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Probiotics—Good Bacteria Fighting For Your Digestive Health

by Jo Jordan

According to the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, probiotics are "live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host."

Also referred to as friendly or good bacteria, gut flora, intestinal flora, microflora, and direct fed microorganisms (DFM), probiotics help maintain the natural balance of organisms (microflora) in the intestines. They are live, microscopic living organisms – such as bacteria, viruses, and yeasts – that play a vital role in the fermentation and digestion of carbohydrates, and aid in the digestion of fats and proteins.

Probiotics help prevent bloating, gas, and yeast overgrowth because they maintain intestinal acidity at a healthy pH level. They generate certain vitamins and nutrients, support the immune system, and help prevent disease by depriving bad bacteria of nutrients, and secreting acids that harmful bacteria can’t cope with.

Good bacteria also metabolize and recycle hormones such as estrogen, phytoestrogens, and thyroid, which foster hormonal balance, and help minimize menopausal symptoms.

Bacteria populations that live in the gut are a combination of both good and bad bacteria; a balance between the two is necessary for an optimal state of health. While each person's mix of bacteria varies, friendly bacteria are crucial to the digestion and absorption of food and nutrients, a properly functioning immune system that responds with balance to potential allergens, protection against disease-causing microorganisms, and detoxification and metabolism.

Bad bacteria include those that cause disease such as Salmonella, Clostridium, and others. They only become problematic, however, when their numbers grow large and uncontrollable in proportion to that of good bacteria. Even yeasts such as Candida are healthy in small amounts.

Good bacteria include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and others. They help us digest food, maintain a healthy gut, provide us with nutrients and vitamins, and fight off bad bacteria. Good bacteria can be taken as a probiotic supplement.

As a rule, probiotics – available in foods and dietary supplements – are bacteria similar to those naturally found in our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts. These bacteria are usually obtained from two groups, Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. There are many different species within each group, and numerous strains within each species.

Probiotics are different from prebiotics, which are non-digestible food ingredients that stimulate the growth and/or activity of beneficial bacteria already living in the human the digestive system.

Symptoms of Probiotic Imbalance

When microflora become imbalanced, an incredible variety of symptoms can result. Probiotics have been found to be helpful in easing numerous symptoms and conditions:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Acne, rosacea (chronic)
  • ADD (attention deficit disorder)
  • All allergies
  • All autoimmune diseases
  • Asthma
  • Autism
  • Bad breath
  • Bloating, flatulence, and gas
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Constipation
  • Cold sores (herpes)
  • Cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Dyslexia
  • Ear infections (chronic)
  • Eczema
  • Emphysema
  • Endometriosis
  • Fatigue
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Food allergies, such as gluten intolerance and sensitivity to sugar
  • Gum disease
  • Headaches, migraines
  • Hyperactivity
  • Infant dermatitis
  • Increased PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome), peri-menopause, or menopause symptoms
  • Infertility
  • Intestinal tract inflammation (chronic enteritis)
  • Irregular bowel movements
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Irritability
  • Joint aches
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Learning disabilities
  • Lowered immune response
  • Lyme disease
  • Nail problems (tinea)
  • Other inflammatory conditions
  • Patchy white areas on skin (vitiligo)
  • Prostate inflammation
  • Psoriasis
  • Sinusitis (chronic)
  • Stuffy nose, increased mucous
  • Thrush
  • Upper respiratory infections (chronic)
  • Urinary tract infections (chronic)
  • Viral infections (i.e. hepatitis, herpes, human papillomavirus [HPV])
  • Yeast infections

What Causes Probiotic Imbalance?

The balancing act required to keep friendly and unfriendly bacteria levels in check can be disrupted in various ways. Medications such as antibiotics can kill both good and bad gut bacteria in one fell swoop. Unfriendly, disease-causing bacteria, fungi, yeasts, and parasites can put microflora balance into a tailspin.

Intestinal upset such as diarrhea brought on by food poisoning can lead to a decrease in microflora. Age, illness, and stress can cause microflora imbalance. Poor diet is one of the most serious contributors – good bacteria love fiber; bad bacteria thrive on refined sugar and animal fat. Starvation, low-calorie dieting, and excessive alcohol consumption can all cause a microflora disruption.

When a microflora imbalance occurs, the population of Lactobacilli (a good bacteria) in the small intestine decreases, giving bad bacteria and yeasts (such as Candida albicans) the opportunity to occupy the space left by the reduction of good bacteria. The bad microflora begin to proliferate, overpopulating the GI tract, and persisting for months and/or years.

Probiotic Treatment and Prevention: The Benefits

Understanding the importance of intestinal flora balance, many health care specialists recommend probiotic supplementation as a part of any daily health regimen.

Probiotics can relieve chronic constipation, and digestive and gas pain, as well as restore beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract to healthy levels.

Research suggests that probiotic supplementation may help the body cope with conditions such as,

  • Childhood stomach and respiratory infections
  • Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection (a peptic ulcer and chronic stomach inflammation-causing bacterium)
  • Infectious diarrhea (especially that caused by rotavirus)1
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) (i.e. ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease)
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Malabsorption of trace minerals (especially for vegetarians with high phytate diets: i.e. legumes, nuts, and whole grains)2
  • Skin infections
  • Tooth decay and gum disease
  • Vaginal infections

Probiotics are thought to be helpful in both the prevention and treatment of some conditions:

  • Childhood eczema
  • Colon cancer
  • Diarrhea caused by antibiotics
  • Infections of the female urinary tract and bacterial vaginosis
  • Pouchitis (a potential, post-surgical condition of colon removal)

Probiotics can be helpful in lowering blood pressure, reducing inflammation, shortening the duration of intestinal infections3 caused by Clostridium difficile, as well as reducing the recurrence rate of others conditions, such as bladder cancer.4

Specific digestive tract cells may be intricately linked to the immune system. Studies suggest that when intestinal tract microorganisms are exposed to probiotic bacteria, immune system functioning is boosted, which can result in the prevention of infection.

University of Turku in Finland study results presented at the 2009 European Congress on Obesity suggest that women taking probiotics during the first trimester of pregnancy are less likely to experience obesity. Known as adiposity, this pregnancy-associated condition is one of the unhealthiest forms of obesity.5

And finally, Mayo Clinic researchers are investigating probiotics for decreasing certain substances in the urine that can cause problems such as kidney stones.

The Probiotic Solution:
What to Consider When Choosing a Probiotic Brand

A normal part of the digestive system, probiotics are generally considered safe. When choosing a probiotic, it’s important to be aware that only certain kinds of bacteria or yeast work well in the digestive tract; the effects experienced from ingesting one probiotic species, strain, or preparation won’t necessarily be experienced with another. For this reason, it’s important to choose supplemental probiotics with care.

Microflora varies within and between the intestines, genito-urinary, respiratory, and skin populations. Lactobacillis acidophilis is the dominant strain in the small intestine, whereas Bifidobacterium bifidum is dominant in the large intestine. Ideally, a probiotic supplement ought to be comprised of several beneficial bacteria – such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum.

Choose a probiotic containing strains that are non-pathogenic (harmless) to humans (again, look for species Lactobacillis and Bifidobacterium). A product with microflora species cultured from human strains, capable of colonizing the digestive tract and attaching themselves to the lining of the small intestine, and able to remain within the large intestine is desirable.

Look for a probiotic that contains a prebiotic such as FOS (fructooligosaccharides) or inulin (polysaccharide/fructose); they help the microflora survive the acidic upper GI tract environment. To ensure quality, purity, and safety, choose a product that is GMP-compliant (good manufacturing practice), and certified by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International (Public Health and Safety Company).

Choosing the right probiotic may feel like a daunting task as a result of the sheer mass of information that has been written about them. At Puristat, we’ve already done all the research so that you don’t have to; our 35 Billion Probiotic provides you with everything you need in a probiotic…without having to wade through a library of information to find out what that is!

Fostering Adequate Microflora through Diet

Cheese, chocolate, cider, fermented and unfermented milk, kimchi, miso, pickles, tempeh, sauerkraut, some juices and soy beverages, soy sauce, Yakult, and yogurt are examples of foods and drinks containing probiotics.

Since prebiotics stimulate the growth of friendly bacteria within the human digestive system, consider eating foods that contain prebiotics such as asparagus, bananas, garlic, leeks, oats, onions, and wheat. Some grocery store foods are enriched with prebiotics. Consider prebiotic supplements if your probiotic does not already contain a prebiotic.

And remember, friendly bacteria thrive on fiber; bad bacteria adore refined sugar and animal fat. So when choosing your grocery items, stock up on fruits, legumes, vegetables, and whole grains in order to foster the health of your good bacteria. Foods such as garlic, ginseng, and green tea contain polyphenols, which also help to encourage long life for good bacteria.

In Closing

The digestive system is an incredibly important – and complex – part of the human body. Many health care providers believe it is the place where health begins…and ends. Probiotics provide an exciting new aspect to the health of the human gut.

As with all medications, the effectiveness of probiotics depends on a variety of factors ranging from the species and strain ingested, to the age, gender, genetics, health status, and history of each individual. Today, however, there is a mounting body of evidence to support the effectiveness of probiotics in the treatment of an enormous number of twenty-first century conditions.

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1. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)/National Institutes of Health (NIH), “An Introduction to Probiotics,” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics/ (accessed November 13, 2009).
2. Famularo G, et al, “Probiotic lactobacilli: an innovative tool to correct the malabsorption syndrome of vegetarians?,” Pub.Med.gov, 2005 Aug 10, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16095846 (accessed November 13, 2009).
3. . National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM)/National Institutes of Health (NIH), “An Introduction to Probiotics,” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/probiotics/ (accessed November 13, 2009).
4. Ibid.
5. Medical News Today, “Probiotics May Help Ward Off Obesity: Study In Pregnant Women,” http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/149235.php (accessed November 14, 2009).

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