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Pros of Probiotics

By Janette Daher
Posted On Aug 05, 2016
Pros of Probiotics

by Janette M. Daher  ILLUSTRATIONS by Wendy Plovmand

probiotics-1These days, we can’t turn on the television without being inundated with commercials about digestive health. From heartburn and stomach upset to diarrhea and irregularity, the general populous seems downright plagued by digestive discomfort and stress. Are we all doomed to this irritable fate?
Behold, the cavalry: Probiotics (which literally translates to “for life”) are virtuous bacteria that naturally reside in our gastrointestinal (GI) tract. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), probiotic supplements contain “live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” They’ve proven to be a highly effective stomach solution within the supplement universe.

How, you might ask, do germs keep us healthy? We’ve been conditioned from early childhood to think of germs as bad. Take a walk down the cleaning aisle of any grocery store and you will find shelves stockpiled with antibacterial and sanitizing products that drive this thought home. It turns out, however, that germ slaying isn’t the sole way to prevent illness. Some bacteria are actually our allies, and play an essential role in the maintenance of our health.

The bacteria that are found in our GI tract are very important for two reasons: digestion and optimal immune function. Think of your GI tract as its own ecosystem in your body. As with most ecosystems, coexistence is essential for survival. There are bacteria living in our body all the time, and they’re needed in order for us to remain healthy.

As is the case in life, where there is “good” there is also “bad.” Gastrointestinal flora is composed of both good and bad bacteria that are in a constant competition for food and space in the intestines. In an ideal situation, the good bacteria displaces the bad bacteria on the intestinal wall, resulting in a healthy colon, good digestion, good nutrition, and optimal health.

When Bad Bacteria Rule

There are many challenges in today’s environment that make it easy for bad bacteria to move in and take over the intestines. The average American diet contains an overabundance of refined sugar, refined flour, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones, steroids, preservatives, artificial colors, and artificial flavors to name a few. All of these food components allow bad bacteria to thrive, and inspire good bacteria to run and hide. In the book The Wonder of Probiotics, author John Taylor estimates that only about 25 percent of Americans have the beneficial bacteria species Lactobacilli (essential for proper nutrition and immune function) present in the GI tract. This is almost entirely due to poor eating habits.

When bad bacteria outnumber good bacteria, a condition known as dysbiosis occurs: Once bad bacteria gets the upper hand, they cause the intestinal lining to become more porous and allow toxins—which would normally not enter the bloodstream—to pass through. (These include bacteria, partially digested food, waste particles, and so on.) The immune system identifies these particles as
invaders and attacks, causing an inflammatory response. This condition is also referred to as “leaky gut syndrome.”

Leaky gut syndrome manifests in a variety of illnesses and conditions, including food allergies, chronic sinus infections, arthritis, asthma, colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Additionally, leaky gut syndrome causes problems with nutrient absorption because the proteins that transport minerals in the bloodstream are damaged by the inflammatory reactions. Common deficiencies include magnesium, zinc, copper, and calcium.


Probiotic Plusses

The relationship between optimal health and balanced digestion has been a central theme in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, as have foods containing live bacterial cultures. While there are foods that have probiotic qualities, such as yogurt, kefir, or fermented foods (pickles, sauerkraut, tempeh), it is unlikely that you receive enough of these good organisms from diet alone to achieve sufficient health benefits. In order to get the full probiotic boosts of Activia yogurt, for example, you have to have three servings per day, each and every day.
Additionally, modern day food manufacturing and pasteurization reduces the viability of many of these live cultures.

There are many beneficial bacteria in our bodies. Here are some of the more popular bacterial strains, as well as the conditions they improve. Try to find a probiotic that provides as many strains of good bacteria as possible, as this will greatly reduce your chance of illness.

