If you haven’t heard of probiotics yet, where have you been hiding?
After all, the commercial probiotics trade is a rapidly growing industry, with global annual sales expected to reach a staggering $42 billion in 2016.
Who knew bottled bacteria could be so popular?
Maybe you’re considering jumping on the probiotic bandwagon, or maybe you’re already on it but wondering if it’s time to get off.
Well, you know me, I like to help you guys out and make your lives a little easier. So here’s my straightforward guide to probiotics – what they are, what they do, and if they’re really necessary for good health.
So, What are Probiotics Anyway?
In a nutshell, probiotics are live bacteria (and some live yeasts) that live in our bodies.
That’s right, our bodies are full of bacteria. In fact, there is more bacteria in the human body than there are cells, with approximately 100 trillion microorganisms inhabiting the bowel alone.
But don’t reach for the anti-bacterial hand gel just yet. The vast majority of these little guys are super helpful.
These friendly microflora help us digest our food, absorb nutrients, and even break down some medications.
They also help:
- To replace ‘good’ bacteria in our body after taking antibiotics
- To lower the amount of bad bacteria that contribute to infections
- To balance the good and bad bacteria so our bodies run efficiently
The term ‘probiotic’ (which literally translates to ‘for life’) also applies to the food and supplements that contain live strains of beneficial bacteria. Probiotics have been defined in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition as “any viable microbial dietary supplement that beneficially affects the host”.
While there are several different strains of probiotics, you’ll probably only recognize the two most common from yogurts and drinks cartons – Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
What are the Heath Benefits of Probiotics?
Probiotics are said to do everything from prevent cancer to assist in digestive disorders.
As with any food or supplement, some of the more outlandish claims are simply not backed up by any evidence. And you know me, I need evidence!
I have to say, the research done on probiotics isn’t huge, and there are many conflicting findings out there.
Nonetheless, I’ve put together some of the more convincing arguments, backed up by studies of course, to help you decide if probiotics are right for you.
Prevent or Ease Diarrhea
Let’s kick off this list with the most well documented (although least glamorous) benefit of taking probiotics – the ability to ease or prevent diarrhea.
Several studies show that probiotics shorten the course of diarrhea in sufferers, particularly those with antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD).
What’s more, an analysis of 23 trials, studying 4213 patients, showed that probiotics are both safe and effective for preventing infectious diarrhea.
So, if you’re a bit out of sorts after traveling or taking a course of antibiotics, give probiotics a go and see if they lessen your suffering.
Aid Brain Function & Mental Health
Did you know that our brain and our gastrointestinal system are intimately connected?
So it’s not that ‘out there’ to consider that optimum gut health may lead to a healthy brain too. After all, there are many ways that food can affect our emotions, amongst other things.
And that’s exactly what researchers at UCLA now believe. While it’s long been known that the brain can affect the gut, these scientists have found that this connection may be a two-way street.
In a four-week study, healthy women were given a probiotic rich yogurt. At the end, they displayed improved brain function when compared to either the placebo or control groups.
This powerful bacteria may also be used to fight depression. Just this year, a study at the Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition in the Netherlands showed that participants who took probiotics had a significant reduction in negative thoughts, particularly those of an aggressive nature, indicating that this could lead to an overall reduction in feelings of depression.
Keep Cholesterol in Check
Of course, high levels of ‘bad cholesterol’ aka LDL cholesterol are a nightmare for your health.
Could probiotics be the key to lowering cholesterol?
A 6-week study of middle-aged men showed that drinking 200 ml of fermented milk daily, significantly reduced total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels by 6 and 10% respectively. However, even though this study (and others like it) show that probiotics play a positive role in lowering cholesterol, other results are conflicting.
This may be because certain strains of probiotics have cholesterol-lowering properties, while others do not. But one thing is for sure, more studies are definitely called for before we can rely on probiotics alone as a cholesterol lowering remedy.
Alleviate Chronic Fatigue & Inflammation
I’ve talked before about the dangers of chronic inflammation and what it does to your body. Recent research has pointed to probiotics as a possible way combat this type of inflammation.
One study, at the University College Cork, Ireland reported that a particular strain of probiotic bacteria was shown to be beneficial in treating patients with chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as those with psoriasis and ulcerative colitis – three conditions caused by inflammation.
After taking beneficial bacteria the researchers found that, across all conditions, there were indicators of a reduction in inflammation, which would be linked with clinical remission and a lower risk of relapse.
If you’re suffering from a related illness, probiotics could be worth a shot, in addition to a healthy inflammation-fighting diet.
Treat Inflammatory Bowel Conditions
Since we’ve just seen that probiotics can help inflammation, it’s probably not too surprising that they can also help prevent or manage inflammatory bowel syndrome, as well as certain types of inflammatory bowel diseases, affecting up to 1.6 million Americans.
Certain probiotics might help:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – this common affliction affects up to 45 million people in the United States. A review of 19 controlled trials, totaling 1650 patients, showed that probiotics appear to be efficient in alleviating symptoms associated with IBS.
- Prevent relapse of crohn’s disease – promising research has shown that friendly bacteria may maintain remission of this chronic inflammatory disease of the intestines.
- Avoid the recurrence of pouchitis – a daily dose of probiotics has shown effective in maintaining antibiotic introduced remission for at least a year in patients with recurrent pouchitis, a complication of surgery to treat ulcerative colitis.
Just like our gut and our brain are inextricably linked, so too are our gut and immunity. Strangely enough, about 80% of our immune system is located in our digestive system!
It certainly makes sense that a healthy gut would lead to an overall healthy immune system.
Even those who put their bodies under immense pressure, leaving them susceptible to illness, may benefit from a good dose of friendly bacteria. Probiotics have been proven to boost immune function in athletes, in one study, doses of this bacteria significantly reduced the number and length of infections suffered by long-distance runners.
