Bottom line: Probiotics are a promising field of research and may one day be used to treat or help prevent many disorders. But there’s not enough solid evidence to recommend their widespread use. Vague claims that probiotics "support good digestive health" are meaningless. Larger, longer and better studies are needed to test specific strains for specific conditions and to determine the proper doses and regimens.
Having a healthy gut flora means an abundance for your health, digestion, wellbeing and even beauty! As we saw last week, there is ongoing communication between your GI and your brain known as the gut brain axis. This means a healthy gut can benefit the regularity of your digestion as well as cognitive function like mood and depression, and even the health and appearance of your skin.
“Microbiome” refers to the trillions of bacteria and microorganisms that live on and in our individual bodies. “There’s increased recognition of the various ways that the microbiome affects our health,” Lebwohl tells me. “And with that recognition comes the true observation that many bacteria are good for us. This goes against the old idea that bacteria equal germs, which equal harm. It turns out that many bacteria keep us healthy and probiotics could potentially support that notion.”
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Bifidobacteria is a family of bacteria that has been studied for its ability to prevent and treat various gastrointestinal disorders, including infections, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. In addition to making lactic acid, it also makes some important short-chain fatty acids that are then absorbed and metabolized by the body. There is also some experimental evidence that certain bifidobacteria may actually protect the host from carcinogenic activity of other intestinal flora.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) is sponsoring the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), which is developing research resources to enable the study of the microbial communities that live in and on our bodies and the roles they play in human health and disease. The NIH has funded many more medical studies using HMP data and techniques, including the role of the gut microbiome in Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and esophageal cancer; skin microbiome in psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, and immunodeficiency; urogenital microbiome in reproductive and sexual history and circumcision; and a number of childhood disorders, including pediatric abdominal pain, intestinal inflammation, and necrotizing enterocolitis, a severe condition in premature infants in which the intestine tissue dies due to lack of oxygen.
The right resident strains - quite a few probiotics on the market contain things like active yeasts or soil based organisms. While these ingredients may be helpful to some, if you want to optimize your gut health, you need to look for strains that are resident to the human gut like those from the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Streptococcus families.
Oral health. An increasing number of probiotic lozenges and gums are promoted for oral health—to reduce periodontal disease, throat infections, and bad breath, for example. There’s preliminary evidence that certain strains may have some benefits, but commercial products may not have the same strains and formulations as those tested in published studies.
Because there's a huge variety of probiotic products available on the market, many people struggle to find the right one for them. "There are many different strains of bacteria in different combinations within different probiotic supplements," explains Brooke Scheller, a clinical and functional nutritionist. "For example, a probiotic may contain a single strain of bacteria or many. It may also contain other vitamins, minerals, or other ingredients that may tout health benefits," she says. There are many different dosages, delivery systems (powder, tablets, capsules), and formulations (refrigerated vs. shelf-stable), and some probiotics also contain prebiotics, which basically act as fertilizer for the probiotics. (Related: Why Your Probiotic Needs a Prebiotic Partner)
The current probiotic push lends itself to the question, "If humans got along fine without taking a probiotic supplement for thousands of years, why are they so important now?" Although there is no definitive answer to this question, there have been some significant cultural changes that have had an impact on the gut flora (the population of organisms that populate our intestines). These include the use of antibiotics, diets lacking in gut-healthy plant food, refrigeration and improved sterilization of foods. What we don't yet know is true is if probiotics actually turn around these changes and support the health of your gut flora.
One of the best-studied effects of probiotics has been on the reduction in diarrhea severity and duration. Probiotics can prevent as well as reduce duration of several types of diarrhea. Lactobacillus has been found to be a safe and effective treatment for children with acute infectious diarrhea. Certain probiotics may also offer a safe and effective method to prevent traveler’s diarrhea, but research in this area is emerging.
In a separate study involving 21 healthy volunteers, also published today in Cell, the same group of researchers found that taking probiotics after treatment with broad spectrum antibiotics may actually delay the return of people's normal gut microbiome. This goes against the idea that probiotics can help "repopulate" people's gut bacteria after antibiotics wipe them out.
Research suggests probiotics work better as a team. Even pairs are more effective than individuals. Take the strains Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium Bifidum BB-12, for example. When combined, this duo-force has been shown to help treat GI-specific ailments. In fact, one survey found 75 percent of studies that compared the effect of a strain mixture with a single-strain supplement showed a mixture was more effective at improving irritable bowel symptoms, immune function, and digestive health.
Following a healthy and active lifestyle and eating a balanced diet are the best ways to foster a bountiful gut flora. Taking care of your gut flora can help with things like irritable bowel syndrome and chronic constipation, among other things. Even if you’re not sold on pursuing probiotics for your allergies, they’re good to consider if you’re experiencing any gastrointestinal issues.