Probiotics benefits have been talked about a lot since the 1990's but it is only now that more evidence is emerging that the benefits could be even more widespread than we ever imagined and not just confined to having a healthy gut!
Probiotic means 'promoting life' and probiotics are becoming one of the most talked about ways to keep healthy.
When we hear the word bacteria we tend to think of it as a negative word associating it with infections. However, we have many trillions of microbes living on and in our body and most of them are friendly or good bacteria and believe it or not some good yeasts too which help to keep us healthy.
Inside our guts, on our skin and in other places like our mouths and vaginas we have whole ecosystems which have huge colonies of good bacteria and a few good yeasts which help to fight off the small number microbes which can do us harm.
So it is a bit like having a massive rain forest where most of the plants and animals are either harmless or can actually do us a lot of good with a few nasty poisonous bad guys out to get us. The good guys keep the bad guys in check but if things get out of balance we can become ill either with infections or chronic illnesses.
This 'rain forest' has not been fully explored yet and there will be many more discoveries to come but some strains of good bacteria have been studied and linked to benefits for our health that can help us all keep in good condition.
We don't call it a rain forest though but either the gut microbiota (all the different microbes that live in the gut, like bacteria, yeasts and viruses) or the gut microbiome (the collective genetic make up of all the different microbes). Although in practice these two words are often used interchangeably.
Probiotics contain these friendly bacteria and probiotics benefits can be had by either by buying supplements in drink/yogurt form from the supermarket or capsule form from the pharmacy or by eating probiotic foods such as live yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, aged cheeses and others.
Read on to find out the different probiotics health benefits and how you can improve your health by introducing more probiotics into your life.
There are two main types of diarrhea that can be helped by taking probiotics. These are antibiotic associated diarrhea and infectious diarrhea.
When we take antibiotics to treat an infection an unfortunate side effect can be that as well as killing the bacteria that are causing us to be ill, the good bacteria that we rely upon to keep us healthy are knocked out too. This creates a gap into which bad bacteria can grow leading to diarrhea.
25-35% of people who take antibiotics have associated diarrhea. This is more prevalent in the elderly and young children.
There is a particular risk for people who come in to contact with C.Diff which is common in hospital settings but is now being found more often in the community.
There is some evidence that taking probiotics with your antibiotics can help prevent this type of diarrhea.
The exact strains that you should take have not be narrowed down yet and more research needs to be done but most of the studies which have been done used Lactobacillus strains.
Studies have shown that the duration and severity of infectious diarrhea is reduced by taking probiotics. They are particularly good for helping children with rotavirus.
More research needs to be done into which strains to use, however, the best probiotics benefits so far have been with Lactobacillus GG and S. boulardii.
Who wants to go down with infectious diarrhea when you are on your dream holiday? Unfortunately this scenario is all too common. Not only that but sometimes you will find yourself in a place where the bathroom facilities are not up to scratch!
A large meta study has now shown that preventing traveler's diarrhea is one of the important probiotics benefits. The strains that were found to be most successful were Saccharomyces boulardii and Lactobacillus acidophilus combined with Bifidobacterium bifidum.
So when you do your packing take some probiotics with you! (Keep them in a cool box).
So if our gut microbiota is in good condition with a wide variety of different strains like a well stocked rain forest it will be more difficult for invading species or bad guys lurking in the shadows, biding their time to take hold.
When you can't go, thinking about it and trying to find a solution can take over your life. Constipation is very common, with about 14% of American adults being affected at any given time.
Over the counter treatments or treatments prescribed by your doctor help some people but not everybody finds a solution.
Although research is on going it has come to the notice of scientists that some people are finding relief by using probiotics. King's College London has done a meta study of probiotics benefits for constipation and they are funding more research.
At the moment the probiotic bifidobacterium infantis looks to be the most promising probiotic for this problem.
For more tips on how to solve your constipation woes see this article.
About 20% of the people living in western countries suffer from some type of allergy and this is rising all the time. Some people are genetically more likely to develop allergies but environmental factors are thought to set off an allergy in those that are at risk.
So what does this have to do with our guts? Well children who suffer from allergies have a different microbiota to those who are healthy. This is particularly true of babies who are born by caesarean section and those who are formula fed.
Babies pick up the microbes that colonize their bowels from the birth canal as they are being born and from their mother's skin as they are feeding. Breast milk is also a prebiotic food which nourishes the friendly bacteria in the babies intestines helping it to implant and flourish.
There has been some success in improving or reversing allergy symptoms by giving probiotics to formula fed babies and children who are suffering from skin allergies, food allergies and respiratory allergies.
Studies have not found as much success with adults suffering from respiratory symptoms but a lot more research needs to be done and we are on the exciting brink of new discoveries in the world of probiotics benefits.
For more information about which strains were the most successful see this article from the Journal of Nutrition.
Exciting research has been done at Kings College Hospital London using a product called Symprove which contains four different strains of probiotics Lactobacillus casei, acidophilus and plantarum and Enterococcus faecium.
Irritable bowel syndrome sufferers symptoms improved dramatically and some appeared to be completely recovered during the twelve weeks of the trial.
