Probiotics are live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host. Lactic acid bacteria (LAB) are the most common type of microbes used. LAB have been used in the food industry for many years, because they are able to convert sugars (including lactose) and other carbohydrates into lactic acid. This not only provides the characteristic sour taste of fermented dairy foods such as yogurt, but also by lowering the pH may create fewer opportunities for spoilage organisms to grow, hence creating possible health benefits on preventing gastrointestinal infections. Strains of the genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, are the most widely used probiotic bacteria.
Probiotic bacterial cultures are intended to assist the body's naturally occurring gut flora, an ecology of microbes, to re-establish themselves. They are sometimes recommended by doctors, and, more frequently, by nutritionists, after a course of antibiotics, or as part of the treatment for gut related candidiasis. Claims are made that probiotics strengthen the immune system to combat allergies, excessive alcohol intake, stress, exposure to toxic substances, and other diseases. In these cases, the bacteria that work well with our bodies may decrease in number, an event which allows harmful competitors to thrive, to the detriment of our health.
Probiotics, which means "for life", have been used for centuries as natural components in health-promoting foods. The original observation of the positive role played by certain bacteria was first introduced by Russian scientist and Nobel laureate Eli Metchnikoff, who in the beginning of the 20th century suggested that it would be possible to modify the gut flora and to replace harmful microbes by useful microbes. Metchnikoff, at that time a professor at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, produced the notion that the ageing process results from the activity of putrefactive (proteolytic) microbes producing toxic substances in the large bowel. Proteolytic bacteria such as clostridia, which are part of the normal gut flora, produce toxic substances including phenols, indols and ammonia from the digestion of proteins. According to Metchnikoff these compounds were responsible for what he called “intestinal auto-intoxication”, which caused the physical changes associated with old age. It was at that time known that milk fermented with lactic-acid bacteria inhibits the growth of proteolytic bacteria because of the low pH produced by the fermentation of lactose. Metchnikoff had also observed that certain rural populations in Europe, for example in Bulgaria and the Russian Steppes who lived largely on milk fermented by lactic-acid bacteria were exceptionally long lived.