How do they work?
You’ve probably heard the word, “probiotics” before and know that some foods contain them. Some people take supplements that are comprised of probiotics. Why are they so important? What benefits do you gain by making sure that your body has them?
Did you know that inside your body, bacteria cells outnumber your own by as much as 10 to one? Most of these are found in your large intestines, or colon. This is called your gut flora or microbiota. While it’s mostly comprised of bacteria, other microorganism, such as yeasts and viruses, are there too. In fact, your intestines contain hundreds, if not a thousand, different types of microorganisms. Your microbiota performs many functions that are vital for your health. It produces vitamins, including vitamin K and some of the B vitamins, and turns fibers into short-chain fats like butyrate, propionate and acetate, which perform many metabolic functions. It is thought that age and genetics play a role in influencing the composition of the bacteria in your microbiota. When your digestive tract is healthy and functioning normally, it filters out and gets rids of things that can damage it, such as harmful bacteria, toxins, chemicals and other waste products. One thing that greatly impacts your microbiota is your diet. It can cause your microbiota to become unbalanced, which is called dysbiosis. When your microbiota is unbalanced, it’s linked to numerous diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, colorectal cancer, Alzheimer’s and depression. It’s interesting to note that people who are obese actually have different bacteria in their intestines than those who are lean. You might be wondering where does the bacteria come from? Well, when you’re born and pass through the birth canal, you pick up several different types of bacteria, like Bacteroides, Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and Escherichia coli from your mother. These bacteria are not transmitted during a Cesarean section and is the reason why some infants born this way have allergies, less than optimal immune systems and lower levels of gut microflora.
Besides diet, your microbiota can become unbalanced. One way is when you take antibiotics, especially for long periods of time. Antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria, but don’t really specific which ones, so when you take them to treat an infection, they might kill many of the good bacteria in your intestines too. This shifts the balance within your intestines and allows harmful bacteria to overgrow. The most common symptom of this is having diarrhea that won’t go away even after you’ve finished your antibiotics. Some common conditions that can alter the composition of your microbiota are irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and infectious diarrhea (caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites). What can help correct this imbalance? The answer is probiotics.
What are probiotics? The word probiotic comes from Greek with “pro” meaning promoting and “biotic” meaning life. Their discovery came about in the early 20th century. Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are usually ingested by taking a capsule or pill or eating certain foods. They are extremely good for you, especially your digestive system. Probiotics help send food through your intestines by affecting nerves that control gut movement. Doctors often suggest them to help with a variety of problems. In treating IBS, they help to reduce gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and other symptoms. Some studies show them being effective against diseases like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. Research is being conducted in their usefulness in fighting Helicobacter pylori infections, which are one of the main causes of ulcers and stomach cancer. Besides digestive health, probiotics are being proven to be very effective at treating a number of conditions. They reduce systemic inflammation, which can cause or aggravate many diseases. So, they would be valuable in enhancing immune function. Some people have found them to be helpful with skin conditions (like eczema, rosacea and acne), urinary and vaginal issues, preventing allergies/colds and oral health. Also, they’ve been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with clinical depression. Some probiotics lower total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. Others are being researched for their ability to cause reduction in blood pressure. Since there are so many different types of probiotics, it’s no wonder that they address so many different health conditions. The key thing is choosing the right type of probiotic to take. Some supplements combine different species in the same product.
There are many types of bacteria classified as probiotics and they all have different benefits. However, there are two main types. Lactobacillus is the most common with more than 50 species of it. It has been used for treating/preventing a wide variety of diseases and conditions, such as yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, urinary tract infection, irritable bowel syndrome, antibiotic-related diarrhea, traveler’s diarrhea, diarrhea resulting from Clostridium difficile, treating lactose intolerance, skin disorders (fever blisters, eczema, acne and canker sores) and prevention of respiratory infections. Bifidobacterium is the other most common bacteria group and makes up most of the healthy bacteria in your colon. It has 30 species that help with improving blood lipid level, increasing glucose tolerance and alleviating IBS symptoms. Saccharomyces boulardii is the only yeast that is common to probiotics and are naturally found in the digestive, urinary and genital systems. It helps with diarrhea and other digestive problems. It has also been reported to treat acne and to reduce side effects of treatment for H. pylori. Another probiotic, Streptococcus thermophilus, generates large quantities of the enzyme lactase, making it effective in preventing lactose intolerance. Certain lactic acid-producing probiotic bacteria may reduce cholesterol by breaking down bile in the gut. Your liver produces bile to help with digestion. It’s mostly made of cholesterol. By breaking it down, probiotics prevent it from being reabsorbed in your intestines, where it would enter your bloodstream. Other probiotics stop the absorption of dietary fat in your intestines, which means it gets excreted through feces rather than stored in your body.
