What Are The Benefits Of Probiotics?
In this four part series, I share my top supplements that help to heal your gut and improve your symptoms. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
They're all the rage in the health world at the moment. I predict them to be one of the top food additions and marketing tools for healthy and "fake healthy" foods in 2015. But how much about them do you know though? What are they, should you take them and what are they good for…find out now.
Probiotics vs Prebiotics
A probiotic is a live microorganism (bacteria or culture) that are believed to have great effects on our body just by being there, living in our gut.
A prebiotic is a food or ingredient in food that the bacteria love to eat - as a result, the more prebiotic foods we have = the happier our gut bacteria are = the more of them we get (happy bacterias divide to "reproduce"), and basically - the more of the good kind we have, the increased health benefits we get! When the happy bacterias aren't busy feasting or multiplying, they're 'relieving' themselves post-feast. Their "waste" or poop, are mostly beneficial gases and compounds that our body loves (on the other hand, the bad bacteria release unwanted compounds - sickness and poor health follows..).
Should we all be having probiotics?
There is a constant and complex relationship between bacteria, the intestinal epithelial cells, and the immune system. Bacteria and food that we consume come into contact with the lining of our gut - the mucosa. There are huge numbers of bacterial species calling our gut home, most taking up residency in the colon. This community of microbiota not only lives in peaceful (usually!) coexistence with us, their "host", but also plays a significant role in our wellbeing.
Gut health is the basis of overall health. Consuming probiotics helps to ensure we have good numbers of the health-promoting bacteria. If our gut health is compromised, then we end up getting symptoms all over our body, including a compromised immune system that can result in us getting sick easier. Ensuring we are 1 - feeding the good bacteria we have via our food choices, is essential, but 2 - having probiotic foods and/or supplements to bump up our healthy bacteria numbers can assist most of us. Especially those of us taking antibiotics!
What have probiotics been tested for?
As much as the benefits of probiotics have been flung around the media pages, we need to keep in mind that not every probiotic supplement is the same; and not every bacteria strain will help you. My general recommendation is to consume healthy probiotic containing foods and drinks e.g. sauerkraut and kombucha on a regular basis as they contain a variety of bacterial strains. Then secondly, a supplemental broad spectrum (multi-strain) probiotic is always my choice for the average adult (without any illness or health concerns). Before making a decision though, you need to speak with a health professional who can discuss your personal circumstances and the best option for you. You may be wasting your money otherwise.
The highest evidence (meaning the best non-biased evidence) belongs to the use of probiotics in treating acute infectious diarrhoea and preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhoea. They haven't tested all strains of bacteria. They can't, yet. There's approximately 100 trillion in our gut, and every body has a unique mix of strains/types. We haven't even scratched the surface when it comes to studying various strains of bacteria or finding out which ones are the "best" for good health. We don't even fully understand how each strain affects our body…the questions are endless! What we have found though, is that Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Saccharomyces boulardii strains have the most evidence to support their use for diarrhoea. A meta-analysis of 12 studies showed that probiotics decreased the risk of traveller’s diarrhoea in particular, but diarrhoea from Irritable Bowel Syndrome was also helped.
Evidence for managing symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome seems to suggest that specific strains of bacteria help to reduce different symptoms. One key strain appears to be Bifidobacterium infants 35624, which helped to reduce all key symptoms in a study of 362 adults, compared with a placebo (fake) pill.
Symptoms of gas, bloating and days of abdominal pain have been helped with a combination of the following four strains: Lactobacillus acidophilus (CUL 21 and CUL 60), Bifidobacterium bifidum (CUL 20) and B. lactis (CUL 34). However, symptoms and the potential relief by using probiotics may depend on the individual, not to mention the amounts used!
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG has also been tested and found to moderately increase treatment success in children with abdominal pain-related functional gastrointestinal disorders, particularly among children with IBS.
It's important to get a practitioner only brand as they have the highest strength dosages and have solid scientific evidence to support their use for various issues. My clients are placed only on the highest quality probiotics which I have personally tried and know can support their health and wellness.
The potential of the bacterial strain Lactobacillus fermentum for treating atopic dermatitis has been studied in infants and toddlers with moderate or severe cases. After 8 weeks, the children taking the probiotic had reduced severity and extent of dermatitis compared to those who received the 'fake' placebo supplement. Improvements were also seen in adults as part of a meta-analysis study examining 1599 infants, children and adults. Treatment with a mixture of different bacterial species or of Lactobacillus species showed greater benefit than did treatment with Bifidobacterium species alone.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Probiotics can provide a similar effect as 5-aminosalicylic acid on maintaining remission of Ulcerative Colitis, especially E. coli Nissle 1917. However in another study, those with flare ups had increased Bifidobacterium and the Lactobacillus group which leads researchers to currently recommend cautious use of these strains as probiotics during the active phase of IBD.
"A large body of evidence suggests probiotics reduce the inflammatory response and oxidative stress, as well as increase the expression of adhesion proteins within the intestinal epithelium, reducing intestinal permeability. Such effects increase insulin sensitivity and reduce autoimmune response." What this means is that a gut full of healthy bacteria (supported by probiotic use when necessary, and prebiotic foods) may help prevent diabetes by helping to reduce inflammation and internal stressors on our cells, and strengthen the lining of our gut, to help prevent toxins and proteins from getting into our bloodstreams and causing problems e.g. autoimmune conditions such as diabetes. However, there is not enough evidence yet to confirm that probiotics can prevent or manage diabetes.
Turns out those stubborn excess kilos may not just be a "lack of willpower". The gut bacteria influence your metabolism, including how cells work in the liver and fat tissues, changing the way they manage our bodies balance of both fats and glucose (sugar). Not to mention their impact of inflammation in the whole body, not just the gut. Obesity is part of Syndrome X - or metabolic syndrome. A collection of risk factors that offer a greater chance of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and their associated complications. These risk factors include high blood pressure, obesity (especially around the tummy), high triglyceride levels, and impaired fasting glucose or 'pre-diabetes'.
Studies on people who have had lost weight via diet alone, or had weight loss surgery, show changes in the composition of their gut bacteria. These changes appear to impact on whether or not the weight loss is sustained. In one study, obese women taking Lactobacillus rhamnosus CGMCC1.3724 helped them to achieve sustainable weight loss.
How do probiotics help? Current research suggests that the changes in our gut bacteria occur via increased prebiotic foods and or probiotic use (food/supplements), potentially reducing low grade inflammation and improving the gut barrier integrity. This helps us to regain a balance in our metabolism and promotes weight loss. Who would've thought?!
Mood, Anxiety and Depression
"Dysfunction of the microbiome-brain-gut axis has been implicated in stress-related disorders such as depression, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. Newborns need to develop a healthy gut bacteria as part of their growth and maturation of key bodily systems that can influence the central nervous system (CNS) programming and signaling, including the immune and endocrine (hormone) systems." However much of the studies conducted so far have been done on animals so we can't confirm anything yet, despite the evidence being very promising.
It is clear that probiotics, both in foods and supplements, can be beneficial for our health, for a variety of health concerns. It's important to remember however, that not all probiotics are useful for your needs. Your specific health concerns may require a different bacterial strain to the person next to you. Other factors, such as the number and quality of bacteria in the probiotic supplement are also important, as well as timing in the case of IBD. Regardless of your reason for wanting to increase probiotics in your diet, its best to speak to a health professional to ensure you've got the right one!