Probiotics are being used with increasing frequency as new discoveries find that everything from bacterial vaginosis, urinary tract infections, digestive problems, mental and mood imbalances and even tooth decay can be attributed to some form of imbalance in the gut-microbiome. With this new emerging research, probiotic supplementation has become the stable datum for many, and a solution to all that ails them.
While it may or may not be true that all disease has its roots in the gut, one thing is for sure, probiotics can especially help in treating and recovering from a variety of gastrointestinal disorders.
In this post, we will discuss the mechanisms and actions of different microorganisms and their effects on improving some of the most common digestive issues. We will also cover the history of probiotic use as well as the most effective delivery systems to ensuring maximum benefits.
Historical Perspectives of Probiotics
Probiotics have been used therapeutically for thousands of years throughout different cultures. Most people, including ancient Indians, Chinese, Bulgarians, Turkish and more, have known the longevity and digestive benefits of probiotics. The only difference though, is they didn’t get their probiotics from a pill.
Today, a probiotic is defined as “a live organisms, which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” Looking at the word literally, is means “for life”, pro means for, and bio means life.
With the definition and meaning in combination, a probiotic is a beneficial microorganism that offers health promoting or life giving benefits.
Within the world of probiotic bacteria, there are several categories that are in use today, the most popular being lactic-acid bacteria, as well as yeast species including most prominently Saccharomyces boulardii, and others.
In actuality, there are trillions of different types of microorganisms that live within and on the body; equating to about 39 trillion some bacteria that make up the human body.
In addition to probiotics, prebiotics such as lactulose, inulin, psyllium, and other long-chain sugars known as oligosaccharides (present in vegetables form the lily family including onions, garlic, asparagus, leeks, artichoke, and other plants like bananas, tomatoes, wheat, oats, and more). are popularly used knowing or unknowingly to improve gut health.
Unlike probiotic supplements, consuming both prebiotic foods will stimulate the growth or activity of present beneficial bacteria in the GI tract.
Today, synbiotics are commonly consumed, which are a combination of a prebiotic fibers and probiotic bacteria, which not only help more efficient delivery of the probiotics, but ensure their survival in supplement form.
Just to be clear, antibiotics are not in the same class as probiotics, probiotics or synbiotics. Antibiotics, literally meaning against life, are compounds that kill or inhibit the growth of both beneficial and pathogenic bacteria.
One of the first people of the world of Western medicine to document the topic of probiotics, was the Russian Nobel Prize winner Ilya Metchnikoff. His research was inspired by the impressive health and longevity of the people in Eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Turkey, Russia), who lived largely on raw milk fermented.
He discovered that proteolytic microbes in the colon produced toxic substances, which caused accelerated aging. He also discovered that consuming raw fermented milk helped to created a beneficial biofilm in the colon and lowered the pH of the colon, which protected it from toxins and killed off pathogenic proteolytic bacteria.
Metchnikoff therefore recommend that people interested in longevity and graceful aging to consume raw milk fermented that contained the ‘Bulgarian Bacillus’ culture.
Additional researchers that came after Metchnikoff have made further discoveries about the specific beneficial actions of probiotics. In the last decade, there have been over 5000 articles published in regards to the health benefits of probiotics.
Mechanisms and Actions of Probiotics
The digestive tract serves two primary functions; to assimilate nutrients for immunity and energy and as a protective barrier from the outside world. When healthy, it is home to the majority of the microbes that make up the body (roughly 10 trillion different species, amounting to 2-4 lbs. in weight.)
There are two reasons the micro-biome remains so elusive; one is that only a small minority (300–500) of these species can be cultured in vitro and “studied”. Two, the bacteria in the gut respond to our thoughts and emotions, which make them very “alive”, and therefore elusive in nature.
Some of the most fascinating discoveries science is coming to terms with is that they respond to hormones and neurotransmitters, which means they literally read our thoughts and emotions and act accordingly.
Additionally, probiotic bacteria are responsible for:
- The modulation of the immune system – by altering inflammatory cytokine profiles and downregulating proinflammatory cascades.
- Alteration of the colon pH. by nutrient fermentation.
- The enhancement of epithelial barrier function.
- The induction of µ-opioid and cannabinoid receptors in intestinal epithelial cells.
- The reduction of visceral hypersensitivity, spinal afferent traffic
- The stress response.
The Best Probiotic Formulas and Delivery Systems
Probiotics are available in a wide variety of formulations ranging from capsules, beverages, and powders to lacto-fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt (don’t waste your money on gimmicky probiotic infused juices and other products, stick with the real stuff). While most physicians tend to recommend tablets and powders; there are much more effective and even traditional formulations.
To qualify as a probiotic, certain criteria need to be met: a bacterial strain must be fully identified, be safe for ingestion, adhere to the luminal mucosa, colonize the gut, and possess documented health benefits.
In order to meet those standards, choose a probiotic that:
- Is delivered in a formulation that is stable when stored.
