The word probiotic comes from the Greek, meaning “promoting” (pro) and “life” (biotic). This is a newer field of research that is expanding. We are still learning about the benefits and limitations of probiotics. According to David Mills, a professor at the University of California, “We are just realizing how complex the gut is..”
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are the friendly microbes that make their home in our digestive tracks. They arrive there by supplement or food. Some microbes are just passing through and some set up shop and form colonies.
Our microbiome weighs about 3 pounds. 80% of our microbes live in our gut. 99% of those are bacteria. The rest are yeast such as Candida and parasites such as Giardia or tapeworm.
Are Bacteria Good or Bad?
There are also potentially harmful bacteria in our digestive tracts. They are normally there but they are kept under control such as the bacteria that causes diarrhea, yeast infections and pneumonia. Low levels of potentially harmful bacteria also contribute by helping to digest carbs and by synthesizing B vitamins and vitamin K.
How Can We Influence Our Microbes (Good and Bad Bacteria)?
Diet is a major factor in regulating those microbes. What we eat determines if our gut is a welcoming place for the bacteria to live or not. For example:
- Eating excessive sugar encourages the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Eating prebiotics strengthens the probiotics.
- Fiber, antioxidants, healthy fats, fermented foods and protein all help the friendly bacteria to thrive.
- Probiotics can digest fiber the harmful bacteria cannot.
- Harmful bacteria thrive on sugar, fructose and refined carbs, such as white processed products.
Antibiotics not only wipe out the harmful bacteria when you are sick, but they wipe out the helpful bacteria as well. Afterward, the good bacteria recover more slowly giving the bad bacteria the upper hand.
You are regularly getting low levels of antibiotics through meat and in drinking water. Conventional farmers give livestock antibiotics to keep the animals healthy and cause them to gain weight. Choose products without the antibiotics.
Other factors that mess up your microbiome include stress, environmental toxins and prolonged proton pump inhibitor use.
How Our Diet Can Help
As stated before diet is the biggest influence on your bacteria. See how many of these items you do and what you need to improve on.
drink adequate water each day- about 64 oz
- limit alcohol
- eating 3-5 servings of vegetables and fruits (mostly vegetables though)
- eat fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, raw cheese, etc
- limit processed foods
- limit red meat
- limit refined carbs
- limit sugar
- avoid preservatives, additives, hormones and antibiotics in your food
- avoid unhealthy and trans fats
- eat at least 25-30 grams of fiber a day
Why Are Probiotics Important?
The bacteria impacts our digestive wellness which in turn influences immune health, likelihood of illness, brain chemistry and mental health. If you recall from an earlier post, 70-80% of your immune system is in your gut. Bacteria play a vital role in keeping us healthy.
Our gut bacteria
- digest food
- maintain our gut lining to keep bowel/intestine contents separate from the rest of the body
- crowd out harmful bacteria
- train the immune system to distinguish between friend and foe
- convert sugar into short chain fatty acids that the intestines use as energy
- synthesize enzymes, vitamins and hormones
- ensure the proper breakdown and absorption of food (minerals and vitamins)
- help determine gene expression which in turn determines which diseases develop.
Who Needs Probiotics?
Read the following list. If you experience a few of these items you likely have a bacterial imbalance.
- antibiotic use
- constipation or diarrhea
- abdominal cramping after eating
- abdominal pain relieved after passing gas
- frequently bloated
- heart burn or burning in your stomach
- trouble losing weight
- food allergies
- a poor diet – high in sugar, low fiber, eat relatively few vegetables
- travel frequently (causing traveler’s diarrhea)
- frequent colds or flu
- skin/nail problems
- digestive problems
- stress or anxiety
Conditions Helped By Probiotics
According to Dr. Robynne Chutkan, the following conditions are helped by probiotics.
- antibiotic caused diarrhea
- bacterial vaginosis
- infectious diarrhea
- leaky gut
- sinus infections
- traveler’s diarrhea
- urinary tract infections
- yeast infections
These conditions MAY also be helped. More studies need to be done.
- autoimmune conditions
- chronic fatigue
- heart disease
- small intestinal bacterial overgrowth
- H. pylori.
Dysbiosis- This is an imbalance in the body which reduces the population of good bacteria allowing the bad bacteria to flourish. A diagnosis is based on your/family history and the doctor’s knowledge of the disorders that are caused by it. Causes of dysbiosis include antibiotics, antacids/PPI use, NSAID use, birth control pills, excess sugar, chemo, stress, etc.
It is believed certain disorders occur from too many bad bacteria. Conditions such as diarrhea, IBD, IBS and ulcerative colitis.
Allergies occur when the immune system over reacts to harmless substances. Probiotics help control the reaction. They are being studied as an allergy treatment. A 2002 study showed that antibiotics can trigger allergies because they destroy the bacteria that control the immune system.
Allergic rhinitis improved when subjects ate yogurt with live bacteria everyday.
