The Health Benefits of Probiotics

ProbioticBy Jacquie Eubanks BSN, RN

The root of the word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning “promoting” and biotic, meaning “life.”  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) defines probiotics as “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, provide a health benefit to the host,” by contributing to its intestinal microbial balance.  An estimated 100 trillion microorganisms representing more than 500 different species of microflora inhabit every healthy bowel.  The majority of these are found in the colon and in smaller amounts in the stomach and small intestine.  Most of these are helpful in keeping pathogens in check, aiding digestion and nutrient absorption, and contributing to immune function.  However, harmful bacteria such as e. Coli and H. pylori can wreak havoc with digestive and immune health, sowing the seeds for inflammation and disease.  Maintaining  the correct balance of both healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the digestive system is necessary for optimal health.  Illness, medications, emotional stress, poor food choices and environmental influences can all upset that balance.

Our gastrointestinal tracts are colonized by our mothers during birth and by the surrounding environment immediately after birth.  Bifidobacteria, which make up approximately 90% of the healthy bacteria in the colon, appear in the intestinal tract within days of birth especially in breastfed infants.  It takes up to one month for babies born vaginally to establish their intestinal microflora.  By contrast, babies born by caesarean section may take up to six months to populate their own unique strains.  As it turns out, babies attract microbes much as magnets attract metal.  Over the first two to three years of life, babies’ microbes grow in concert with immune system development, learning to recognize and tolerate friendly bacteria and to respond to pathogens in defense of disease.

Each adult carries two to five pounds of bacteria.  Scientists have discovered that each person’s collection of microbes is different from the next person’s.  This may help to explain why some individuals are susceptible to certain infectious diseases and while others are not.  Imbalances of intestinal flora are thought to contribute to chronic diseases and conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, allergies and asthma, autoimmune disorders and possibly obesity.

When the digestive tract is healthy and balanced, it filters and eliminates toxins, harmful pathogens, and chemicals.  It absorbs the nutrients from food and water and delivers them to our cells.  Intestinal bacteria require nourishment.  Evidence indicates that beneficial bugs prefer nutrients called prebiotics, found primarily in high-fiber foods including greens, onions, and garlic.   Harmful bacteria, on the other hand, prefer the sugars and fats found in processed foods.  There are strong indications that a low-fiber, high-fat diet results in more harmful gut microbes and that an unhealthy balance of microflora is increasingly associated with a range of health problems including cancer, colitis, and inflammatory bowel disease.

Broad-spectrum antibiotics that we take to destroy pathogens also kill good bacteria, disrupting the overall balance in our systems.  Antibiotics can cause associated diarrhea by directly irritating the bowel, changing the levels of gut microbes and allowing pathogenic bacteria to flourish.   In addition to digestive problems, a reduction of beneficial bacteria can lead to yeast and urinary tract infections.  The overuse of antibiotics can have a harmful effect by increasing the amount of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can make illnesses difficult to treat.   It’s not helpful to your digestive or immune systems to take antibiotics for viral infections.  It’s best to avoid antibiotics unless really necessary to combat bacterial infections.

By eating certain foods and taking supplements that contain live probiotic cultures, you can help tip the balance of good intestinal flora.  The many types of probiotics all have different functions.  If you have a specific health goal in mind, you’ll need to ingest the correct strain.  For example:

  • Bacillus coagulans may improve abdominal pain and bloating associated with irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Lactobaccillus acidophilus is thought to reduce the side effects of antibiotic therapy and may reduce symptoms of lactose intolerance.
  • Saccharomyces boulardi shows good evidence in treatment and prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
  • Lactobacillus reuteri is believed to be helpful in reducing abdominal pain in children and decreasing distress associated with infantile colic.
  • Lactobaccillus johnsonii may reduce incidence of H. pylori-caused gastritis and may reduce inflammation.
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum shows evidence for reduced C. difficile-associated disease, the most serious cause of antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

Probiotics, such as Lactobacilli and Bifidobacteria, can be found in dietary supplements, yogurt and other cultured daily products such as buttermilk and kefir, and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi (fermented vegetables) and tempeh (fermented soybeans).  Prebiotics containing inulin, fructooligosaccarides, and arabinogalactan can be found in whole grain breads and cereals, bananas, honey, artichokes, fortified foods and beverages in addition to  dietary supplements.  Although benefits vary, depending on the type and amount of a pre- or probiotic consumed, experts agree that daily consumption of these functional components is beneficial to good health and well being.

Top selling Pre- and Probiotics: 

UltraFlora Balance by Metagenics  –  This nutraceutical product is formulated to promote gastrointestinal and immune health.  In addition to supporting intestinal integrity and healthy digestive function, this formula provides prebiotic food to support the growth of helpful bacteria.  Contains a 50:50 blend of 15 billion live organisms, lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium.  Heat sensitive product.  Gluten and dairy free.

Ortho Biotic by Ortho Molecular  –  Contains carefully assembled strains of probiotic organisms to maximize the environment for strains already in the intestinal tract including lactobacillus, bifidobacterium and saccaromyces boulardi.  Refrigeration not necessary.

Pre-Flora Concentrate Probiotic Pearls by Integrative Therapeutics  –  Active live cultures supply relief from occasional gas, bloating, constipation, sensitive stomach and lactose intolerance.  Provides strains of lactobaccillus and bifobacterium in a proprietary blend of 1 billion CFU.  No artificial coloring or flavoring, corn, preservatives, sugar, wheat or yeast.  Refrigeration not necessary.

Probiotic Extra Strength – 10 billion by Metabolic Maintenance  –  Probiotic ES combines five strains of active probiotic cultures (Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei rhamnosus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Bifidobacterium longum, and Bifobacterium bifidum).  This product is fortified with fructooligosaccharides, designed to further enhance its beneficial effects in the lower bowel.  This superior formula provides 10 billion live units per capsule, designed for more advanced probiotic requriements.  This product is a guaranteed active probiotic.  Heat sensitive product.  Refrigeration necessary.

Multi-Probiotic 15 Billion by Douglas Laboratories  –  Contains over 15 billion beneficial organisms from lactobacillus and bifidobacterium genera with additional benefits of prebiotic fructooligosaccharides.  Multi-Probiotic 15 Billion capsules may be a useful dietary supplement for those who wish to support their intestinal microflora with potent amounts of beneficial microorganisms.  No yeast, wheat gluten, soy protein, corn, sodium, starch, artificial coloring, preservatives or flavoring.  Refrigerate after opening.

Buddy Bear Probiotic by Advanced Naturals  –  Buddy Bear Probiotic is a natural probiotic supplement formulated for children aged 2 and older.  Each easy-to-chew bear tablet contains bifidobacteria and lactobacillus acidophilus cultures to help support digestive and immune health,  and fructooligosaccharide (FOS) to nourish the beneficial flora.  Natural orange flavor.  May contains traces of milk protein.