Probiotics have in recent years been drawing a great deal of attention not only from the scientific community but also from the press at large, and for good reason. Research has shown that these friendly microorganisms, which have been traditionally associated with the digestive category, offer so many more health benefits than could have been ever imagined. They play a role in immunity, cardiovascular health, cancer, weight regulation, mood and of course digestive health to name a few. As important as their role may be in health maintenance unless you use a quality probiotic you may not be getting all the benefits you hoped for.
The number and diversity of microbes in our gut is astounding. The small intestine has per gram of fluid contents between 1 thousand to 1 million bacteria. The number jumps exponentially in the large intestine to between 100 million to 100 billion. There are over 1000 different species of microbes that have been identified in the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) and they weigh between 3 to 7 lbs. Thirty percent of the solid matter that makes up your feces is in fact bacteria. As if these numbers weren’t hard enough to imagine there are 100 times more good bacteria in our intestines than cells in our body!
Where do we get our probiotics? There are three principal sources; fermented foods, raw unpasteurized honey and probiotic supplements. Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years. Over 3500 years ago fermented milk was already being consumed. Aside from fermented dairy foods like yogurt fermented vegetables have also been a source of probiotics; sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, kefir & kombucha to name a few. The regular consumption of fermented foods is strongly recommended for those hoping to achieve a healthy gut.
Although probiotic supplements don’t have the long standing history that fermented foods do they offer some very unique advantages. For starters you can closely control the dose in supplement form. This is not possible with fermented foods and in fact several studies have proven that many of today’s commercial yoghurts contain either too little or no active probiotics despite label claims. When using a high quality probiotic like Progressive HCP you can be assured of its potency. In fact quality probiotics should state their minimum potency at expiration not at time of manufacture. With probiotic supplements you can choose specific therapeutic strains. One other obvious advantage over fermented foods is the portability of supplemental probiotics.
We know how many microbes reside in our gut and how we can get them there but when were we first exposed? First exposure occurs when the newborn passes through birth canal (i.e. vaginal canal)? Emerging evidence suggests there may be some exposure in the womb as well. Further exposure occurs from breast milk. This raises the important question, what of infants born by C-section? Numerous studies have shown that children born by way of C-section are often at greater risk of health complications than babies born via the birth canal. Atopic diseases like eczema and asthma are more prevalent as are allergies. This reinforces the need for breast feeding and supplementation when c-sections are performed.
Whereas probiotics are good for our health, pathogens are the polar opposite. These microbes infect the host and bring about disease. Examples would include C. difficile, Candida albicans, Salmonella, H. pylori, etc. One of the important roles of “friendly” microbes is to keep these bad microbes in check. This is accomplished by a number of cleaver means. Probiotics can produce lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide & acetic acid. These compounds acidify the intestines keeping harmful bacteria at bay. Bacteriocins are also produced and these act as antibiotics that kill pathogenic microbes. Surfactants produced by probiotics are compounds that keep pathogens from adhering to the intestinal wall. Lastly another very important trait, especially noted in human strain probiotic species, is the ability to adhere to the lining of the gut thereby “crowding” out the bad bugs. This ability to colonize the gut provides a physical barrier that reduces the likelihood of pathogens, toxins, and allergens passing through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream.
When too many pathogens are present in the GIT dysbiosis is the net result. There are numerous reasons why someone may suffer from dysbiosis; poor diet & digestion, weakened immune function, chronic constipation, and likely the biggest offender antibiotics. A 2 week course of high dose antibiotics can decimate your normal gut microbes. Symptoms of dysbiosis include fatigue, flatulence, poor complexion, inability to lose weight and constipation/diarrhea to name a few.
Some of the documented benefits of probiotics were mentioned in the first paragraph but there are so many more; eczema and psoriasis, urogenital infections, crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, leaky gut syndrome, lactose intolerance, and even mood and behavior can be impacted!
With all the benefits that one can derive from probiotics it’s once again important to remember that not all probiotics are of the same quality as has been demonstrated in several published studies. Look for a probiotic that provides complete protection (oral, small/large intestine and vaginal support). Look for multi strain formulas, these may offer a wider spectrum of protection than single strain formulas. Look for human formulas that contain mostly or at least some human sourced microbes. Dairy and vegetable strains may not have the same degree of intestinal adhesion as human strains. Ensure the product uses all the known means of ensuring both potency and stability (cryoprotection, addressing moisture, heat and oxidation). Lastly all species should be both acid & bile salt tolerant to survive the passage through the stomach.
Probiotics should not be seen as an occasional supplement especially given today’s environment and poor dietary habits. Leading authorities have gone on record stating that probiotics should be thought of as daily foundational supplements. The importance of probiotics was best stated in a quote by Dr. Michael L. McCann; "probiotics will be to medicine in the 21st century what antibiotics & microbiology were in the 20th". Use probiotics daily and your gut health will be rewarded!