with your physician.

Is eating yogurt safe?

Yes, safer and healthier than taking L. acidophilus, or eating ice cream, cakes or drinking pop beverages (the cola and non-cola drinks) that are full of sugars, loaded with carbohydrate that leads to weight gain fast. Yogurt, also spelled yogourt or yoghurt, is a semi-solid fermented milk product which originated in Bulgaria centuries ago. In the U.S. the starter culture for the production of most yogurt is a symbiotic blend of Streptococcus salivaris subsp. thermophilus (ST) and Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. Bulgaricus (LB). This produces the best, most stable and safest combination. Eating yogurt daily has been proven for centuries to be safe and healthy. Since yogurt contains the enzyme lactase, it is easily tolerated by lactose intolerant people. Other food items easier to tolerate are cheeses (swiss, cheddar, Colby). However, with the commercially prepared lactobacillus “potions for a host of diseases,” more scientific studies need to be done to prove its effectiveness, the proper dosage, interaction with other medications, side-effects on the brain, liver, kidneys and other organs, complications, and, most especially, the safety of the therapeutic use of the available preparations of L. acidophilus. For use in some forms of diarrhea and urinary tract or vaginal infections L. acidophilus appears to be effective, and harmless as an occasional beverage, but let’s wait for the final verdict from the scientific community. Dieters around the globe consume yogurt with passion. It also comes in various flavors today.

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Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus in Northwest Indiana and chairman of cardiac surgery from 1997 to 2010 at Cebu Doctors University Hospital, where he holds the title of Physician Emeritus in Surgery, is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the Philippine College of Surgeons, and the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society. He is the chairman of the Filipino United Network – USA, a 501(c)(3) humanitarian foundation in the United States. Email: scalpelpen@gmail.com

Dr. Philip S. Chua
Dr. Philip S. Chua

Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus in Northwest Indiana and chairman of cardiac surgery from 1997 to 2010 at Cebu Doctors University Hospital, where he holds the title of Physician Emeritus in Surgery, is based in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons, the Philippine College of Surgeons, and the Denton A. Cooley Cardiovascular Surgical Society. He is the chairman of the Filipino United Network – USA, a 501(c)(3) humanitarian foundation in the United States.

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