Probiotics: Eight facts you should know

Probiotic consumption has increased dramatically during the past ten years—both by supplementing and by consuming specialty foods.

Despite the growing popularity, though, a recent survey by nutrition company Healthspan found that there is still a great deal of confusion about them.

If you’re a novice when it comes to probiotics—or even if you’ve been taking probiotic supplements for years—here are eight facts you should consider:


1. Probiotics (also known as beneficial bacteria) affect every part of the body

Most people think of probiotics as an important nutrient for gut health—which they are—but you may be interested to learn they are also critical for the health of every part of the body.

The collection of bacteria living in and on our body has been dubbed the ‘microbiome.’ This microbiome consists of about 100 trillion bacterial cells, the highest concentration of which is in the gut.

In scientific circles, having a wide diversity of these bugs is being increasingly understood as essential to many aspects of health. And it’s probiotic foods and supplements that help you get these healthy bacteria.

In 2014, a landmark study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation from New York University stated: “The composition of the microbiome and its activities are involved in most, if not all, of the biological processes that constitute human health and disease.”

Other peer-reviewed studies have linked poor gut bacteria to low immunity, skin conditions, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBS) and autism.


2. Poor gut bacteria is linked to weight gain

If you’re trying to lose weight you might want to toss out any fad diet pills you purchased, with all their side effects, and invest in probiotics instead.

Here’s why:

Many of us have a depleted microbiome to begin with because we are eating a poor diet. A poor diet is defined as one that is high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, processed foods and artificial sweeteners.

This kind of diet depletes our beneficial bacteria.

If our microbiome doesn’t contain enough friendly species of bacteria we tend to extract more calories from the foods we do eat—leading to weight gain—whatever our diet.

Moreover, bacteria interact with hormones in our intestines that regulate appetite, such as leptin and ghrelin.

In short, low counts of beneficial bacteria—or probiotics—in your gut encourages hormone activity that that makes you hungry all the time.


3. Your gut’s bacteria quality affects brain function

An optimal bacteria balance is also fundamental to the functioning of the enteric nervous system—also known as the second brain—which is located in the gut.

This system is responsible for producing chemicals that affect our mood (hence ‘gut feelings’). One of these critical chemicals is serotonin—95% of which is produced in the bowels.

It’s no surprise then that research is now linking the historical dietary practice of fermenting foods to positive mental health. (See list below for insights on different traditional fermented foods.)

In one interesting study, researchers at McMaster University in Canada replaced the gut bacteria of “anxious” mice with bacteria from more aggressive mice.  They then discovered that the anxiety level in the first group actually went down.

And though a lot more research is needed, empirical evidence already seems to show the same profound result in humans.


4. Antibiotics destroy the good bacteria along with the bad

Antibiotics have saved an incalculable number of lives, but it has come with a cost. That cost is a modern plague of poor gut health.

The point used to be argued, but not anymore. Experts now agree that the over-prescribing of antibiotics is causing a myriad of long-term gut problems for Americans.

Simply put, anti-biotics destroy your gut’s pro-biotics at the same time they’re killing the bad bacteria.

In fact, research has shown that just one course of antibiotics can leave your gut bacteria weaker for up to four years.


5. Sugar is the next biggest enemy to maintaining your gut health

Of the odd 100 trillion bacteria living in our gut, the ideal balance is 85 per cent good to 15 per cent bad. But this balance can be upset by many aspects of modern living.

Besides the aforementioned antibiotics, caffeine, processed foods, stress, prescription medications, and exposure to chemicals and pollution all play havoc on your gut’s beneficial bacteria.

The main detriment to gut health, however, is too much sugar.

Bad bacteria feed off refined carbohydrates and sugar, which are readily consumed in the modern diet. This is why so many people today end up with a gut that is “upside down” when it comes to the good/bad ratio of gut bacteria.

Symptoms of overgrowth of bad bacteria include anything from food intolerances to chronic fatigue, auto-immune diseases, and even skin disorders such as eczema and psoriasis.

These symptoms are often alleviated when the gut is repopulated with good bacteria via supplementing.


6. Supplementing with probiotics adds a safety net as we age

For good bacteria to grow there must be a ready supply of stomach acid. Unfortunately, as we age there is a natural decrease in our stomach acid.

This is why so many elderly people suffer various digestive disorders. As the natural acidity goes down, bad bacteria is more likely to survive and establish in the intestines.

You can reverse this trend with regular supplementing of probiotics—and of course appropriate diet changes.


7. Probiotics have been consumed for thousands of years

Though supplementing probiotics via capsules and drinks is relatively new, consuming probiotics via foods is a practice that has been around for thousands of years.

Of course our ancestors were consuming probiotics accidentally—through the fermented foods they ate.

The foods were fermented to preserve them, since refrigeration was not available. It was just a lucky happenstance that these fermented foods were filled with probiotics. (Or maybe it was more than luck since our ancestors seemed to know a lot about natural medicine—from their own trial and error.)

A few examples:

Kimchi is a traditional fermented food from Korea, made from cabbage and other vegetables.

Sauerkraut is a traditional fermented food from northern Europe (not to be confused with canned sauerkraut purchased in regular grocery stores in America).

Lao zao – traditional fermented rice drink from China.

Chutneys – traditional fermented food from India.

Fermented soya beans, eaten as miso, natto, soy sauce and tempeh – traditional fermented foods from Japan.

Kefir – a fermented milk drink that was originally preserved in goatskin pouches by shepherds in the mountains of Eastern Europe.


8. When supplementing, multiple strains of stabilized bacteria will be more effective

The aforementiond Healthspan survey revealed that when it comes to taking probiotic supplements, very few consumers know whether they were consuming a single strain or multiple strains of beneficial bacteria.

And even fewer probiotic consumers know if their probiotic supplements are “stabilized.”

In a later article we will examine both of these points at length, but for now suffice it to say that multiple strains of stabilized bacteria are best when it comes to supplementing.

Since your gut is populated  by numerous strains of beneficial bacteria, no one strain has all the health benefits you need. A supplement that contains at least six strains will provide a better catalyst for healthy growth in the gut.

Also, since your probiotics need to pass through the acidic environment of your stomach, choose a supplement that provides stabilized bacteria.

Remember probiotics are live bacteria. You want as many as possible to survive the stomach’s acid, and make it to the intestines where they will flourish. And stabilized bacteria have been designed to accomplish just that.

For more information on probiotics, click the “Probiotics/Flora” link under the Categories section in the sidebar.