Probiotics are live microorganisms, which facilitate the balance of organisms, or microflora, in the human digestive tract.
Probiotics are often referred to as our friendly bacteria, because they benefit us in many ways. They are critical to a healthy immune system, provide protection against pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms and even help with digestion of food and absorption of nutrients.
Several hundred types of strains of beneficial bacteria inhabit the human gut. Two of the most widely publicized are Lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt, and Bifidobacterium, which takes up residence in the gut of breastfed infants.
Bifidobacterium is thought to foster natural immunity from disease in breastfed babies. Not all probiotics are bacteria; Sacchromyces boulardii is a strain of yeast, which functions as a probiotic.
A delicate balance
The delicate balance of the gut microflora can be upset by pathogenic bacteria, fungi, parasites, drugs (especially antibiotics), alcohol and toxin exposure. When this balance is thrown off, an overgrowth of “bad” microorganisms, such as yeast, bacteria and viruses, can occur and result in the development of the dreaded “stomach flu,” as well as vaginal yeast and urinary tract infections.
Antibiotic therapy kills pathogenic bacteria, and it also kills beneficial bacteria. Studies show that supplementing with probiotics during and/or after antibiotic therapy, helps to rebalance the gut microflora and prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Seventy percent of the body’s immune system resides in the digestive tract. This means that your overall health and immunity may be highly dependent on the health of your digestive tract. It is for this reason, that more and more health practitioners are recommending daily preventive use of probiotics, either via multiple daily servings of cultured foods, such as sauerkraut, yogurt, miso, tempeh, natto, kim chi, kombucha, etc., or probiotic supplements.
What the studies say
Probiotics have been studied and found effective in treating diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Clostridium difficile (aka: C. diff) intestinal infection, and in both treatment and prevention of urinary tract and female genital tract infections, as well as dermatitis and eczema in kids.
It appears that specific strains may be best for specific conditions, and this a major area of scientific research. Much of the data is preliminary, but promising.
For instance, a study published in “Gastroenterology” in 2005, showed that the probiotic strain B. infantis 35624, when used in the treatment of IBS, significantly reduced symptoms in comparison to placebo and normalized ratios of Interleukins 10 and 12–inflammatory chemical messengers, which are elevated in IBS.
When it comes to nutrition, a food-first approach is best. For general well-being, include cultured/fermented foods as a regular part of your diet, such as those foods mentioned previously.
When using yogurt for preventive measures, make sure to use plain yogurt, versus those with added sugars, to avoid reducing the effectiveness of the probiotic. A great resource for getting started with cultured foods is www.nourishedkitchen.com. Nourished Kitchen offers education, classes, recipes and meal planning, which includes cultured foods as a major dietary focus.
For specific conditions, seek guidance from a health care professional, such as a medical doctor, doctor of naturopathy or registered dietitian.
When purchasing recommended probiotic supplements, make sure the product has both a manufacturing date and an expiration date, because potency fades over time.
Some products do not require refrigeration, but if you do, you can prolong the potency. Look for the claim, “contains live cultures” on the label.
For dosage, follow label instructions. Some strains should be taken on an empty stomach with water, and others may be taken with food.
When using a probiotic supplement in conjunction with antibiotics, take the probiotic dose as far apart from the antibiotic dose as possible. Take the probiotic for at least two weeks after finishing antibiotic treatment.
Bloating and gas are potential but temporary side effects of taking a probiotic supplement. To minimize these side effects, start with half of the recommended dose for the first couple of days.
Dosing varies among brands and may range from 1 billion to several hundred billion organisms per dose. In general, those with compromised immune systems should avoid probiotic supplements, and those concerned only with prevention and maintenance are well-served with the food-first approach to probiotics.
Angie King-Nosseir is an Integrative Registered Dietitian in private practice. She also works as a health coach with the Albuquerque-based corporate wellness company, Nuvita.
Gut check: Probiotics can help