Probiotics and Health

The nutrition world always has a hot topic of the moment, and the use of probiotics is definitely one of them. This area of research is booming, with so many findings being discovered but many questions yet to be answered by the science. There's so much regarding probiotics that can't be crammed into one blog post, but before getting into the discovered benefits, it is important to gain an understanding of what probiotics are and what the science says.

What are Probiotics and What Does the Science Say?

Probiotics are living microorganisms. More specifically, they are beneficial bacteria that live in localized areas within our bodies. The science has found these bacteria are there for a reason, as they aid in a number of bodily functions including digesting food, producing vitamins, or protecting against disease. Probiotics have been associated most commonly with protective effects for digestive health, some of the most known areas being in the prevention of antibiotic associated diarrhea, IBS, or IBD. While working in clinical settings, probiotic supplements are often recommended by dietitians for those receiving antibiotic treatment in order to help restore their gut flora after getting treated with these meds (think: ANTI- biotics versus PRO-biotics.) Medications often wipe out the harmful bacteria that have accumulated within the gut, but in the process can wipe out all bacteria because they are non specific. Therefore, probiotics help restore the beneficial bacteria meant to be living there and allow the gut get back to function normally.

More emerging research has also linked probiotics with benefits on immune functions. The mechanism includes the identification of several genes deprived from probiotics that can mediate immune effects. These genes are proposed to regulate immune cells such as T cells, B cells, macrophages, and other lymphocytes (immune system cells). These findings have shown potential therapeutic prevention or treatment from immune related issue such as the common cold, viruses, upper respiratory infections, allergies, or even eczema, and studies regarding immune system are often done within child populations, pregnant women, or healthy individuals. The simple way I like to explain it is, when we have an abundance of beneficial bacteria in our gut, it leaves less room for harmful bacteria to come and make a home. This is why maintaining a healthy gut is important in prevention of immune related issues.

Lastly, due to the known connection between the gut and the brain, research has now begun looking at the role probiotics potentially play on mental health. The cross talk between the gut and brain occurs via our nervous and immune systems. Studies have found that psychological stress is associated with "leaky gut," which occurs when the junctions of the GI walls become compromised, allowing toxins to leak into the blood stream. This is hypothesized to be a contributor to inflammation, which is a contributor to chronic illnesses/conditions. The bacteria in your gut play many roles, one being producing neurotransmitters. A specific neurotransmitter produced is serotonin, known as the happy chemical in the brain due to its contribution to good mood, often targeted by medications like antidepressants. A recent review of 10 studies suggested that daily consumption of probiotics was associated with improvements in symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder, as well as anxiety and mood. The proposed mechanisms include probiotic consumption reducing inflammatory markers, in turn reducing leaky gut, as well as increasing the precursor of serotonin, tryptophan.

What Does This Mean for Me?

While all of the findings above show potential for probiotics as a therapeutic option in health, it is important to note that more research is needed to solidify these discoveries. Limitations of these studies included variations in strain of probiotics used, the health status of the study subjects, dosage, and duration of treatment. These all make a difference in the ability to implement study findings onto the general population. It’s important to note that like any bacteria, there are several types of strains of probiotics, and not all are alike. For example, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium are different strains that can serve different purposes. It’s also crucial to mention that the booming growth in marketing of the use of probiotics may be outpacing the research in terms of uses, dose, and benefits. There is no magic bullet, and discussing the use with a qualified healthcare provider is important before starting using any supplement. Supplements also do not replace the need to eat a well-balanced diet or to see a healthcare provider if you are experiencing a health related issue. Always be transparent in communication with health care providers about any integrative health approaches you are following. We always want to know the full picture of how you manage your health in order to provide safe and coordinated care. In addition, as with anything in nutrition, use of supplements depends on your unique health status, and someone’s body may react differently than someone else’s. Studie have shown that there variation in gene expression patterns upon probiotic administration from person to person. Therefore, if you do want to start using a probiotic supplement, discussing an appropiate dose for you is crucial. The recommendations for probiotics are for the average healthy individual, and it is important to remember this when considering trying any new supplement.

What’s the Bottom Line?

A big takeaway from all of the above is that what we eat is one of the most powerful tools in shaping our gut microbiome. A healthy gut is important for overall health, but there is no need to get bogged down with too many specifics. When you are eating a balanced diet, you are more often than not hitting several health recommendations without realizing it. The keys to a healthy gut are as follows:

  • Eat a fiber rich diet. The minimal daily recommendations for men are around 38g, and for women 25g. Foods like fruits, veggies, and whole grains all contain PRE-biotics, which are compounds that help breed the proliferation of probiotics in your gut.

  • Don’t skip meals! It’s important to eat regularly and with balance.

  • Regularly consume foods that contain naturally occurring probiotics, such as dairy or non dairy yogurts, kefir, tempeh, miso, fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, kimchi, sourdough bread, and other fermented foods.

  • Find an exercise routine that can become consistent in your lifestyle.

  • Pay attention to your stress levels and stress management.

  • If drinking alcohol and caffeine, do so moderately.

  • Drink water. :)

The funny part is that these are typically the recs for any health condition, which means you get a lot of bang for your buck when investing in healthy behaviors. I always encourage people to stay up to date on the research that you are interested within nutrition. Proactively find studies that you are hearing about, and if you have trouble interpreting the results, never hesitate to reach out!

Share your questions or thoughts below!