History Behind the Mystery
Lactobacillus acidophilus, commonly referred to simply as acidophilus, has been a faithful friend of humankind for thousands of years, making its first documented appearance, via the alchemy of beer brewing, around 7,000 BC in Babylonia. Yogurt and cheesemaking began 4,000 years later, in Egypt. Through the process of fermentation, a form of microbial energy production, acidophilus transforms these and other foods into new foods that are often tastier and healthier for humans than their original forms. (all facts ref.1)
What’s in the Name
Lactobacillus acidophilus is one of 7 Lactobacillus species that typically inhabit the digestive tract and the most prevalent and well-known of the Lactobacillus bacteria (ref 3). The“lacto” in Lactobacillus refers to the milk sugar lactose, its preferred food source; however, acidophilus also consumes other sugars and carbohydrates and is commonly found on grains, fruits, vegetables and in certain prepared meats and fish. The “acid” part of its name comes from lactic acid, a byproduct of fermentation that imparts a tangy flavor to foods. Lactic acid is a safe, natural food preservative that inhibits the growth of molds and pathogenic bacteria, which require more alkaline conditions. Additionally, as the pH plummets, proteins in milk change shape and separate from the water component, resulting in the curdling effect that converts milk from a liquid beverage into a versatile, flavorful solid food(ref 2).
A Meaningful Relationship
Though infants are born without acidophilus and other probiotics in their intestinal and respiratory tracts, they gradually acquire these important bacteria during the birthing process, through breast milk and contact with their environment. Forward-thinking infant formula manufacturers are beginning to add acidophilus and other probiotics to their products, more closely approximating the natural benefits of breastfeeding. In recent studies, babies that consumed these formulas showed lower levels of pathogenic bacteria in their intestinal tracts, making them more resilient to infection than babies fed conventional formulas (ref 4 ).
By adulthood, the average person is home to as many as 100 trillion bacterial cells, comprising as many as 500 different species and outnumbering the body’s own cells by more than 10 times (ref 5). With odds like these, it helps to have a lot of friendly bacteria and acidophilus, for its nutritional benefits and its ability to fend off the bad bacteria vying for control, is one of the most important probiotics.
According to the University of Wisconsin, Madison Bacteriology Department, 75 percent of people lack the enzyme that breaks lactose down. When a person with this painful condition, known as lactose intolerance, consumes milk, ice cream or other unfermented dairy products, he or she may experience a range of symptoms such as abdominal cramping, bloating and gas. Inviting acidophilus to dine first reduces the amount of lactose in dairy foods, opening up a range of dietary options lactose intolerant individuals wouldn’t otherwise have (ref 6).
Acidophilus may also help reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, including abdominal pain, inflammation and constipation, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. While doctors don’t know the cause of IBS, the condition affects up to 20 percent of Americans and accounts for up to 50 percent of visits to gastroenterologists. Acidophilus represents a natural remedy that may lessen the need for costly drugs with uncertain benefits and potentially harmful side effects (ref 7).
Diarrhea associated with antibiotic use is common but preventable by supplementing with acidophilus, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Medical Economics. Researchers calculated that the practice could save millions of dollars in medical costs to treat antibiotic-induced diarrhea (ref 8).
Aside from consuming lactose, acidophilus helps digest fiber. This process produces beneficial short-chain fatty acids that are known to improve immune response and decrease inflammation in colon cells. Fiber fermentation also makes minerals, such as calcium, zinc and iron, more available for your body to absorb (ref 9).
Colon Cancer Prevention
Acidophilus helps protect against colon cancer by binding and neutralizing cancer-causing compounds and by producing substances that prevent cell mutations which can lead to cancer. Several recent animal studies also found that acidophilus prevented precancerous changes in colon cells by inhibiting E. coli and other pathogens that can promote cancerous cell changes (ref 10, 11, 12).
