It Starts with the Immune System
Simply put, probiotics are good bacteria. Bacteria are supposed to be bad, right? That’s why the anti-bacterial soap market has taken off. Actually, bacteria are very necessary to our health. It just depends on the type of bacteria. As with all things, balance is the key. Much of our diet in America is processed, and packaged, thus lacking in bacteria because it is heat treated and often irradiated. The only thing is it is also lacking in enzymes and good bacteria, or probiotics. Probiotics (pro meaning “promoting” and biotic meaning “life”)² help digestion, balance our body, and even ward off the bad bacteria. But what's the big deal about them now, seemingly all over everything?
The role of the immune system is huge in our ability to fight disease and have an enjoyable quality of life. That may seem like a no-brainer, yet if we really understood the factors that decrease the strength of our immune system (sugar, processed foods, alcohol, caffeine, and environmental pollutants) we might seek to limit our exposure or consumption of or to, these factors.
Don’t get me wrong, I eat chocolate pretty much on a daily basis, live for my morning coffee and consume my fair share packaged food. (I have three children, need I say more?) However, when we don’t feel good, or even when we feel “off”, there are some causes that could possibly be remedied with probiotics.
The research on probiotics and immunity is intense and it's out there. This is by no means a comprehensive article, and I encourage you to dig a little deeper if the subject matter gets your attention. My goal here is to give a brief overview of probiotics – the what, the why and the how of the friendly bacteria in our gut.
Many people rely on food, such as yogurt, as a probiotic to supply the good bacteria in their daily diet.
There are 100 trillion microbes that inhabit our body, collectively weighing about three pounds. Nearly 80% of these microbes, especially the ones crucial to our immune system, can be found in our intestine!² That’s a big deal! That information tells us right there how important our digestive health is to our overall health and wellbeing.
Different bacteria are known for different roles in our system, some beneficial for various conditions such as fighting food poisoning, whereas others are best for chronic ailments such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or colitis.
Your body is always adjusting and nothing is ever stagnant. Just as changes in where you live and where you work largely impact your life, they also affect the microflora in your gut. So, just like everything, there is no one size fits all, no magic pill that will work forever. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth it to try different options, listen to your body and figure out what might work for you.
Probiotics have many roles and/or benefits² Probiotics:
Play an important role in ability to fight infectious disease
Manufacture B-complex vitamins (biotin, B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B12, folic acid) and vitamin K
Increase absorption of minerals that require acid for absorption (calcium, iron, copper, magnesium, and manganese)
Increase resistance to food poisoning
Can acidify pH of digestive tract (yeast and other pathogens can’t survive in low pH environment)
Protect against development of allergic conditions
Helping to reduce symptoms of asthma
Help regulate bowels and bowel transit time (say 'no' to constipation!)
Break down and rebuild hormones (help to control hormones)
Play a role in regulating serum cholesterol and triglycerides
Helping to reduce inflammation
Protect from xenobiotics (mercury, radiation, pesticides and other pollutants)
Help with yeast/candida infections
Break down lactose (a carbohydrate found in dairy)
So, it is an understatement to say that the balance of our intestinal microbes is pertinent to our health. They go hand in hand. Many factors can disrupt this balance such as the lifestyle factors mentioned above, in addition to aging, disease, pregnancy and stress. Ensuring a healthy amount of good bacteria requires an awareness to our own body, how it feels, as well an awareness to the foods we eat.
Supplementation may be necessary if we have conditions that stem from a yeast (or other unhealthy bacteria) overgrowth or an inability to digest food to absorb essential nutrients. Additionally, when we are under stress, recovering from illness or surgery, or even suffering from digestive distress, upping the probiotic game may be a good option.
Probiotics work well with FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides). As a prebiotic, FOS feed probiotics and help the growth of good bacteria. Additionally, prebiotics help probiotic microbes endure the acid in the digestive tract. FOS can be found in foods we eat every day. Good sources are garlic, leeks, fruit, sugar maple, artichokes and whole wheat. They are also found in inulin, a prebiotic fiber.
Aside from supplementation, probiotics can be found in certain foods that are fermented (such as yogurt, certain cheeses, pickles and sauerkraut) because bacteria is added back in as part of the fermenting process.
Are All Supplements the Same?
All supplements are not the same. Many companies see a wave of consumer interest over a particular health claim and jump on board. While products like yogurt and frozen yogurt can be excellent sources of probiotics (the good bacteria can survive freezing), if there is any heat treatment to the product after the bacteria has been added, there is a good chance much of the probiotics have been destroyed.
Additionally, the method of preparation, such as freeze-dried or live can also play a part. The jury is still out on the greater effectiveness, different theories supporting both sides. It’s important to keep in mind, stomach acid is powerful, and the good bacteria need to make it past this acid to do all the good of which it is capable. Another important factor is the amount of live cultures.. Remember, we have trillions of microbes, so supplementation needs to be at least in the millions to make it to the intestines.
The strain of bacteria is also important. There are different bacteria that are “residents” (usually found in the intestine) and then those that are passing through that can assist in reaching optimal health. For example, Lactobacilli Acidophilus and Bifidobacteria Bifidum are often inhabitants, whereas Lactobacillus Bulgaricus reaches the intestines via food or supplementation.²
What This All Means
Overall, the research on probiotics has been fruitful. There is so much information and so many studies that could keep you busy for months! It is important to know that along with any health food or supplement that gets a lot of attention, not every claim is truthful. I’ve seen everything from bread to gum claim the contents contain probiotics. That may be true, but it does matter the amount of bacteria, the type of bacteria and how the product is processed to make any substantial difference in your health as it relates to probiotics.
Ultimately, you are your own advocate. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Probiotics, in food and in supplementation, have a role in our health. Just like everything else when looking at our health, there is no one magical cure, yet there are definitely things that can help, bringing us to a higher quality of overall health.
*DISCLAIMER: As indicated throughout The Nourished Seedling, the information presented here is solely for informational purposes, not intended to diagnose or cure any disease. As with any change in diet or supplement program, it is advised to always consult your healthcare professional when making these decisions.
References and Further Reading:
¹Holford, Patrick. The Optimum Nutrition Bible. Berkeley, CA: The Crossing Press, 2004.
²Huffnagle, Gary B. and Sarah Wernick. The Probiotics Revolution. New York, New York: Bantam Books, 2007.