What is your gut instinct telling you about probiotics? Do you need more information? You're not alone. Over the past decade, dietitians and gastroenterologists have been discovering exciting new findings about probiotics, the gut and health. Here are my top five facts that will help you understand probiotics.
What are probiotics?
Not all good bacteria are probiotics. I'm surprised when I hear health professionals commenting that all yogurt has probiotics. It is important to note that all yogurts have bacteria to make (culture) it; however, not all contain strains (varieties) of probiotics. I believe the best place to start is to define it. According to the World Health Organization, probiotics are live micro-organisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host (you).
How are prebiotics different from probiotics?
When I'm online, often I see the term prebiotics interchanged with probiotics. Some of my clients mix up the two or think they are equal. Prebiotics and probiotics are not the same. Prebiotics are non-digestible ingredients (such as chicory root) in food and when consumed provide a beneficial environment in the gut for good bacteria including probiotics to thrive in.
Not all probiotics are the same
Probiotics, similar to antibiotics, have different structures and actions. For example, certain strains (varieties) of the probiotic Bifidobacerium lactis have been observed in clinical studies to benefit some people with irritable bowel syndrome, whereas stains of Lactobacillus casei have been observed in clinical studies to benefit children with infectious diarrhea and adults with antibiotic associated diarrhea. It is significant to understand that probiotics differ according to the strain, how they are prepared and the shelf-life of that preparation.
Probiotics and your gut
We have 10 times the number of bacterial cells inside of us as there are human cells and most are in the gut! Fifteen years ago, we called it gut flora, today it is referred to as gut microbiota. I like to think of it as the gut ecosystem. It is influenced by the foods and beverages we eat (and over eat), the amount of stress we encounter, the quantity of water we consume, how much activity and exercise we do and any toxins that enter our bodies. Research shows the gut does more than just process food and fluids and defend against infections.
After a disturbance (for example, an infection or extreme antibiotic use), the gut ecosystem stability is usually disrupted. This is where probiotics have shown a positive contribution to getting the system back on track. Current findings suggest our gut microbiota can explain critical features of our human biology. It plays a larger role in human health and diseases such as crohn's disease, heart disease and obesity than previously thought. More research and clinical trials will help identify how the gut communicates with bacteria to support and regulate major immune functions important for body and mental health.
Will you benefit from probiotics?
That is the big question. Remember for wellbeing, you need to have a balanced nutrition and fitness strategy in place. It is best to discuss probiotic use during your personalized nutrition plan with your dietitian. In general, probiotics such as Lactobacillus casei may promote a healthy balance in the gut microbiota, allowing it to assume its favourable functions in the digestive and overall health. So with these five facts in hand, follow your gut and make the decision.
Each of us has more than 1,000 different types of bacteria that live in our digestive tracts, helping us to break down food and absorb nutrients. But when we take antibiotics -- medicine that is designed to kill destructive, illness-causing bacteria -- the drugs can also kill the healthy intestinal flora that helps us digest. About 30 percent of the patients who take antibiotics report suffering from diarrhea or some other form of gastrointestinal distress, according to the recent JAMA study on probiotics and antibiotic-associated diarrhea. As a result, doctors commonly prescribe taking probiotics to "repopulate" the digestive tract with healthful bacteria. The study found that it was a viable solution for many. But probiotics can also help with other types of digestive issues. Research has shown that probiotics can be helpful for people with irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS -- a hard-to-treat condition that can have a range of intestinal symptoms, such as abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. In one study, female IBS patients experienced some alleviation of symptoms like abdominal pain and irregularity when they were given a supplement of the bacterial strain, Bifidobacterium infantis. Even for those without an urgent problem, probiotics can help with overall digestive management. Challa argues in his book, Probiotics For Dummies, that good bacteria help "crowd out" bad bacteria. That's because the intestine is lined with adherence sites where bacteria latches on. If the sites are populated with good-for-you microbes, there's no place for a harmful bacterium to latch on.
Probiotics make a nice compliment to antibiotics among people who suffer from urinary tract infections, according to the research. What's more, there's emerging evidence that regular probiotics can help prevent bad bacteria from invading the urinary tract by maintaining a population of healthy bacteria on the tract's adherence sites. Infections of the urinary tract are extremely common, especially in women. Most infections disappear with antibiotics, but about 30 to 40 percent might return, according to literature from the University of Maryland Medical Center.
Allergy research is still preliminary, but at least one large, high quality study found a relationship between women taking probiotics during pregnancy and a 30 percent reduction in the instance of childhood eczema (an early sign of allergies) in their infants. Researchers selected women who had a history of seasonal allergies -- or whose partners had histories of allergies. The infants who received probiotics in-vitro also had 50 percent higher levels of tissue inflammation, which is thought to trigger the immune system and reduce allergy incidence.
Just like the digestive tract, the vagina relies on a precarious balance of good and bad bacteria. When that balance is off, it can result in one of two very common, though thoroughly uncomfortable infections: bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections. In fact, bacterial vaginosis can actually lead to a yeast infection. Some small studies have found that L. acidophilius can help prevent infection, manage an already active one or support antibiotics as a treatment, though it's worth noting that the probiotics were taken as vaginal suppositories, rather than orally in food. Probiotics may also have a special role in maternal health, as pregnant women are particularly susceptible to vaginal infections. And bacterial vaginosis has been indicated as a contributing factor to pre-term labor, making probiotics a potential boon for fetal health.
Surprisingly, one of the main functions of healthful bacteria is to stimulate immune response. By eating probiotic-rich foods and maintaining good intestinal flora, a person can also help to maintain a healthy immune system. And that has real world effects: for example, in one small study of students, those who were given a fermented dairy drink (instead of milk) displayed increased production from lymphocytes -- a marker of immune response.
In 2006, Stanford University researchers found that obese people had different gut bacteria than normal-weighted people -- a first indication that gut flora plays a role in overall weight. Some preliminary research shows that probiotics can help obese people who have received weight loss surgery to maintain weight loss. And in a study of post-partum women who were trying to lose abdomnial fat, the addition of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium capsules helped reduce waist circumference. It's still unclear how probiotics play a role in weight loss -- and there is some controversy about how significant the probiotics-associated weight loss is. But as long as the probiotics source is low-calorie and healthful, itself, it is an innocuous method to attempt.
Follow Jane Dummer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@JaneDummer