- Has a colony number of bacteria and viability reliable so they can survive the acid and bilious environment in the upper GI tract before they reach the small intestine and colon.
The problem is 99.99% of all commercial probiotics do not meet these criteria and are therefore totally useless and a waste of money. There are only two probiotics on th market that I know of which meet these criteria, and they’re expensive for it.
Otherwise, for a probiotic that actually works, your answer is FERMENTED FOODS.
True, fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt and kombucha, have thriving, alive and robust bacteria that will not only be alive when you consume them, but will have the necessary co-factors and nutrients they need in order to bypass your upper GI system, and thrive in your lower GI tract.
What’s more, is that they are food, so they’re delicious and very affordable, it’s a no brainer. Therefore, I could not recommend enough that you learn how to make your own ferments.
Digestive Disorders Improved by Probiotics
Considering that the gut is home to nearly 4 pounds of bacteria, it seems logical that the proper use of probiotics would improve the functioning of the digestive system. The ingestion of specific probiotics can alter the bowel flora, playing a role in the pathogenesis of many digestive disorders. According to research, probiotic therapy has proved effective for the following common digestive problems:
Ulcerative colitis (UC). This inflammatory disease of the colon can be regulated by probiotic use. Studies have found that through probiotic supplementation there were various improvements in the diseases activity, specifically cytokine levels, the precursors to inflammation. Furthermore, patients who took probiotics had longer periods between flare ups. These studies suggest that probiotics may be as effective for the remission of UC.
Inflamed Bowel Disease (IBD). Studies show a consistent decrease in incidence and relapse of inflammation for patients with IBD. 2
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). This multisymptom GI disorder is perhaps the most elusive, triggered by a variety of psychosomatic stressors and prevalences of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). The bloating and gas in IBS have been attributed to possible alterations in the intestinal microflora, which are been effectively treated by probiotics. Additionally, IBS is thought to begin after a bout of acute gastroenteritis suggesting that altered microflora, inflammatory and immune state in the bowel can lead to lead IBS. Probiotics can help modulate the increased lymphocytes and pro-inflammatory cytokines levels present in IBS. 3
Infectious diarrhea. Studies have found that diarrhea can be treated effectively in both adults and children by the use of probiotics. The duration of symptoms is decreased by about 30 hours as suggested by a systematic review of trials in active infectious diarrhea. In this Cochrane review, 23 studies including almost 2000 participants, it was concluded that probiotics reduced the risk of persistent diarrhea. The majority of the probiotics used in these studies were S. boulardii. 4 5
The effect of probiotics on other GI disorders have also been studied, including lactose intolerance, Helicobacter pylori infection, microscopic colitis, prevention and treatment of diverticulitis, and even colon cancer prevention. The studies are currently inconclusive, but when considering the anti-inflammatory effects of probiotics and the correlation between pro-flammatory cytokines and most digestive diseases, probiotics may show promise for these conditions as well.
Choosing the Right Probiotic
Before you start randomly supplementing with probiotics, it is important to understand that not all probiotics are created equally. Depending on the strain will determine a lot about the optimal dose, method of delivery, effectiveness, and viability of the probiotic.
Here are a few things to consider:
For starters, different probiotic species and genuses may have different immunological and physiological effects in different disease states.
The composition of colonic bacterial microflora appears to change with age. However, it is unknown whether elderly people should be treated with different probiotics than younger people.
Combination probiotics may interact and have an impact on host intestinal flora differently than single probiotic preparations.
Different species, as well as its form will determined how long a given probiotic will take to colonize, alter the microflora, and have an impact on immune function and most of this is uncertain.
What does this mean? Well, probiotics are living organisms, meaning they are dynamic and will respond to a variety of different environmental and internal factors.
Perhaps the safest way to and smartest way to supplement probiotics is with live, probiotic-rich foods and beverages. This will ensure a few things:
- It’s Live. It is still living, where most supplements may not have a very long shelf life.
- Strain Specific. Food-based probiotics are more likely to have an optimal microbial diversity. Also, given they are derived from the environment, they are most likely to be native to the human gut, giving them a better chance of colonizing.
- Colonization. Being based in food, they will more likely bypass the harsh environment of the stomach and populate in the intestines.
The human body is a piece of the Earth, it is a bacterial entity. Therefore, probiotics are as natural as they come; given they are derived from Nature. Their use therapeutically are effective for variety of GI disorders and more. There is good evidence that they decrease the duration of symptoms of most digestive issues, improve skin health, and can even improve physiological imbalances like anxiety and depression.
Additionally, probiotics have been shown to be safe. To ensure effectiveness, choose probiotics that are native to the human gut, preferably from naturally fermented foods and beverages, or strain specific probiotic supplements that are proven to be effective. As always, be your own judge, no-one knows your body as good as you. Experiment, communicate with your body, see what works and watch for the effects. If you feel better from probiotics, they’re working, so keep going.
For more detailed tips for optimizing digestive function, be sure to check out my comprehensive online course Perfect Digestion.