They also found probiotics benefits for patients suffering from ulcerative colitis. In a trial 76% of them had reduced calprotectin levels (a marker for inflammation) after four weeks of using this product. Similar results have not been found for Crohn's Disease sufferers yet but research is ongoing.
So far we have mostly been talking about the gut microbiota but did you know that we also have specific strains of friendly bacteria that live in our mouths, nose, throats and ears?
Trials have shown that when children who suffer from repeated sore throats are given oral probiotics with the strain Streptococcus salivarius K12 their incidence of sore throats drops by 90% while they are taking them and the incidence of ear infections drops by 45%. For six months after they stop taking the probiotics their incidence of infection still drops by 65%. For more information see this article.
We have personal experience of the probiotics benefits for this part of the body as my daughter who works in a large London hospital was constantly plagued by colds and throat infections as were most of her work colleagues.
She took a 45 day course of the oral probiotic Hyperbiotics Pro-Dental and she has not been ill since. Now she sits in the work common room with her colleagues coughing around her and she does not seem to be affected at all.
You can also get probiotics benefits if you have dental problems, bad breath and conditions like tonsil stones. Oral probiotics improve all these conditions as good levels of friendly bacteria in your mouth help to keep it healthy and fight off infections.
It has been known for a while now that the gut microbiota of overweight people and those who are able to stay a healthy weight is very different but recently a new study was published by the British Journal of Nutrition that highlighted the probiotics benefits gained when dieting.
Women taking probiotics for 24 weeks alongside a 12 week calorie controlled diet lost twice as much weight as those not taking the probiotics and they continued to loose weight for 12 weeks after stopping the diet!
Sorry guys it did not seem to work for men but nobody is sure why. Researchers speculated that it could be that they need a higher dose.
The strain that they used during the study was Lactobacillus rhamnosus CGMCC1.3724 (LPR) but they think that any lactobacillus strain might work.
So how amazing is that; take probiotics everyday while trying to lose weight and you will be much more successful! I bet this is one of the benefits of probiotics that you never imagined.
Really! Skin? Unlikely as it may seem the American Academy of Dermatology thinks that we are on the brink of having access to new 'cutting edge' treatments for acne and rosacea.
Trials have shown benefits in the reduction of lesions and reduction in oil after taking oral probiotics and also when using probiotics directly on the skin.
The American Heart Association has said that consuming probiotics can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and overall cholesterol levels.
The strain that was the most successful in doing this was lactobacillus reuteri NCIMB 30242 although they think that all lactobacillus bacteria would have an impact.
The good thing is that only a small dose of 200mg is needed to have an effect; a much lower dose than with other natural cholesterol lowering products.
Some people do not like to take statins because of side effects but now they can get lower cholesterol and other probiotics benefits by just by taking a supplement each day.
It is estimated that every year about 1 billion women suffer from non-sexually transmitted infections of the vagina and bladder. Although these can usually be successfully treated recurrence rates are high and some women have chronic or repeated infections.
The faulty design of our anatomy with everything too close together does not help but it has recently been found that often the vaginal microbiota or normally friendly bacteria of these women is out of balance with much lower numbers of lactobacilli than is normal for that area of the body.
Products are being developed to help re-balance the good bacteria by re-introducing some of the strains that should normally be found in this area but which are missing or very low in some women.
So if you are suffering from repeated bladder or vaginal infections then definitely explore how the health benefits of probiotics formulated for this area can help you.
Our guts are joined to our brains by the vagus nerve and not many people know that in fact more messages are sent from the gut to the brain than the other way.
We have all experienced that gut wrenching feeling that sends us running to the bathroom when we have an exam or we are feeling particularly nervous about something but it has now been found that it can work in reverse.
When we have problems in our gut this can make us anxious or depressed.
The probiotics benefits that have been observed in people with depression and anxiety are a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol and an improvement in mood with a lower tendency to have bad thoughts.
A trial at Leiden University used a multi-species probiotic.
The good thing about probiotics is that they do not have side effects unlike many medications used to treat depression and anxiety.
As you have seen probiotics benefits are not just confined to treating diarrhea! There are many problems that can be solved or helped by restoring a harmonious balance to the different ecosystems or microbiota around our bodies.
How do we do this? It is beyond the scope of this article to look at every new strain of probiotic and which health problem it might help and this is a very fast moving science with new discoveries being made all the time but a good place to start is with a multi-species supplement which covers all the bases.
Also think about adding probiotic foods to your diet. This means fermented and aged foods but it does not mean you have to eat unrelenting sauerkraut (much as some people love that) just look at the great raspberry kefir popsicles.
It is also important to add prebiotic foods to your diet. These foods are the fertilizer that nourish the good bacteria in your gut. Without them the bacteria will starve and whither.
So what do our resident good bacteria like to eat? They like foods that contain non-digestible plant fibers like
Some probiotic supplements come formulated with prebiotics added as a ready food.
Probiotics benefits are much more wide ranging than many people imagine and I am confident that in the future more and more probiotics health benefits will be found.
Don't lose out! I have improved my health dramatically by taking probiotic supplements and adding probiotic and prebiotic foods to what I eat.
Start improving your health today by adding the probiotics benefits of supplements and foods to your diet.
Lentil salad: By Lablascovegmenu from London (Lentil salad) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons