Did you know there are close to 100 trillion microorganisms living within us? Can you even begin to understand how many that is? 100,000,000,000,000.
That is a lot! Scientists say we are more bacterial DNA than we are human. So, it stands to reason, if we have this many microorganisms living inside, most must confer some health benefits, right?
What are probiotics?
The definition of a probiotic is a viable microorganism that can alter the host environment.
Usually, we think of probiotics as yogurts or some fermented or cultured food. Perhaps you are reminded of sauerkraut or kimchi or even beer, bread, wine and cheese. Cultures around the globe have offered some type of fermented or cultured food as mainstay ingredients. Most of these provide beneficial microorganisms that we ingest and that present health benefits.
Bacteria and yeast can help us digest our food, provide support for our immune system by attacking disease-causing cells, affect brain function and even produce vitamins such as Vitamin K necessary for adequate blood clotting.
How were they discovered?
They were first observed by a few different scientists. Over 100 years ago, Russian Elie Metchnikoff suggested the idea that the bacteria in the gut can be altered with beneficial strains replacing the opportunistic ones. His work focused on the colon and how these toxic factors could increase the aging process. He promoted the idea of drinking sour milk and named it Bulgarian Bacillus that today we know as Lactobacillus bulgaricus.
Henry Tissier of the Pasteur Institute studied how the microbiome of breastfed infants harbored more Bifidobacteria compared to formula-fed infants that suffered from diarrhea.
Probiotics have become so popular that one review from the 2012 NHIS showed that 4 million adults in the United States were taking a probiotic supplement. Its use has quadrupled from 2007-12. It is reported to be a $6 billion business. For good reason, more and more studies are looking at certain strains that successfully treat specific conditions.
What do they do?
Two strains that show up consistently in the research are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
They have been shown to prevent antibiotic-resistant diarrhea, including the hospital-acquired Clostridium difficile, and they can prevent sepsis in infants, treat periodontal disease and help ulcerative colitis patients prevent flares. Treating allergic rhinitis and urinary tract infections are
other areas where specific probiotic species and strains can be helpful. They have even been shown to upregulate genes.
It is proposed that they do this by strengthening the function of the intestinal barrier. The integrity of the lining of the intestinal tract is what protects it from the outside world. It must be permeable enough to absorb nutrients but not too leaky to allow pathogens to migrate to the blood stream.
Are they safe?
Just like other supplements, most probiotics are not regulated and do not require the FDA to approve. Some supplements are available in the form of capsules or powders. They also may be in creams, lotions or suppositories. Those who may be high risk due to compromised immune systems should always check with their healthcare provider.
What to consider?
A combination of different strains in the species Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium have appeared the most in the research:
Beneficial yeast is particularly helpful with antibiotic-resistant diarrhea or when recovering from food poisoning that leads to diarrhea symptoms:
With less research but becoming more popular are spore-based probiotics:
How to support?
Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that confer health benefits by selectively inducing the growth of probiotic species. This is fiber in our diet. A diet rich on fiber is likely home to a balanced ecology of beneficial bacteria and yeast. Fiber can be found in many delicious foods: beans, legumes, oats, berries, garlic, bananas and artichokes, to name a few favorites.
Other sources of fiber in the diet:
1 large pear with skin (7 grams)
1 cup fresh raspberries (8 grams)
½ medium avocado (5 grams)
1 ounce almonds (3.5 grams)
½ cup cooked black beans (7.5 grams)
3 cups air-popped popcorn (3.6 grams)
1 cup cooked pearled barley (6 grams)
Always consult your healthcare professional before beginning a probiotic. Keeping a diet high in fiber and enjoying fermented and cultured foods will be good assurance for a more robust microbiome.