Probiotics have formed a vital part of Mediterranean diets for thousands of years in the form of pickled foods and fermented milk products and are in part responsible for the relatively low rates of chronic age-related diseases in these regions even if these cultures were not aware of them.
Increasingly, research is now focussing on this traditional wisdom in the form of scientific investigations into the health benefits of probiotics, and you only have to switch on your television and see all the adverts on probiotic drinks and yoghurts aimed at the health conscious consumer.
So what are probiotics and how do they work?
The name probiotics is derived from two Latin words: Pro meaning for and biotic meaning life, in other words ‘for life’. From this we can begin to understand that probiotics are beneficial bacteria for life. These beneficial bacteria are mostly found in the human gastrointestinal tract and there are literally hundreds of strains with overlapping benefits. The word bacteria conjures up illness for the vast majority of us since we normally associate these with infectious diseases. What most people do not understand is that not all types of bacteria are harmful and that their potential to cause illness also depends on their numbers.
Probiotics include the types of bacteria that are not harmful and are actually beneficial to the body in numerous ways. Lactobacilli, a very common probiotic found in the gut, helps to improve digestion and also works to convert lactose in foods into lactic acid. The presence of lactic acid in the gut prevents the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut. When this strain of bacteria is either destroyed or present in insufficient amounts, such as when we take antibiotics, then the harmful bacteria, which incidentally are present in every gut, begin to flourish causing numerous concerns such as diarrhoea and inflammation.
Probiotics work through several interrelated mechanisms to promote health. They conquer potentially dangerous organisms in the intestine reducing the risk of infections, regulate immune responses which enhance the body’s ability to fight infections as well as suppress inflammation. Additionally, they promote the function of the lining of the intestines enhancing its ability to act as a barrier to dangerous organisms and toxins. All these actions depend upon a complex system of biochemical signals between the intestinal bacteria and the human cells that comprise the human body.
The consequences of an imbalance of probiotics in the gut can be tremendous. Negative changes are associated with chronic diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, cardiovascular disease and even metabolic syndrome. We now even recognise that many allergy-orientated disorders such as asthma are linked to unhealthy population of intestinal bacteria.
To summarise, the major benefits of probiotics include:
- Help to digest foods more efficiently particularly hard to digest foods including foods to which some individuals are particularly sensitive.
- May be of great value in the control of inflammatory bowel diseases including IBS and Diverticulitis.
- Rid the colon of acids and toxins that could seep into the bloodstream.
- Are involved in the manufacture of B vitamins as well as improving calcium absorption.
Help to keep a healthy balance of intestinal organisms preventing the flourishing of pathogens in the gut.
- Promote vaginal health and may reduce yeast and urinary tract infections.
- Support your immune system.
- Support overall wellbeing
These are just a few benefits of probiotics and research shows that they may also be of value for certain cancers as well as having a positive effect on high blood pressure and cholesterol levels within the body. Unfortunately, modern diets and lifestyle, as well as environmental factors including pollution and the overuse of antibiotics, can lead to the destruction of the beneficial bacteria in our guts and thus increased incidences of diseases.
Probiotics are involved in many of the body’s key signalling systems
Whilst we normally consider skin to be the largest organ of the body, it may surprise you that actually the lining of the gastrointestinal tract is the largest interface between the body and the external environment. At this interface, there are three types of chemical detectors and include nerve cells, immune cells and endocrine (hormone) cells. Every single tissue and organ is affected from the signals sent by these chemical detectors lining the gut. In fact, these detectors are more extensive than in any other organ in the body: there are more nerve cells in the intestines than anywhere else in the body; the intestines use more than 20 hormones that we know of, and the gut immune system contains nearly 80% of the body’s immune cells.
All of these chemical detectors are affected greatly by composition of the beneficial bacteria living in the gut. A lack of these beneficial bacteria will have an effect on the immune system, which is the most complicated system in our body, as well as having a widespread effects on our hormones. Hormones are chemical messengers in our bodies that interact with each other and send signals to various glands within our bodies. If there is hormonal insufficiency or an imbalance, the effects of this can be widespread. One only has to look at the stress hormone cortisol and its widespread implication of numerous concerns within the body. Stress is responsible for sleep disturbances, fatigue, poor concentration, weight gain and many more concerns and all of these are linked to the effects of cortisol on various other hormones within our bodies.
When is the best time to take a probiotic supplement?
This is one of the most confusing areas when taking probiotics because many manufacturers advocate that these supplements should be taken before meals or before breakfast and others recommend their use with some food or after a meal. The reason for this anomaly is as follows:
- Many of these strains of beneficial bacteria are unstable when exposed to acids.
- When you eat food, the stomach produces hydrochloric acid which destroys many of these beneficial bacteria rendering them ineffective to colonise and perform their varying role.
This is why some recommend taking probiotics before meals, usually waiting 15-30 minutes before eating anything in case the acids have an impact on the bacteria. However, I tend to recommend a very specific probiotic suitable for the whole family and to take it immediately after or with breakfast. The reason for this is that some of the strains in this probiotic are acid stable and through a special process, the remainder are coated to ensure viability through the harsh stomach environment. Once they reach the gut, there is already food present for them to multiply and hence colonise. The supplement I recommend is Mega Probiotic ND by Food Science of Vermont and as mentioned this is suitable for adults and children over 2 years of age. For children who cannot swallow a capsule, simply open the contents of the capsule and empty into juice or water, or simply sprinkle onto the breakfast cereal since it is virtually tasteless.
Is yoghurt not good enough?
I am often asked about why yoghurt is not good enough. If traditionally, people ate fermented foods and milk products and that was good enough for at that time, then why not these days? The answer lies in the fact that commercial milk products these days undergo pasteurisation. This means that many of the beneficial bacteria will have been wiped out during the heat part of the process. This also applies to the many commercial yoghurts that advertise live bacteria because again the numbers of these bacteria are likely to be minimal due to the pasteurisation process.
Does your current probiotic have this?
Most people focus solely on the strengths and strains of probiotics and forget about prebiotics that play an important role in gastrointestinal health. Prebiotics are non-digestible fibres that help the beneficial bacteria to grow and flourish. They are primarily derived from carbohydrate fibres called oligosaccharides that you normally do not digest. So aside from my recommendation on when to take your probiotic supplement, the addition of a prebiotic is of great benefit and you should check if your probiotic supplement contains any prebiotics. Again, I recommend Mega Probiotic ND which does contain prebiotic fibres.
Probiotics for when you travel
I always recommend probiotics for when you are travelling simply because a change in diet, water and other factors may make you either more susceptible to gastric discomfort or at worse cause gastrointestinal infections such as those from drinking tainted water. Unfortunately, many probiotic supplements need to be refrigerated once opened. Again I recommend Mega Probiotic ND because it has a shelf life of an average of 24 months and does not need to be refrigerated since the probiotics within the formulation are stable at room temperature.
If you have previously read my editorial on ‘My Essential 6’ For Optimal Health, you will have read about, in brief, the importance of taking a probiotic and that I recommend Mega Probiotic ND by Food Science of Vermont. This probiotic supplement is in my opinion excellent for its content and availability to the body and it does not contain any synthetic ingredients nor artificial colours or preservatives. Suitable for adults and children, this supplement fits some of my criteria when it comes to reputable manufacturers and analysis tests to prove contents. If you are serious about digestive health and the overall health of your body including the immune system then I would recommend you use Mega Probiotic ND on a daily basis.
This content is not intended to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare practitioner.