Bifidobacterium bifidum: lowers cholesterol, treats gastroenteritis

Bifidobacterium lactis: maintains blood glucose and insulin, prevents fat gain, lowers cholesterol

Bifidobacterium longum: aids digestion, boosts immunity, fights cancer tumor cells

Lactobacillus acidophilus: lowers cholesterol, prevents cavities, treats bacterial vaginosis

Lactobacillus brevis: fights H. pylori, helps with kidney stone prevention and mouth ulcers

Lactobacillus casei: boosts immune function, prevents/treats urinary tract infections (UTI) and gingivitis

Lactobacillus plantarum: helps fight colds, flu, and prevents allergic reaction

Lactobacillus rhamnosus: helps control allergies and diarrhea, prevents fat gain

Lactobacillus salivarius: helps gastrointestinal issues

Streptococcus thermophilus: treats gastroenteritis and diarrhea, prevents lactose intolerance (Summarized from Probiotics Protection Against Infection by Case Adams, PhD, Logical Books, 2012)


Probiotic research suggests that probiotics provide more far-reaching benefits than improved digestive and immune function. Scientists are discovering links between bad bacteria and many medical conditions, including stroke, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and obesity. A study conducted by Cornell microbiologist Ruth Ley suggests that obese people have a
different microbial environment than leaner people. As obese people lost weight, the composition of their gut microflora changed, resembling that of a leaner person—suggesting that gut microbes in obese people behave differently and absorb food differently than the gut microbes in lean people. Mice that were fed a high-fat diet but given probiotics had lower glucose and insulin blood levels than those receiving the diet alone. This supports the notion that probiotics influence inflammation and could potentially prevent metabolic syndrome — a condition associated with heart disease, insulin resistance, and obesity.

Choose Wisely

probiotic-2Think of your GI tract as a flowerbed overtaken by weeds (bad bacteria).
Regardless how many “flowers” (good bacteria) are planted in the garden,
they will be strangled until you get rid of the weeds.

Probiotic supplements can safely, effectively, and more consistently improve the balance between good and bad bacteria. When formulated correctly, a probiotic supplement can provide a large number of beneficial bacteria in a small, easy-to-swallow capsule. The most beneficial supplements are from the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus bacterial strains. A supplement’s variety of beneficial bacteria strains translates to better protection against (and prevention of ) a host of illnesses and conditions. It’s key to have an adequate level of these bacterial strains in a supplement
to affect a change in the GI tract: a desirable probiotic supplement will have an average of 10 billion CFU’s (colony forming units, a measure of bacterial activity).

An important aspect of any worthwhile probiotic formulation is the use of a “prebiotic.” A prebiotic supplement used in combination with active probiotic bacterial strains ensures that your tract is built to utilize the supplement at the most optimal level. While probiotics have been used for centuries, the concept of prebiotics is fairly new. In a 1995 study, researchers Glenn R. Gibson and Marcel Roberfroid defined prebiotics as a “nondigestible food ingredient that beneficially affects the host by selectively stimulating the growth and/or activity of one or a limited number of bacteria
in the colon, and thus improves host health.” Simply put, prebiotics provide food to the probiotic strains and therefore promote good bacterial growth. These strains are partial to insoluble fibers—however, the drawbacks of these fibers in a prebiotic include possible side effects such as gas and bloating. A proactive approach to prebiotics is to choose a substance that is not fiber-based, which will work faster and in smaller doses without the traditional gastrointestinal side effects.

Here is another way of looking at it: Think of your GI tract as a flowerbed overtaken by weeds (bad bacteria). Regardless of how many “flowers” (good bacteria) are planted in the garden they will be strangled until you get rid of the weeds. A healthy, whole food diet, regular exercise, good lifestyle habits, and a probiotic/prebiotic supplement will effectively turn the tables on the microbial imbalance. Your garden will start growing the way you want it to, free of pestering weeds.

Probiotic supplements that contain a prebiotic are capable of benefits apart from digestive health. Everyone—regardless of their life stage—can reap the benefits of a balanced internal microbial environment. Probiotics are categorized “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—meaning they’ve been proven safe for human consumption. The probiotic industry is the fastest growing supplement category due to the vast population it appeals to, and is expected to reach $32 billion by 2015. Already used in baby formula, chocolate, gum,
protein bars, juice, yogurt, and skin care, we can expect to see probiotics formulated into other products as well. It’s a growth industry, in the truest sense of the word.