Probiotics for a Healthy Gut?

probiotics for gut healthProbiotics for a Healthy Gut

It would seem our gut bacteria have a bigger impact upon our lives than we originally thought.  Having a wide array of “good bacteria” toiling away in our bowels can benefit us in a myriad of ways.  Some of the benefits include: not spending all day on the toilet, not contracting every illness you come into contact with, and not developing various intestinal infections.

Ever been on a course of antibiotics?  Maybe you had a nasty bacterial infection as a kid and really needed them.  Or maybe your doctor prescribed you antibiotics when your illness was actually viral and you decimated your gut bacteria for no good reason.  Sounds harsh, but it happens A LOT.

Whatever the case, evidence is emerging that suggests even a single course of antibiotics can change the makeup of your stomach bacteria for as long as six months or more.  The lack of diversity of gut bacteria facilitated by antibiotics can have lasting effects on your GI health as well as your immune system’s strength [1].

Wouldn’t it just be swell if we had some recourse for this and could help diversify our gut bacteria once more?  (Cue probiotics)

Probiotics Bolster a Healthy Digestive Tract

As it turns out, there is a way: eat more probiotics.  Probiotics are strains of bacteria that help the body with digestive processes.  These are often referred to as “good bacteria.”  They are present in many fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi.  Probiotics can also be found in supplement form – pills packed full of “good” bacteria.  Probiotics from natural sources have been demonstrated to aid in overall digestive and immune system health, but the science is less clear when it comes to probiotics from supplements [2, 3].

The labels of probiotic supplements tend to make some grand but nonspecific claims regarding GI health.  For example, the label for MegaFlora brand probiotics draws your eye over to three exciting, yet vague, words – “Nourish * Rebuild * Protect.”  We mustn’t forget that supplements in general are not regulated by the FDA and as thus can vary wildly in effectiveness from brand to brand.  So what should we look for when choosing a probiotic?

Choosing a Probiotic Supplement

Considering that our digestive tracts contain millions of different strains of bacteria working together in harmony, it would make sense to choose a probiotic containing multiple strains of good bacteria rather than just one if such a choice were available.  We also need the bacteria comprising these probiotics to actually be alive.  Beneficial bacteria do us no good if they’re already dead when we ingest them.

In addition to the factors above, we also need to consider what strains of bacteria are present in the supplement, as this varies greatly from brand to brand.  Different strains of bacteria are associated with different health benefits.  This means that in comparing two probiotic supplements, supplements A and B, it may be true that supplement A is better for lactose intolerance while supplement B may be a better immune booster.  Other probiotic supplements may be better for allergies.

As always when it comes to supplements, we suggest that you do your own research.   This article by Reviews.com is a great resource for a detailed explanation and comparison of probiotic supplements.  It makes suggestions based on evaluative factors that are scientifically logical and very transparent.

The Bottom Line

Science has demonstrated that probiotics from natural food sources are effective tools for diversifying beneficial gut bacteria [2, 3].  But when it comes to probiotics in supplement form, the science is far less sound.  In theory, taking the correct bacteria at viable dosages should introduce them back to your system.  It remains debatable however, whether or not the bacteria in these supplements are active until the point of consumption.   It is also unclear whether or not the bacteria in pill form survive the body’s digestive processes long enough to reach their final destination in the lower digestive tract.  Piling on a bit, we’ve also yet to positively identify which combinations of bacteria have the greatest effect on bolstering the health of gut flora.

Wow, that sounds like a lot of uncertainty.  The good news is that probiotics should be safe for the vast majority of people and that they should work in theory.  That said, food sources may be the better choice for healing a hurting gut.  The concept of introducing certain strains of bacteria to combat particular health issues is an exciting one, but the science just isn’t there to back it up yet.

That’s all on probiotics for now, but keep an eye out for most posts on this subject in the future.

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References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19018661

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25112321

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12728216

[4] http://www.reviews.com/probiotic-supplement/