Benefits of Probiotics
Renata Trister DO
Your intestinal tract plays a vital role in your overall health, not only allowing life-supporting nutrients to be absorbed, but also providing the first line of defense as a physical and immune barrier to food antigens or microorganisms that you may ingest. Within this environment is a highly active society of approximately 500 different species of bacteria that can have both harmful and beneficial effects on your health. While it is imperative for your overall health that the beneficial bacteria dominate, many factors can lead to an imbalance in favor of harmful bacteria, such as a poor diet, antibiotics, and contaminated food and water.
A proliferation of unhealthy bacteria can damage your intestinal lining and lead to the production of carcinogenic compounds and intestinal symptoms such as bloating, gas, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. A damaged intestinal lining allows infectious agents, toxic compounds, and macromolecules to pass through to the bloodstream. Symptoms of this increased intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut syndrome,” can include fatigue, diarrhea, and skin rashes. Ultimately, it can lead to many digestive disorders as well as seemingly unrelated illness, including chronic fatigue syndrome, eczema, migraine headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer.
Conversely, the healthy, or “friendly,” microflora provide protection against these harmful bacteria by strengthening the intestinal lining, competing with harmful bacteria for attachment to epithelial cells, producing antimicrobial compounds, and enhancing the intestinal immune system. Thus, maintaining a well-balanced intestinal microflora is important for reducing the risk of infections and supporting overall health. This may be accomplished through the therapeutic use of beneficial microorganisms, or probiotics.
Probiotics: “Friendly” Bacteria That Promote Intestinal Health
Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria that help to reestablish a healthy microbial balance and exert health benefits. They can be supplied in supplement form (powder or tablets) and in foods such as yogurt and milk. The numerous health effects attributed to probiotics are well documented and supported by modern science.
• Control harmful bacteria such as E. coli and stimulate immune function
• Decrease side effects of antibiotic therapy, such as diarrhea
• Help control uro-genital infections
• Improve the digestion of lactose for people suffering from lactose intolerance
• Decrease harmful activities of intestinal bacteria that may lead to cancer of the colon or other organs
• Assimilate cholesterol, thereby helping to lower blood cholesterol levels
• Improve the integrity of the intestinal barrier
Other benefits of probiotics currently under study include reduction of allergic symptoms and atopic dermatitis and relief from constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease.
How to Choose a Probiotic Supplement
Selecting a high quality probiotic supplement is essential because it has been found that probiotic strains vary greatly in quality. A high quality probiotic should be a strain of human origin that is safe for human use, able to resist acid and bile, and capable of adhering to the intestinal lining. The two most common health-promoting groups of bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species, which includes the popular L. acidophilus species. Relatively few strains of L. acidophilus have substantial scientific evidence that supports their quality and effectiveness. One strain that does is the L. acidophilus NCFM® strain, which is perhaps the most extensively tested and proven probiotic strains available today. Over 50 research studies have confirmed the many beneficial properties of NCFM.
• Isolated from human flora
• Acid and bile tolerance-enables it to survive in the harsh intestinal environment
• Ability to adhere to the intestinal wall-enables it to establish and flourish
• Bacteriocin production-helps it compete with other bacteria
• Produces lactase enzymes, helping those with lactose intolerance
• Decreases the production of intestinal carcinogens that can lead to cancer of the colon or other organs
• Assimilates cholesterol in the small intestine
The Health Benefits of Bifidobacteria
Bifidobacteria is another probiotic naturally occurring in humans. Research studies have documented several beneficial effects of bifidobacteria when given to infants, such as prevention of intestinal infections.11 Recent research into the immune-enhancing effectiveness of bifidobacteria in the elderly also shows great promise and suggests that supplementation with bifidobacteria may be a natural, non-invasive way to resist the decline in cellular immunity associated with the aging process.39 Bifidobacteria also produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that have an antimicrobial effect by lowering the pH of the colon, in addition to other inhibitory influences on bacterial cell growth.
The Importance of Viability
For probiotics to be effective, they must be viable, or live, organisms. This can be determined through laboratory analysis of acid and bile tolerance. In addition, the method of culturing, packaging, and handling of the product can make a huge difference in maintaining viability. Temperature, moisture, light, and air can all adversely impact the stability and potency of the bacterial strains. These variables can be controlled through the use of properly sealed containers and refrigeration from the time of manufacture through delivery and storage (both in the store and at home). Finally, the label on the product should identify exactly what bacteria are in the product and what level of live bacteria are guaranteed at the expiration date (not just at the time of bottling).
The Beneficial Role of Prebiotics and Bioactive Proteins
Prebiotics are substances that beneficially and selectively promote the growth and activity of desirable bacteria. As non-digestible carbohydrates, these substances act as a food source for “friendly” bacteria and include fructooligosaccharides (FOS) and inulin. Their breakdown also produces compounds that lower the pH of the colon and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria.
Many factors can contribute to a disruption of the indigenous microflora population, putting you at increased risk for infection and disease. The use of probiotics offers an intervention with essentially no risk that may provide significant health benefits by stabilizing the intestinal microflora. When choosing a probiotic, it is important to select strains that fulfill the criteria for establishment in the intestinal tract and have demonstrated clinical effectiveness. Prebiotics and bioactive proteins are also useful in supporting a healthy bacterial balance.