As great as all this sounds however, results on the immune boosting properties of probiotics have been inconsistent. Other studies don’t support these findings, prompting the European Food Safety Authority to state that claims of probiotic foods affecting the immune system lack sound scientific basis.
Maintain Urinary Health
Urinary tract infections (UTI) are especially common in women (more than 50% will experience one in their lifetime), with many experiencing multiple infections.
The good news is that, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center, there is strong scientific evidence to support the use of probiotics for urinary tract conditions.
Even better news is that evidence suggests that probiotics can be beneficial and safe in preventing recurrent UTIs in women.
Is this the miracle pill you’ve dreamed of? A supplement that can shed the pounds without having to put in any effort?
Well…not for the time being.
While a study in the Journal of Clinical Investigation suggests that it may be possible to use probiotic bacteria to treat obesity and other chronic diseases, researchers are still working on strategies to prevent obesity directly.
So for now, you’ll have to stick with my recommendations to stay fit and healthy – eat clean and sweat it out at the gym.
Of course, if you’re simply looking to banish bloating then probiotics are worth a try in the quest for a flatter stomach.
Poor oral hygiene has been linked to heart disease and diabetes, so look after your teeth or you may be headed for trouble!
Some say probiotics can help you keep a healthy mouth, with probiotic lozenges and gums now being sold.
But is there any merit to these products, or are they just another marketing scam?
According to the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association, while few clinical studies have taken place, the initial results suggest that probiotics could be useful in preventing and treating oral infections, including dental caries, periodontal disease, and even bad breath. This is most likely due to the beneficial bacteria keeping the excess ‘bad’ bacteria that live in our mouth under control.
That said, I’d still stay away from lozenges and other products that claim to have probiotic bacteria alongside sugars or sugar replacements…these two additives will probably offset any health benefits the probiotics may bring.
Prevent Allergies & Eczema
There’s not a whole lot of research on the topic of probiotics and allergies, but one large study has found a link between women who take probiotics while pregnant and a decrease in occurrence of childhood eczema – an early sign of allergies – in their babies.
By the end of the study of 241 women, 71% of babies in the placebo group had eczema at least once, compared to just 29% of infants where mothers took a probiotic.
Lower Blood Pressure
Probiotics could be good news for the one in three American adults that suffer with high blood pressure. A review of 9 randomized, controlled studies, found probiotics help lower blood pressure levels.
Although 8 of the studies only found modest reductions in blood pressure, the scientists behind the review suggest that probiotics might have greater effects when multiple strains of bacteria are used, and when taken long term.
Do We Really Need to Take Probiotics?
While the Mayo Clinic state that we don’t actually need to take probiotics for good health, they do recognize some possible health benefits of taking them.
Because a multitude of factors (like poor food choices, lack of sleep, use of antibiotics, stress, and our environment) are thought to contribute to an overgrowth of bad bacteria, supplementing with probiotics might be a good idea for some – particularly if your lifestyle affects your health, or you suffer from any of the conditions I listed above.
Where Can I Find Probiotic Foods?
Like I said, the commercial market for probiotics is worth billions, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a source of beneficial bacteria, either in your local store or health food store.
You’re probably familiar with yogurts and dairy products that claim to be probiotic, but there are now even cereals, frozen yogurts, granolas, chocolate and cookies that claim to benefit your gut. Because sugar is basically food for the bad bacteria, I’d be very skeptical of some of these products.
Of course, before the invention of probiotic-enriched foods, people have used whole foods since ancient times to provide the good bacteria needed for intestinal and overall health.
Try adding a variety of ‘live’ foods to your diet such as natural yogurt, sauerkraut, miso, raw apple cider vinegar, kefir, kimchi and kombucha tea, to name just a few.
What about Probiotic Supplements?
Tests run by ConsumerLab.com of 12 probiotic products found that, even though they all contained at least one billion organisms per daily dose – an amount that may provide some benefit – some products contained far lower amounts than they claimed to.
And don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the dramatic results experienced in some of the studies I listed, many of these pharmaceutical grade probiotics used in clinical trials contain very different levels of probiotics to store bought supplements.
All that said, if you want to try supplementing, look for a high-quality, well-known brand containing living strains of bacteria. Watch how you store them too – they often need to be kept refrigerated.
Before you Take Probiotics
- Side effects are rare and, if they happen, are usually mild. You might experience upset stomach, diarrhea, gas or bloating initially but that should settle down once your body adjusts. If symptoms persist, or are severe, stop taking them and consult your doctor.
- If you are immune compromised, have certain bowel problems or other serious medical conditions, always consult your doctor before taking probiotics. Pregnant women as well as infants and children should do the same.
A Word on Prebiotics
If you’re going to be adding probiotics to your diet, then I recommend you add some prebiotics too. These are non-digestible carbohydrates that ‘feed’ the probiotics and help them grow in your gut.
They’re found in foods such as artichoke, asparagus, onions, garlic, bananas, tomatoes, and chicory.
It seems that probiotics do have a lot of benefits going for them, even if only a handful of studies have proven these benefits. More research definitely needs to be done to confirm if probiotics are worthy of all the hype – but I’m sure with such a fast-growing industry, studies will be done in time.
Because they’re deemed safe to take, have few side-effects and appear to have several benefits, I see no reason not to supplement with them, particularly if any of the conditions I listed apply to you.
But as always, I prefer to get the benefits of whole foods over supplements. At least that way, I get the antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals from these food sources in addition to any probiotic benefits they may bring.
Of course, probiotics aren’t a substitute for a healthy well-balanced diet – and research agrees with me…exercise and diet have been proven to have a big impact on our gut bacteria too!
What do you think? Do you take a probiotic?