As research into the medicinal use and health benefits of probiotic bacteria expands, one particular strain of bacteria has been receiving especial attention: streptococcus thermophilus. While its benefits when orally ingested have been known for nearly a decade, recent research has revealed the efficacy of s. thermophilus in treating acne and other skin disorders, improving digestive function, and boosting immune system response when applied as a topical agent. The capacity for such agents to increase ceramide production has powerful implications not only for skin health, but for health overall.
The role of bacteria in health has long been misunderstood. The ubiquity of “anti-bacterial” products on the market and the limited understanding of bacterial functioning at the microbiological level have established cultural conditions wherein bacteria are uniformly viewed as negative or harmful for the human organism.
Of course, this isn’t really the case. There are millions of distinct species of bacteria in the world, and the diversity of these organisms is quite great.
While many strains of bacteria may share certain characteristics, there is no singular functional characteristic that is common to all bacteria, and as such, it is meaningless to make the statement that bacteria are either “good” or “bad” for the human body; it is only meaningful to discuss particular bacteria strains.
Luckily, over the last decade, a new understanding of the positive role that bacteria can play has begun to emerge. The fact that certain strains of bacteria are essential to healthy digestion in human beings is now widely understood, and some food products such as yogurts are even marketing themselves on the boast that they contain these healthy forms of bacteria.
With popular science now promoting the beneficial effects of bacteria, it is worthwhile to consider anew common strains of bacteria that may well have positive effects for human health that have previously been overlooked. One such bacterial strain is streptococcus thermophilus. This is a bacterium that is naturally present in trace amounts in the human intestine, and which has been widely used in food production for decades. However, new studies are coming to light which are revealing that this particular bacterium may well have an unheard-of potential for promoting skin health, diminishing the effects of aging, boosting immune system response, and even fighting off certain common diseases.
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An Overview of Streptococcus Thermophilus
In order to understand the beneficial health effects of s. thermophilus, it is necessary to first understand its role and function in microbiology.
As mentioned above, s. thermophilus is a bacterium that naturally occurs within the human organism in trace amounts. Its introduction into the human organism may be owed to the fact that this bacterium is very commonly found in fermented milk products. This is because it is an essential probiotic bacterium that promotes digestion of dairy products through breaking down lactose into digestible lactic acid. As such, it is a dairy industry standard, used in the creation of a wide array of consumer goods such as milk, cheese, and yogurt.
It is important to note, however, that even though this bacterium is commonly present in food sources, one cannot exactly rely upon food sources to obtain a sufficient amount of this bacterium in order to derive the most beneficial health effects to be discussed below. The reason for this is that food law in the United States, as regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, requires the majority of dairy products such as milk and cheese to undergo a process of pasteurization before it is released to the market. Unfortunately, while this process kills off some harmful bacteria which might otherwise be present in such foods, it also greatly diminishes the potency of positive bacteria such as s. thermophilus. In other words, to reap all the beneficial effects of s. thermophilus, one will have to seek out sources beyond food sources.
Thermophilus and Ceramide Management
Perhaps the most significant of all health benefits associated with the use of s. thermophilus bacteria in humans is the bacterium’s ability to exert a positive effect upon the body’s ceramide levels. A recent study demonstrated the efficacy of the bacterium in two different applications. Firstly, it was used in an in vitro fashion and a considerable positive impact was found on the ceramide levels measured in cultured human keratinocytes. Secondly, it was used in an in vivo fashion, and demonstrated an equally beneficial effect on the level of ceramides in stratum corneum, the major barrier of the human epidermis.
The in vivo use of the bacterium is particularly interesting for those who are intrigued by s. thermophilus’ utility in repairing skin damage and preventing future skin damage. The bacterium’s capacity to enhance levels of ceramide in the stratum corneum effectively resulted in a thick stratum corneum overall, which has been associated in studies with “an increased effect in resisting skin xerosis”.
Certainly, the overall impact of the bacterium on skin disorders has been positively indicated. The same study mentioned above indicated that in the opinion of the researchers, s. thermophilus has a positively indicated clinical usage in anti-aging applications, as well as for healing and repairing skin conditions that are the result of a “defective synthesis of lipids”.
Clearly, this is good news for sufferers from a wide variety of skin ailments that stem from lipid deficiencies. In addition, however, studies have also show that s. thermophilus can have a majorly beneficial impact in “patients suffering from desquamatory diseases” as well. This means that those suffering from more potent skin afflictions such as psoriasis will also be able to find relief through the medical application of s. thermophilus.
Thermophilus and Acne Management
In terms of the most directly practical applications of s. thermophilus, one might focus on the benefits that the bacterium can yield in regards to “health and beauty”. Certainly, the issue of physical appearance is a major one in our society, and it must also be stated that some skin conditions, such as acne, are not simply a matter of appearance, but are also frequently correlated with an underlying medical condition that should be treated in its own right. S. thermophilus definitely shows a robust degree of potential in such applications.
To understand the relationship between bacteria and acne, one must return to literature that emerged earlier this century in the work of Stokes and Pilsbury. These two researchers made the determination that “emotional states might alter the normal intestinal microflora, increasing intestinal permeability and contributing to systemic inflammation”.
In other words, many of the widely known secondary causes of acne beyond overactivity of sebaceous glands, such as stress, are actually directly related to bacterial concerns.