Most yeast infections are caused by Candida albicans. We all have this in our bodies and it is usually kept in check. Sometimes the yeast proliferates to uncontrolled levels. This can be due to poor diet, hormones, antibiotics and stress. Symptoms include constipation, diarrhea, headaches, fungal infections, fatigue, oral thrush, dandruff, sugar cravings, yeast infections, mood disorders, etc.
A study from Sweden showed when workers that considered themselves healthy were given probiotics, they had fewer illness related absences than those who used a placebo.
A 2002, German study in Clinical Nutrition found that those who took probiotics had shorter, less severe colds.
Here’s one for you new moms. A 2002 British study of toddlers suggested that the cleaner a child was kept, the more likely they were to have allergic dermatitis and asthma down the road. Go let them play in the dirt and be exposed to some bacteria.
Studies also show that probiotics prevent diarrhea caused by antibiotics in children.
Researchers are studying the effects of probiotics on autoimmune diseases. There over 80 of these such as RA, type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, lupus, Raynaud’s, eczema, celiac, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, etc. If you have one autoimmune disease you will likely get others. Can probiotics help by encouraging restraint of the immune system?
Are Probiotics Safe?
Probiotics are regarded to be safe, even at higher doses. The exception to this is if you have a compromised immune system, in which case they can cause dangerous infections. They are safe even for children, but don’t start anything with your child without discussing it with their doctor first.
Does it Matter What Kind?
Different strains work on different bacteria.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Saccharomyces boulardii are most effective for antibiotic-associated diarrhea
Lactobacillus rhamnosus- traveler’s diarrhea
Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidocacterium bifidum- helps digest dairy, especially as you get older and your ability declines
Bifidocacterium bifidum- assists in breakdown of complex carbs, aides in synthesis of B-vitamins.
Bifidocacterium infantis- helps decrease bloating
Lactobacillus casei- reduce duration and frequency of colds
L. acidophilus and B. lactis together- reduce cold/flu frequency and severity
So choosing the right type is important. Do your research for your particular need. Unfortunately, the study of probiotics is relatively new and the two most popular strains have been studied the most. Others haven’t been studied much at all. It is not yet know which conditions each strain benefits.
There are over 100 different types of good bacteria. The two most important probiotics are Loctobacilli Acidophilus (live in your intestine and vagina) and Bifidobacteria (live in your colon).
Since different probiotics work on different conditions, it is important to take a probiotic with at least 7 or 8 compatible strains in it. You can’t take just Acidophilus and expect it to work on everything. It won’t and you’ll think, “I tried probiotics and they didn’t help.”, when you were taking the wrong kind. No one strain can do everything.
How To Take Probiotics Correctly To Optimize Their Benefits
- Take a brand with several varieties of probiotics.
- Find quality brands. Look for guaranteed amounts of bacteria. Certified or tested are best.
- If you are well and have no health issues, take 3-5 billion a day for maintenance. Another option would be to get probiotics/prebiotics from your diet and only add supplements when warranted.
- Choose at least 50 billion CFU (colony forming units) for heath issues / bacteria imbalances.
- Anything that was heated during manufacturing or at home (cooking) , probably killed the bacteria in it. That being said, don’t take them with hot liquids or hot foods either.
- Most good brands need to be kept in the refrigerator. They are living after all.
- Pay attention to the shelf life. Older supplements and yogurts will have fewer living bacteria.
- Enteric coating helps probiotics to survive stomach acid.
- Choose yogurt with “live and active cultures” -a minimum of 100 million. Many cultured dairy products (ex. yogurt, kefir) usually have a very low % of live bacteria. Don’t depend on that alone. Some yogurts have more sugar than soda. Choose plain yogurt. If you don’t like the taste make the switch gradually by combining plain and sweetened yogurt increasing the percentage of plain each time. (see retraining your taste buds)
- Use prebiotics along with probiotics, so the probiotics can flourish. (More on prebiotics in an upcoming post)
- If you are taking probiotics with antibiotics, don’t take them at the same time. The antibiotics will kill them. Wait at least 2 hours after taking antibiotics. Continue to take them a few weeks longer than the antibiotics. Good bacteria take longer to recover.
- Improve your diet.
- Cut back on sugar consumption. It feeds bad bacteria.
- Increase fiber. It feeds good bacteria.
How Long Does It Take to Work?
Depending on your overall health and the conditions you have it could take weeks, to months to even a year. It won’t be fixed in a couple of days.
It doesn’t work for everyone. Some people has irreversible damage depending on their condition or their gut is not the problem. They could also be taking the wrong type of probiotic.
It Tried it and Felt Poorly
When you first add probiotics you may initially have some discomfort. When bacteria die they release toxins. This is called a Herxheimer reaction. Symptoms include headache, bloating, gas, worsening of allergies. This only lasts 1 or 2 weeks depending on the rate of die off. You can also lessen the symptoms by introducing the probiotics gradually.
Do you take probiotics? What has been your experience?
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart. ” 1 Samuel 16:7