Probiotics: Our Microscopic Allies in Health!
What comes to mind when you think of your digestive system? Do microbacteria fit somewhere into that picture?
Your thoughts probably went somewhere along the lines of: mouth, then a long tube, divided into compartments (stomach, small and small intestines, etc), alternately filled & emptied of food in various stages of digestion. Had you given a moment to consider what’s actually living inside that complex digestive structure? Yes living! I’m talking about the microscopic organisms so critical to our health, immunity, and proper digestive function: the natural microflora called “Probiotics”!
What exactly ARE Probiotics?
The word Probiotic is actually derived from the Greek word pro, meaning "promoting" and biotic, meaning "life."
Like their negative counterparts (pathogenic or disease causing bacteria), probiotics are microscopic organisms. They reside in your intestines and impart a massive amount of benefits to your whole body, not just your digestive system.
We’re first exposed and “inoculated” with natural probiotics when we’re born. A newborn picks up the bacteria as it travels through the birth canal, thus giving it a protective immune boost upon entering the world. One downside to cesarean sections is that this natural inoculation doesn’t occur, and this can be a mechanism behind these infants having increased susceptibility to allergies and other immune related illnesses.
What are the health benefits of probiotics?
Probiotics protect our bodies in a couple of important ways.
First, they play a critical role in digestion.
When appropriately balanced and healthy, the microflora are responsible for helping with the breakdown, delivery and proper absorption of nutrients (particularly of B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, and magnesium) extracted from the food particles that you’ve taken eaten and digested.
An unhealthy population of probiotics means that food may not be broken down properly, chemicals and toxins accumulate and can be absorbed into the body causing symptoms like diarrhea and/or constipation, abdominal pain, cramping, gas, fatigue, urinary tract infections, etc. Unhealthy gut flora can be a culprit in weight management concerns, for those overweight and underweight!
Second, they are critical for the health of your immune system.
Your gut (gastrointestinal system) contains both good and bad bacteria. The key to health lies in balance: when there are more good than bad, the good keep the bad from misbehaving and causing problems. This is accomplished by filtering out and eliminating things that can damage the gut environment, like offending bacteria and viruses, as well as and waste and chemical products.
If the opposite is occurring, meaning bad bacteria have overpopulated the good (which can occur due to poor food choices, environmental exposures, antibiotic and drug use, stress, lack of sleep, etc), a slew of problems can occur. Colds and flus, allergies, infections (gastrointestinal, urinary tract, skin and genital), autoimmune disorders (for example Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) may all be related to poor gastrointestinal flora. There is even evidence that disorders like Autism may be related to microflora imbalance!
There are so many kinds – which are the right ones?
There certainly are many different kinds of probiotics, and each have slightly different health benefits. The 2 most common/important microflora (which make up the majority of supplements) include:
Lactobacillus (strains include L. acidophilus, L. salivarius, L. casei, etc)
Normally found in the upper intestinal, urinary and genital systems
Naturally found in fermented foods
Prevent growth of microbes that cause disease (including Candida (yeast), E.coli, H. pylori and Salmonella) and food poisoning
Improve absorption of nutrients, especially the B vitamins, Iron, Magnesium and Phosphorus
May help treat/prevent: diarrhea, lactose intolerance, yeast infections, urinary tract infections, IBS (diarrhea & constipation), respiratory infections
Normally found in the colon (make up 90% of large intestine microflora)
Passed on to newborns through breast milk and is their main microfloral culture (helps babies absorb nutrients to help them grow)
The strain that’s particularly important following a course of Antibiotic therapy
Helps eliminate any toxins that may be ingested
May help treat/prevent: IBS, cavities, weight management, glucose tolerance and cholesterol imbalance
How can you get probiotics?
Everyone’s gastrointestinal system is normally populated by natural microflora from birth, however with our stressful lifestyles (stressful in terms of foods we eat, drug/antibiotic use, emotional state, sleep deprivation, environmental influences, etc), the healthy population can become depleted. Re-populating it may be accomplished in two ways:
Food: there are foods that naturally contain probiotics. The main sources are fermented foods: yogurt, Kim chi, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, kefir and kombucha.
Incorporating fermented foods in your diet is an excellent way to maintain an already healthy, optimally functioning immune and gastrointestinal system.
Supplements: taking probiotics in liquid, powder or capsule form is an excellent way to incorporate higher doses than may obtained from food sources (or if you don’t regularly ingest foods that contain probiotics).
Certain individuals may require supplementation for either a short or extended duration depending on their complaint/situation.
Food sources of probiotics may be enough in an individual with already optimally functioning digestive, immune (etc) systems. If however there are any health concerns (those previously mentioned as well as many others), supplementation may be required in order to reestablish an optimal microbiotic balance. Your Naturopathic Physician can help guide you to the correct dosage to correct whatever imbalance may be present, thus returning your microfloral balance to where it should be.
Is PRO-biotic the same as PRE-biotic?
No: pre and probiotics are different.
Probiotics are the natural microflora that reside in the digestive tract, help digest and absorb foods and play an important role in optimal health.
Prebioticsare non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity, thus increasing the numbers of probiotics in the gastrointestinal system– essentially “food” for the probiotics. Examples include two particular Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), these being inulin and oligofructose.
Dietary sources of prebiotics include soybeans, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, and raw oats, and prebiotics also occur naturally in breast milk.
Prebiotics are often included in probiotic supplements.
What can probiotics do for you?
Some health conditions that may be helped by probiotics include (but are not limited to):
Gastrointestinal: IBS (gas, bloating, diarrhea/constipation), Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis
Immune & Inflammatory: Frequent Colds & Flus, Allergies, Asthma, Nasal congestion, Runny eyes
Dermatological: Acne, Eczema, Rosacea, Dermatitis, Dandruff, Cradle-Cap
Urinary: Urinary Tract Infections, Vaginitis, Yeast Infections
Weight (over or underweight), Malnutrition, Cholesterol & Blood Pressure management
Chemoprotective: Colon cancer
Probiotics can also be an excellent way to regain digestive health during or after travel, when food or water selection had not been optimal OR if it was just very different from what you typically consume.
By maintaining the appropriate gastrointestinal microfloral balance, you’re going a long way to preventing poor health and disease and optimizing your overall wellbeing. If you’re at all concerned about your health or feel that you need supplementation of any kind, see your Naturopathic Physician. We are specially trained to assess, determine the root cause of, and treat many conditions. We also work with you to prevent health related problems before they begin!
Dr Katarine Holewa, ND