Probiotics – From Ancient Remedy to Modern Cure

A History of Probiotics

A healthy gut is a healthy body — this is a concept that stretches back to ancient times.

Humans have long been drinking fermented milk as a way to heal their intestinal problems. Although they didn’t know it at the time, they were ingesting were live bacteria that helped cure their gastrointestinal ailments. They were consuming probiotics.

The need for good bacteria, also known as probiotics, in the gut is well understood in the modern era, but it hasn’t always been that way. These beneficial bacteria are integral in fighting back against the swarms of harmful bacteria that line the stomach, intestines and colon.

Probiotics can protect against IBS, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, the three of which are powerfully harmful, as well as eradicating basic digestive problems like bloating, diarrhea and constipation.

Ancient gurus understood the powerful benefits that probiotics like yogurt offer, they just didn’t understand what was providing these healthy benefits. Nowadays, we have a strong grasp on the microbiology in yogurts and other fermented milk products.

We know which strains are best for certain purposes, how much of a specific strain is necessary, how to properly establish probiotic colonies in your stomach, and how to deliver these probiotics in the form of capsules.

We’ve come a long way in the world of probiotics, but the history of probiotics stretches back all the way to ancient times.

Here, Drink This. It’ll help.

Evidence for the consumption of probiotics reaches as far back as the Bible. In the book of Genesis, for example, there’s a verse that suggests Abraham lived for so long thanks to probiotics: “Abraham owed his longevity to the consumption of sour milk.”

Ancient historian and naturalist Pliny the Elder (most famous for his turn as the main character in his nephew’s firsthand account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) suggested drinking fermented milk as a way to ease digestive problems as early as 76 AD, and the ancient Greeks were known to be consuming yogurt as a way to ensure intestinal health since the founding of Athens.

Even though the people of the ancient world knew that fermented milk was a powerful remedy to treat gastrointestinal issues, it would take humanity until the 19th century to understand why it helped.

Applying Science

In the second half of the 1800s the father of probiotics, a Russian scientist named Elie Mechnikov was working at the Pasteur Laboratory in France. Interested in the growing field of microbiology, Mechnikov observed a strange phenomenon in Bulgarian peasantry. The anomaly? In spite of the extreme poverty and inhospitable climates that these people faced, the rural Bulgarian population lived well beyond the accepted norm.

Upon closer inspection, Mechnikov found that their diets were filled with yogurt and other fermented milk products. He immediately began drinking fermented milk as an unofficial experiment, and found the results to be immensely positive. As a scientist; however, he sought to uncover the actual mechanisms that were causing the positive benefits.

Using a microscope (a recent innovation in science), Mechnikov examined the molecules and microorganisms present in fermented milk. What he found was astonishing: bacteria that were directly involved in fermentation were responsible for the life-extending properties of fermented milk products like milk.

Even more impressive in Mechnikov’s research was the discovery of the specific bacteria that were necessary or fermentation, and thus, he discovered the mechanisms that aid our gastrointestinal systems.

Mechnikov had long held the theory that harmful microorganisms in the gut were a prime culprit in causing intestinal problems, but with his findings, he confirmed that gastrointestinal health was dependent on a balanced ecology of bacteria in the digestive system.

In his research, he was able to isolate the bacteria that were helpful to human guts, which would later be known as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. These two bacteria quickly became the main microorganisms in almost every probiotic. Mechnikov would spend the rest of his life analyzing these bacteria and discovering their benefits to humans, and established probiotics as a viable way to improve quality of life.

In a book published in 1907 on the science behind longevity, he said that, “the agents that arrest intestinal putrefaction must at the same time postpone and ameliorate old age” – suggesting that he understood the long-term health advantages of helpful bacteria like Lactobacillus Acidus.

The Modern Era

With Mechnikov’s findings, the stage was set for later scientists to improve on his research on probiotics, but the term “probiotics” wasn’t coined until midcentury, and the definition has changed many times since.

In 1965, “probiotic”(a term that literally means “for life” in Greek)first came into public sphere. Although there is some debate as to the actual inventor of the term, it is widely attributed to Daniel Lilly and Rosalie Stillwell, researchers at St.John’s University. They referred to probiotics as:  “substances secreted by one organism which stimulate the growth of another”, although this statement is technically correct, it is also incomplete.

Jump to 1989, and the term changes.  Roy Fuller, a renowned intestinal microbiology expert, suggested the term be changed to: “live microbial supplements which beneficially affect the host animal by improving its microbial balance”. This definition emphasizes the element of living probiotics, and the necessary component of probiotics as providing a benefit for the host.

Finally, in 2001, we have the current definition of probiotics according to the World Health Organization – “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”. This modern definition adds another element to what a probiotic is, in that they must be administered externally to the host. This ignited the interest in supplements rather than natural sources like yogurts, which lead to the explosion of probiotics supplements in the late 00s.

The Future of Probiotics

The benefits of probiotics are already well known for the digestive system — settled digestion, smoother bowel movements, reduction in bloating, prevention of serious diseases like IBS, colitis and Crohn’s disease – but the benefits for the rest of the body are still being discovered.

There’s links to brain health as well as cardiovascular disease, and the power of probiotics as an anti-inflammatory agent suggests they can be helpful in preventing diseases like cancer.

Though we’ve come a long way since the days of Mechnikov, we’re still learning a lot about the ecosystem of microbes in our gut. We’re only able to reliably culture and grow a few of them, and there’s thousands of species that we haven’t encountered yet, many of whom may be pivotal for a healthy gut and flourishing immune system.

We’re learning more about gut healthy by the year – one illness that seems to be cropping up in recent years is Clostridium difficile. In a probiotics-depleted gut, C. diff can wreak havoc on your intestines, leading to diarrhea, bloating and even death. It affects about a 250,000 Americans a year and has lead to about 14,000 deaths.

The main risk factor for C. diff is – strangely enough – antibiotics. So doctors have turned to a new, radical treatment to heal those infected. It’s a process called a fecal microbiota transfer, and yes, it’s what it sounds like – a feces transplant.

Physicians take the feces from a patient with a healthy digestive system (stool from a healthy digestive system is filled with positive bacteria) and implant them into the sick person. The procedure has an astonishing success rate of virtually 100%.

As we head further into the 21st century, we’ll surely see more procedures like this. The one thing that can’t be overestimated is the use of probiotics in maintaining a healthy body. From the ancient Greeks to turn-of-the-century Europe to modern labs, probiotics will forever be necessary for remaining healthy and happy.