Over the past few years, I have become a probiotic pusher. Nope, I’m not kidding. My friends and family know that I am into health and wellness, so they often tell me how they are feeling. And whenever someone tells me about an ailment, illness, or concern, my first response is typically to ask if they are taking a probiotic. Probiotics have the potential for gastrointestinal, behavioral and immunological benefits, so taking one always seems like the first logical answer.
Many people don’t really understand what a probiotic really is, so that’s where the conversation typically goes after my inquiry. Marketing of probiotics is what has made them seem somewhat confusing, so it’s completely understandable that many people don’t quite get it.
We all have live bacteria in our gut. In fact, it is thought that there are over 400 bacterial species inside our bodies. That sounds sort of gross, I know, but it is vitally important. This bacteria is meant to keep the gastrointestinal tract healthy. And since 70-80% of our immune cells are located in the gut, it makes sense that to keep our bodies healthy, we need to focus on keeping our gut healthy and that bacteria going strong.
Yet the healthy bacteria residing in our gut can be altered by such things as diet, stress, antibiotics, or other factors, making them not-so-healthy anymore. Probiotics are strains of live bacteria that help us maintain a healthy digestive system. These strains of good live bacteria that have been developed as probiotics enter the system, resetting the gastrointestinal tract and suppressing the growth of bad bacteria that can cause illness and throw off our digestive and immune systems.
Here are just some of the ways that the bacteria in our gut affects our bodies, and likewise, how probiotics may help:
Stress & Mood Issues
Ever wonder why are we more likely to get sick during periods of stress? Because stress can change the balance of bacteria that live in the gut, and gut bacteria affects immune system function. While stress does not necessary cause a weak stomach or gastrointestinal disease, it does change gut macrobiota and brain-gut interactions which can induce intestinal inflammation. More and more studies are showing that probiotics can reverse that effect.
It has been shown in studies that taking regular probiotics may aid in the treatment of depression and stress-related disorders. Since probiotic bacteria have the potential to alter brain chemistry, they may soon be used regularly to treat anxiety and depression. The use of probiotics for psychological purposes has become a widely researched topic of late, and we should be hearing more on the results of these studies soon.
Stomach, Intestine & Gastrointestinal Issues
People who are at high-risk for gastrointestinal issues should talk to their doctor about probiotic therapy. Probiotics can be used to alleviate intestinal inflammation, normalize gut dysfunction, and help regulate hypersensitive bellies. Some bacteria can prevent intestinal disorders altogether. They may be helpful in treating constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, spastic colon, and recurrent diarrhea. Probiotics are also known to lessen the effects of antibiotics on the stomach.
It has been found that a specific probiotic strain found in breastmilk reduces or eliminates painful cramping in the gut. Now researchers are looking into whether this may help alleviate the symptoms of a variety of gastrointestinal disorders.
The use of probiotics for improving symptoms for people who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome has been studied extensively. Probiotics have been studied as an effective therapy for inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis too. A strain of probiotic bacteria has also been found that may be useful in treating ulcers.
Probiotics can be used as a tool for treating dysfunctions of the gut mucosal barrier, including food allergy. By creating probiotic responses to harmful gut bacteria we may be able to treat those who suffer from allergic diseases and allergic inflammation.
For example, researchers recently found that a daily drink containing probiotic bacteria can modify the immune system’s response to grass pollen, a common cause of seasonal hay fever.
Food allergies affect 15 million Americans, including one in 13 children and can be potentially life-threatening. However, a recent study in mice found that the presence of Clostridia, a common class of gut bacteria, protects against food allergies.
Women with healthy, diverse gut bacteria have a better ratio of estrogen metabolites, which is associated with reduced risk for breast cancer. More research is needed, but this leads to the theory that keeping gut bacteria healthy could be one key to potentially preventing breast cancer.
Immune System Regulation
One study found that while people who took a probiotic supplement experienced shorter duration of colds, less severe symptoms, and fewer missed school days than those who did not take a probiotic. The study was done on college students, who are notoriously sleep-deprived, live in close quarters and undergo regular stress, which makes them especially susceptible to contracting colds and upper-respiratory infections.
Studies have already demonstrated that the intestinal flora of obese individuals differs from that of thinner people. When researchers looked at whether consuming probiotics could help reset the balance of the gut in favor of bacteria that promote a healthy weight, the women who consumed probiotics lost twice as much weight over a 24-week period. More work is being done to determine whether probiotics may be used for the control of obesity.
Studies are being done to determine whether probiotics may be used for the control of obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes, since it is already known that poor gut bacteria can affect these levels. In patients with high cholesterol, a probiotic strain showed to lower both LDL “bad” cholesterol as well as total cholesterol levels.
There appears to be more than enough scientific evidence to suggest that bacteria in the gut can contribute to the onset of acne. So normalizing gut bacteria may improve your complexion too.
Ongoing research has also found that:
– Probiotics may reduce levels of inflammation in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.
– A bacterium that alleviates gastrointestinal and behavioral symptoms in autistic-like mice may become a potentially transformative probiotic therapy for autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.
– Probiotics are effective in preventing hepatic encephalopathy in patients with cirrhosis of the liver.
– A probiotic supplement can potentially help produce healthier bones with enhanced bone density. More research is needed on adult patients to confirm this finding.
– A specific probiotic may reduce the rate of recurrent urinary tract infections in women who prone to such infections.
– Yogurt containing probiotic bacteria successfully protected children and pregnant women against heavy metal exposure.
– Probiotic bacteria may protect against bacterial infections, such as Listeria.
– A recently identified species of intestinal bacteria has been linked to the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. Studies must be done to show which strand of probiotic may suppress that from occurring.
– A probiotic species commonly found in yogurt cultures can possibly lessen symptoms of Lupus.
It is important to note that while the development, study, and marketing of probiotics has grown immensely, many of the potential health benefits still warrant more research. Also, keep in mind that certain probiotic strains (or combination thereof) may work to treat certain issues, while others may not be as helpful. Lastly, dietary supplements such as probiotics do not need to be approved by the FDA, so some manufacturers may market them with claims of safety and effectiveness rather than proof. With all that said, the currently known benefits and potential benefits are enough for me to continue to be a probiotic pusher. Just use your common sense. Purchase from a brand you trust, and tell your medical practitioner before starting any new supplements. I am a big believer that if it can’t hurt and might help, common sense says to give it a try.
Photo credit: EdithRum
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