Probiotics are often taken as supplements, but you can find them in some foods, including yogurt, kefir and kimchi. It’s important to note the importance of fermentation in the food process. Fermentation helps extend the shelf life of perishable foods by slowing the decomposition process of organic substances induced by microorganisms or enzymes that essentially convert carbohydrates to alcohols or organic acids. While this is essential for some foods to remain edible, it can sometimes alter certain aspects of the food. The good news is that most of the good bacteria remain present during the fermentation process. Yogurt is a great probiotic food because it can contain Streptococcus thermophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, L. acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum. It’s been proven to improve lactose intolerance (especially among children) and reduced risk for gastrointestinal disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, allergies and respiratory diseases. Also, it enhances dental and bone health. Despite all of yogurt’s positive benefits, kefir (a fermented milk drink with a sour taste) could be the most ideal probiotic dairy product because it contains both bacteria and yeast working together to provide numerous health benefits. Another great probiotic food is kimchi, which is a fermented vegetable made from Chinese cabbage (beachu), radish, green onion, red pepper powder, garlic, ginger and fermented seafood (jeotgal). There are numerous other foods that are being research for their possible probiotic properties, like miso (fermented soybean paste), tempeh, sauerkraut, aged soft cheese, sourdough bread, sour pickles, gundruk (nonsalted, fermented, and acidic vegetable product), sinki (indigenous fermented radish tap root food), khalpi (fermented cucumber), inziangsang (traditional fermented leafy vegetable product prepared from mustard leaves) and soidonis (widespread fermented product prepared from the tip of mature bamboo shoots).
Historically, probiotics are safe use, particularly in healthy people, and generally well tolerated. In some cases, you might experience mild side effects for the first couple of days after you start taking them, including an upset stomach, diarrhea, gas and bloating. Occasionally, they may trigger allergic reactions. For individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV, AIDS and several other conditions, probiotics can lead to dangerous infections. So, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor before taking them. Maintaining a well-balanced microbiota is more than just taking a probiotic supplement. Your lifestyle plays a key role and is often both the problem and the solution. Your day-to-day diet and exercise level play an important role in your microbiota. While it’s beneficial to use probiotics for the role that they’re most known for, aiding in your digestion, they are extremely impactful on your immune system. On one hand, this is probably the most important role. Since your immune system benefits anytime that balanced is restored, it’s never too late to correct it. In order for your body to benefit, the microorganisms must be able to survive the food manufacturing process, grow/survive during the ripening or storage period and survive the passage through the gastrointestinal tract. How do you know that they are able to do this?
Probiotic supplements are not monitored in the US the way that foods or medications are. This is because they fall under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), which requires that the dietary supplement or dietary ingredient manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that a dietary supplement or ingredient is safe before it’s marketed, but they don’t have to prove this and they don’t have to prove that their product works. While dietary supplement labels can make claims about how the product affects the structure or function of the body, they aren’t allowed to make health claims. Since probiotics are considered dietary supplements, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have to approve them before they’re available to the public. The only time that the FDA gets involved is if action is needed to be taken against a manufacturer after the supplement is marketed and then found to be unsafe. There is only one voluntary certification program that supplement manufacturers can elect to be a part of. ConsumerLab.com (CL) is the leading provider of independent test results. Consumers and healthcare professionals can use this information to help identify the best quality probiotics. Any products that have passed their testing for identity, strength, purity and disintegration can use the CL Seal of Approval on their product. In order for a microbe to be deemed a probiotic, it must be documented to have a health benefit, be alive when administered and administered at levels that provide a health benefit. The general rule of thumb is to take at least a billion colony forming units (CFUs) daily. One thing you should pay close attention to are the conditions under which each particular microorganism should be stored so it’ll survive and when the end of their shelf life is.
You might be wondering if probiotics are the same as prebiotics. While the sound similar, they are not the same. Prebiotics are nondigestible carbohydrates that are identified as oligosaccharides and are resistant to the human digestive enzymes that work on all other carbohydrates, which means they pass through the upper part of your digestive tract without being broken down. Then, they get fermented in your lower colon and produce short-chain fatty acids that provide food for the microbiota living there. Oligosaccharides can either be synthesized or obtained from natural sources, like asparagus, artichoke, bamboo shoots, banana, barley, chicory, leeks, garlic, honey, lentils, milk, mustards, onion, rye, soybean, sugar beet, sugarcane juice, tomato and wheat. An easy way to think of it is that the prebiotics comes before and help probiotics. They work together to keep your microbiota functioning well. This is known as synbiotics. In fact, some supplements actually are comprised of both of them.
Due to the enormous benefits that probiotics and prebiotics offer, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that among adults, they are the third most commonly used dietary supplement, right after vitamins and minerals. If you plan on taking them, the key thing to keep in mind is your intended purpose because it’ll guide you toward which type of probiotic you should get. Keeping your microbiota happy will help you to stay healthy!