Acidpohilus is a natural inhabitant of the vaginal tract and its presence helps prevent overgrowth of Candida albicans, the pathogen responsible for the majority of yeast infections in women. This friendly bacteria also suppresses urinary and intestinal tract infections by inhibiting growth of pathogens such as E. Coli and Salmonella and preventing them from attaching to cells that line these structures (ref 13, 14, 15).
Studies have found that acidophilus decreases pollen allergy symptoms, such as nasal congestion and sore, scratchy or itchy throat (ref 16), in part, by changing the structure of allergen molecules to make them less noticeable to the immune system (ref 17). Acidophilus can also help with a type of allergic skin condition in children, known as atopic dermatitis; in one study, acidophilus supplementation decreased the amount of steroid medications children needed by an average of 7.7 percent (ref 18).
Seventy percent of immune activity occurs in your intestinal tract, where disease-causing pathogens gain entry along with the food you eat and water and other beverages you drink (ref 19). Acidophilus acts as a first defense against infection by making your digestive and respiratory tracts uninhabitable to pathogenic bacteria, which can’t survive in the acidic environment it creates.
Drugs such as aspirin can be harsh on the delicate cells that line the intestinal tract, eroding the junctures between cells that serve as a protective barrier. Consuming acidophilus whenever you take aspirin or other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDS, can prevent damage to these important cell-to-cell junctures (ref 20).
Heart Disease Prevention
By using cholesterol to construct their cell walls and for other cellular processes, acidophilus and other probiotic bacteria in your intestinal tract make less cholesterol available for you to absorb from food. Researchers at Oklahoma State University found that a particular strain of acidophilus, known as L. acidophilus Gilliland, was among the best cholesterol-lowering probiotics out of a field of 123 different species and strains they tested (ref 21). Acidophilus-supplemented animals showed less arterial plaque formation compared to control animals in a 2013 study. Researchers attributed the benefits to the ability of acidophilus to inhibit inflammation and tissue-damaging oxidation (ref 22).
Your Daily Dose
The most enjoyable way to ensure that you get your daily dose of acidophilus is to include it in your diet. Yogurt is a convenient, readily available source and many brands proudly guarantee live cultures by displaying a symbol or statement on their packaging. Other dairy sources of acidophilus include cottage cheese, sour cream, buttermilk and kefir – a traditional yogurt-like beverage. Non-dairy options include miso, tempeh – a fermented soy food, sauerkraut and kimchi – a traditional Korean fermented cabbage dish. You can see more at the article natural sources of probiotics.
However, some commercially prepared foods, such sauerkraut and fermented dairy products are pasteurized or heat-treated before shipping to prevent spoilage and preserve shelf life. To solve the sauerkraut lover’s probiotic dilemma, many health food and grocery stores are beginning to stock raw sauerkraut made by small, often local or regional companies. Bursting with probiotics, these small-batch varieties offer creative flavors using spice blends, medicinal herbs and vegetable combinations, such as fennel, cumin, beets, carrots and burdock root.
Supplements and Dosage
You can find acidophilus supplements in granules, powder, capsule, tablet or liquid form. Its mild, agreeable taste makes it a convenient addition to juice, smoothies or other cold beverages. Look for acidophilus supplements that contain 3 to 5 billion live bacteria per dose, according to New York University’s Langone Medical Center. For vaginal yeast infections, douche with 2 tablespoons of yogurt or 2 capsules of a supplement with live active cultures mixed in warm water (ref 23).
When you begin taking acidophilus you may experience a slight increase in gassiness. This should resolve by itself as your system and the friendly bacteria become accustomed to each other. If you take immune-suppressing medications, consult your doctor before taking acidophilus or other probiotic supplements (ref 23).
Tracey Roizman, DC, DACNB is a practicing chiropractor and freelance health writer. She has a bachelor’s degree in nutritional biochemistry and is a post-graduate diplomate in chiropractic functional neurology. In her spare time she enjoys growing heirloom and perennial fruits and vegetables and medicinal herbs.