Probiotics! Nowadays you trip across this word a lot – on television adverts, in the newspapers, in the health food shop and with health practitioners. Go looking for them and you will find an enormous range, all of which are quite costly. There is now an enormous amount of literature, and research studies on the subject of probiotics – page after page, connecting them to almost any condition you can think of. So what’s so important about them?
Probiotic bacteria basically inhabit our gastro-intestinal system. In fact they form part of an extremely complex eco-system in your gut harbouring more than 100 trillion micro-organisms, thought to be made up of somewhere between 30 – 40 different types of bacteria, some beneficial, some less than beneficial.
A healthy adult has somewhere in the region of 2 kg residing inside us, and we basically have a symbiotic relationship with them. In exchange for food and shelter they make a vital contribution to not just digestive health, but also to immune function. In fact, so important is their role, that if you were to sterilize your gut of them, you would die.
So what exactly do they do? Well, they help to ensure a proper balance between ‘friendly’ and ‘unfriendly’ bacteria in the gut. Too many of the unfriendly ones and you have a condition called dysbiosis which impacts negatively both on digestion and health generally. So lots of friendly bacteria keep the bad guys at bay.
In addition to this they aid with digestion, producing some of the important digestive enzymes, and secreting substances to ensure good absorption of nutrients. It is also important to note that they are capable of producing some of the B vitamins we require, as well as Vitamin K. B vitamins in particular as important for a healthy nervous system, and as they are water soluble the body does not hold reserves, so we need to intake good levels of these every day, particularly if facing stress. Having the ability to produce some of the vital B vitamins that help us cope with stress is very beneficial.
Probiotic bacteria can also prove very useful in breaking down lactose, a milk sugar which many people have digestive difficulties with. They also aid with gut motility, and secretion of mucus as well as promoting good intestinal wall integrity.
And if this weren’t enough, they help to chelate heavy metals from our system – this is important as heavy metal toxicity is an issue in our polluted world, and our body has very few mechanisms to excrete them. In fact, a gut well populated with friendly bacteria will act as a barrier to the absorption of these metals into the body. When levels of probiotics are compromised this function is lost and heavy metals are absorbed.
All of that is very important, but equally as vital is that a healthy gut well-populated with a wide variety of strains of probiotic bacteria forms, it is estimated, a huge 83% of our immune system!!
If we are honest, we still only partially understand the role these micro flora play, but it is clear from what we do know that not only do they form a vital part of the immune system, but that they also are essential for prevention of allergies, controlling inflammation, hormonal balance and general gastro-intestinal health. Studies are now also showing that they have an big influence on our weight also.
There are different strains of probiotic bacteria, which inhabit different parts of the GI tract – some are in the oral cavity, some in the small intestine, some in the large intestine. Micro flora are also found in the genito-urinary tract, the skin and the respiratory system. The key types in the digestive system are the lactobacillus genus and the bifidobacterium genus, and both have a number of subspecies such as l. acidophilus, l. casei, B. bifidum and B. longum to name but a few.
Many of the bacteria found in the gut we are unable to culture but these two genii are two of the effective bacteria that we have been able to replicate and therefore most probiotic supplements contain one or other, or maybe both of these types, as they have been shown to be completely safe.
Any reasonable supplement will deliver many billions of bacteria per serving and it is helpful to take them daily in order to maintain good levels within the gut on an ongoing basis. Many things can impact on probiotic levels including use of drugs, particularly antibiotics, poor diet, pollution, alcohol, having dental work done, stress, exposure to toxic chemicals and even age. They require a constant top up for optimal health.
Probiotic strains of bacteria are available to us in our diet through eating fermented and pickled foods such as ‘live’ yoghurt, sauerkraut or kefir. Use of these has dwindled considerably though due to the introduction of refrigeration many years ago, so this preserving method has fallen largely out of favour, although it is interesting to note that the health-promoting benefits of these foods has been known about for many years.
Another major factor is the introduction of bottle feeding babies. Much of the colonization of an infant’s gut comes first from the birth canal, followed by breast feeding. Studies have shown that both the levels and strains of bacteria differ quite markedly between bottle fed and breast fed infants. Bottle fed infants are more likely to go on to have food intolerances and digestive issues if this is not addressed, and low levels of bacteria even contribute to infant eczema.
There are several major areas where research has shown probiotic supplementation to be of therapeutic benefit, but more is constantly being added to the list as our understanding of the part they play in health and disease expands. They are a vital part of treating any kind of gut disorder or inflammatory bowel disease, as well as helping with vaginal thrush and urinary tract infections. A direct link with obesity and a lack of gut flora is now recognised, as is the role they play in helping with detoxification of certain substances, and in boosting immune function. They are also very useful for foreign travel, helping to prevent, or reduce incidence of, travelers tummy.
Another consideration is prebiotics. Prebiotics are dietary substances which act as a ‘food’ source for probiotic bacteria. They stimulate the growth of friendly bacteria, helping to ensure large colonies within the gut, and many good formulas include some prebiotic within them.
There is a lot to learn to learn about probiotics, and this is a developing field of study, but from what we know already they play a fundamental role in health.