The term “probiotic” has become a buzz-worthy word in the health and wellness community over the past few years. But what do these probiotic supplements really do?
First, let’s talk bacteria! Before you cringe at the thought of these potentially infectious micro organisms, consider this: the human body contains more bacteria than human cells. These tiny beings play a huge role in our overall health, effecting everything from digestion and immunity to mood and energy.
The obvious benefit of probiotics lies within the category of digestion and elimination. Having insufficient gut flora can lead to loose stools or diarrhea; when exogenous beneficial bacteria are introduced, more solid, regular stools are formed. On the contrary, probiotics can also help alleviate constipation and promote regular bowel movements. Probiotics can also improve symptoms of more complex digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis. Specific strains – particularly saccharomyces boulardii – can be helpful to protect the body against antibiotics and treat bacterial overgrowth, especially H. pylori. Probiotics can also reduce our resistance to antibiotics, making them more effective. Optimizing our digestion is also vital to support micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) absorption, which is necessary for cognitive function, metabolic health, hormone balance, and strength of joints, bones, hair and nails.
Our immune systems are primarily ruled by bacteria. Our first defence against pathogenic bacteria and viruses is our integumentary system (the skin). The skin acts as a physical barrier to invading parasites or pathogens, but it also has its own microbiota. Besides our skin, our immunity is largely dependant on our digestive tract. It’s estimated that between 70 – 80% of our immunity relies on the healthy bacteria in our gut.
Having a balanced microbiome also plays an important role on mood regulation. It is estimated that up to 95% of our serotonin is produced in our gut, and this neurotransmitter is responsible for promoting a calm temperament by reducing anxiety and promoting relaxation, stabilizes mood and reduces depression, and improves sleep quality. For individuals suffering from mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder (BPD), bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders, addressing the health of their gut will be imperative to symptom management.
Symptoms of poor gut flora can include diarrhea, constipation, indigestion, acid reflux, halitosis (bad breath), brain fog, low energy/chronic fatigue, chronic yeast or fungal infections, susceptibility to infection, and skin conditions such as acne and eczema. Individuals at greater risk for dysbiosis – an imbalance of gut bacteria – may consider including probiotic-rich foods in their diet, or supplementing with a high quality probiotic. Higher risk individuals include anybody who has been on antibiotics within the past 3 years, frequent use of antacids, use of hormonal birth control (BCP), and individuals following a diet high in sugar, processed foods, and alcohol. Additionally, those who suffer from any of the following conditions may be at higher risk; including chronic diarrhea, parasites, infections of the GI tract, chronic stress, and alcoholism.
Another component that is vital to maintaining healthy gut flora is getting adequate prebiotics. Prebiotics are a type of plant-based fibre, also called resistant starch, that feeds the existing bacteria in your digestive tract. This allows for proper colonization of bacteria, optimizing your natural balance of bacteria and making probiotic supplements more effective. Prebiotics are found in food such as onion, raw garlic, underripe bananas, raw asparagus, raw jicama, raw leeks, dandelion greens, psyllium husk and chicory root. Certain probiotic foods also act as prebiotics. Probiotic foods contain broad spectrums of different strains of bacteria, yeast, live enzymes and acids that introduce exogenous beneficial bacteria, as well as feed already existing bacteria in the gut, effectively acting as both a pre and probiotic. Fermented foods and drinks that provide these benefits include kombucha, kefir, yogurt, miso, natto, sauerkraut, traditionally made (fermented) pickles, and kimchi.
If you can’t incorporate fermented foods into your diet on a daily basis, you may consider taking a pre and probiotic supplement. There are a number of whole foods-based probiotics on the market that act as both pre and probiotics, have broad spectrums of different strains of bacteria and yeast, and because they’re food-based, are resistant to stomach acid (and therefore have a better chance of colonizing in the intestines). This type of pre/probiotic supplement is also available in a powder form, which can be conveniently added to smoothies or yogurt.
Pre and probiotics play an important role in maintaining a healthy microbiome. These can be acquired from eating fermented and fibre-rich foods daily, or can be supplemented. Optimizing our microbiome is vital to improve our mood and cognitive function, digestion and elimination, and immune system health.
Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.
Originally published for Edible Island Whole Foods Market in the Comox Valley Record on June 14, 2018.