The bacteria that populate the human intestine at any given time must exist in a state of delicate balance if they are to do their job effectively. Any imbalance of these bacteria results in the intestine allowing contaminants into the bloodstream, which can cause inflammatory diseases such as acne. The original research into this topic identified certain bacteria such as lactobacillus acidophilus as being potently effective in maintaining this delicate internal balance.
In the 1960s, the research took a turn towards including other examples of probiotic bacteria, which would affect our contemporary understanding of the medical benefits of such bacteria in a significant fashion. In particular, the work of Robert Siver was instrumental in demonstrating the capacity of probiotic bacteria to diminish acne outbreaks, through his experimental use of both L. acidophilus and Lactobacillus bulgaricus in a clinical trial involving some 300 patients. Using a staggered one-month-long regiment, 80% of the patients who took the two forms of probiotic bacteria exhibited “some degree of clinical improvement” of their acne symptoms.
The Topical Use of S. Thermophilus
Up until about a decade ago, however, the primary methodology for introducing these beneficial bacteria into the human body was oral administration. However, modern research has shown that this may not be the most effective method for treatment with bacteria, due to the impact that the acidic environment of the human stomach can have upon any form of bacteria. Consequently, research into the topical application of bacteria such as s. thermophilus has been of great significance, particularly as concerns the treatment of acne and other skin conditions.
The first research showing the superiority of the topical usage of probiotic bacteria came about in 1999 with a study that compared the use of oral ingestion and topical application for s. thermophiles in particular and indicated that the topical usage “increased ceramide production when applied to the skin for 7 days as a cream”.
In other words, the same benefits found in the earliest research on the use of probiotic bacteria in a clinical setting were derived from the topical usage of s. thermophilus.
The reason this is so effective is because of the impact that ceramide production has upon the balance of lipids in human skin. To be sure, lipids are the most important of all compounds found in the human epidermis. They are the main determinant of disease-related factors such as skin permeability, and they are efficacious at keeping microbes and other disease-causing agents from entering the body through the skin.
Recent studies have determined that perhaps the most important of all lipids in this context are those known as sphingolipids, the dominant lipid used by the body in building and rebuilding the stratum corneum, the major line of defense against microbes. They are also instrumental, then, in maintaining the delicate internal balance of “good” bacteria within the human organism. It stands to reason then that bacterial agents which can reconstitute sphingolipids (which are leeched from the skin by a variety of phenomena ranging from bacterial imbalances to simple cold weather) are especially important in imparting positive effects to the skin, such as fighting acne and other skin disorders.
Interestingly enough, s. thermophilus has also emerged within recent medical literature as being one of the leading effective bacteria for positively impacting levels of sphingolipids in human skin. A recent study looked at some 11 patients who were treatment with topical creams containing s. thermophiles and, in all cases, there were “significant improvements in levels of bacterial sphingomyelinase”.
This indicates that, in the future, topical agents containing s. thermophilus may well prove to be some of the most effective and potent tools for combatting aging, and skin disorders from acne to psoriasis.
Additional Benefits of S. Thermophilus
It must be stated, however, that s. thermophilus also demonstrates a number of potential health benefits beyond just those related to skin health and appearance. Indeed, like many other probiotic bacteria, s. thermophilus has been positively associated with improving digestive health, as well as immune functions.
For instance, a fairly recent study looked at the trend of introducing probiotic bacteria into infant formulas. A number of previous studies had suggested that bacteria such as s. thermophilus play a positive role in stimulating healthy growth in infants and children, but the introduction of such bacteria into formula remained somewhat controversial. This particular study, however, looked at some 971 infants who were placed into a randomized trial in an effort to determine with accuracy the overall impacts of s. thermophilus on human digestion at an early stage.
Roughly half of the infants were given regular infant formula as a control and the other half were given formula supplemented with s. thermophilus. Among those who received the supplemented formula, there were fewer cases of dehydration stemming from the onset of acute diarrhea (a common digestive ailment in infants), fewer medical consultations, and fewer overall hospital admissions.
Additionally, other recent studies have suggested that bacteria such as s. thermophilus can have a tremendously positive impact upon immune functioning. While bacteria such as this have long been indicated (as noted above) in reducing inflammation and infection through manipulating skin and intestine permeability, the direct positive impact upon immune system functioning suggests a more significant role for bacteria in disease- fighting in general.
In particular, a 2003 study looked at the specific measurement of pathogenic bacteria in human nasal canals, as the nasal colonization of pathogenic bacteria is far and away one of the foremost methods of infection with transmittable diseases. Those who were involved in the study were given either a standard yogurt or a yogurt that had been supplemented with bacteria including s. thermophilus. The results showed that those patients who were given the supplemented yogurt experienced a markedly reduced level of nasal colonization of pathogenic bacteria.
This suggests that even beyond reducing disease through inhibiting skin and intestinal absorption of harmful bacteria, s. thermophilus and other helpful probiotic bacteria may directly boost immune system functioning in such a way that bacteria entering the body through other means, such as nasal ingestion, re more rapidly defeated by the immune system, and that colonization of pathogenic bacteria on the whole is inhibited.
Clearly, s. thermophilus and other bacteria of this sort have the potential to be majorly beneficial to human health. Studies have already indicated many positive results stemming from these bacteria, both from oral ingestion and topical application. As such research moves forward, other findings are beginning to excite scientists, such as the suggestion that probiotic yogurts may well have anticarcinogenic cancer-fighting properties as well. For this reason, promoting a superior understanding of human health as it relates to the adequate balance of bacteria in the body is extremely important and warrants further research and investigation.