What are Probiotics?
What is the best probiotic? Well that depends on the reason you are taking a probiotic in the first place as there are many different types, which treat many different health conditions, there is not a one size fits all.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kim chi, tempeh, kefir and other fermented foods. Probiotic microorganisms have always been an important part of the human diet, and with approximately 1 1/2 kilograms of our weight made up of bacteria we want to make sure the majority are the beneficial bacteria that help us survive and thrive.
As well as fermented foods probiotics are now available in supplements and this can have many advantages as we can get specific strains of probiotics, that have been scientifically proven to treat specific conditions in a therapeutic dose. There are also a number of negative aspects in regards to probiotic supplements with the main one being that many are of dubious quality or they are providing probiotics at such a low dosage that they will not provide a therapeutic benefit.
This article is to provide you with the knowledge so that you will not only know the benefits of probiotics but which strains have been proven to treat specific conditions. For example, certain probiotics have been proven to be effective at treating specific conditions while other similar probiotics are not. In the case of abdominal pain Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG has proven to be effective but Lactobacillus acidophilus has not.
Therapeutic uses of Probiotics
Traditionally most of the research has focused on digestion problems and many different strains of probiotics have been proven to be very effective in this case. Gastrointestinal conditions that can be treated by probiotics include irritable bowel syndrome, GIT infections, constipation, diarrhea, candida, post antibiotic therapy and dysbiosis.
Recent research has shown that probiotic therapy can be effective in treating eczema, low immunity, urinary tract infections, anxiety and depression, high cholesterol and reflux.
In over 143 clinical trials utilizing probiotics there have been no adverse effects recorded which indicates they are not only a reliable treatment but also very safe.
How do I know if a probiotic is good quality?
Many supplements and even some commercial foods claim to contain probiotics and they may have in the list of ingredients "Lactobacillus acidophilus", which really tells you nothing, and if that is all the product tells you about the probiotic you can assume that it is not of good quality. If a supplement is going to have a good quality probiotic in it then I am sure they are going to want to tell you about it, for example of a good quality probiotic it may look like this "Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM". The NCFM tells us the specific strain, and in this particular case it is a very well researched therapeutic strain.
A good analogy to think about is dogs, they are all the same species but different breeds are good for different activities like a German Shepherd is a good guard dog, a Kelpie is a good sheep dog and a Maltese terrier would be a good family pet. Each strain of probiotic is like a different breed of dog and there is not one size fits all, so you need to get the right strain to treat different health conditions.
There is now a lot of research into different strains of probiotics and their health benefits so it is important when you are buying a probiotic to be prescribed the right probiotic for your health condition rather than just grabbing one off the shelf.
When buying a probiotic you not only have to look for the right strain of probiotic but it must be in the right dosage, research shows that most probiotics are effective in the dosage range of 10 billion living bacteria per dose. A couple of strains like Lactobacillus reuteri MM53 have been shown to be effective in smaller doses.
How do Probiotics work?
Probiotics compete with pathogenic bacteria, parasites and fungi like Candida albicans along the gastrointestinal tract. If you imagine that your gut is a giant carpark with a specific amount of car parking spaces available then the more beneficial bacteria that you have filling these spaces the healthier your gut will be. On the flip side to that, the more pathogenic bacteria that you have, then there will be more gastrointestinal symptoms, lower immunity and poor health.
This is why after antibiotic therapy when many of the good and bad bacteria have been killed off a lot more "car parks" become available and if you do not provide the good bacteria to restore microbial balance there is a greater chance of pathogenic bacteria taking over and filling those places.
That is a very simplistic explanation and in reality it is a lot more complex but I use the "car park" analogy to highlight the importance of having good levels of beneficial bacteria.
Probiotics have been shown to inhibit viruses, boost the immune system by increasing gut IgA production, produce beneficial compounds in the gut like short chain fatty acids, have an anit-inflammatory action, regulate production of pro-inflammatory cytokines and even speed up or reduce colon transit time depending on what probiotic is used.
Probiotics strengthen the intestinal barrier which helps to keep toxins from "leaking" across the intestinal wall into our bloodstream .... the list of functions of probiotics is very long and the list gets longer each year as more and more studies are being undertaken into the effects of probiotics.
Should you use probiotics when taking antibiotics?
There is a myth that you should not use probiotics until after you have stopped taking antibiotics because the antibiotics will kill all the probiotic bacteria. The reality is that the research clearly shows that using probiotics at the same time as antibiotics significantly decreases antibiotic side effects like diarrhea, also by taking probiotics at the same time as antibiotics it greatly reduces the damage done to the gut microflora.
Treating specific conditions with Probiotics
There are many strains of therapeutic probiotics which can treat many different conditions, too many to list here but I will give you a few examples for common health conditions.
Allergic Rhinitis .... there are a number of probiotics that reduced symptoms such as runny nose, blocked nose, reduction in general symptoms as well as a reduced need for medications. The specific strains used include Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM, Bifidobacterium lactis BI-04, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Lactobacillus gasseri TMC0356
Anxiety .... symptoms that improved include reduced anxiety and depression, reduced anger and a reduction in cortisol levels. The probiotic strains used include Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175
Eczema .... with some probiotics a 49% reduction in eczema development in children in the probiotic group as well as a decrease in the severity of eczema. The probiotic strains used include Lactobacillus reuteri MM53, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001, Bifidobacterium lactis Bb12 and Lactobacillus fermentum VRI-003
Immune enhancement .... Probiotics can enhance the immune system in so many ways and studies have shown that they can reduce the incidence in fevers in children, reduce antiobiotic use, reduce respiratory infections, reduce ear infections and reduce illness in elite athletes. Probiotic strains that enhance the immune system include Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM, Bifidobacterium lactis Bi07, Lactobacillus johnsonii La1, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Lactobacillus reuteri MM53
Travellers diarrhea .... reducing incidence and severity of travellers diarrhea and the strain most effective was Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardi biocodex (which is a bit of a mouthful), this probiotic strain is beneficial in many different conditions.
Probiotics are excellent for the treatment and prevention of many health conditions and are particularly useful for people experiencing chronic or recurrent health issues to improve digestive function and their immune systems.
Another important aspect of probiotic therapy is the use of prebiotics which are the beneficial food that the probiotics feed on, recent research has shown that prebiotics are as essential as probiotics to ensure good levels of beneficial bacteria are present in the gut. In the next article I will talk more about prebiotics and colonic foods which are essential for long term health.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments.