You’ve probably heard that probiotics improve gut health? They’ve certainly been getting lots of attention and are now being prescribed by health practitioners from all modalities. The reason for this is because they’re effective and gentle and their use is being steadily affirmed by scientific research.
Probiotics are non-addictive and safe. It’s very rare for someone to get side effects from them. They’re even suitable for long-term use. In fact, the longer you take them, the healthier you’ll get. This is because they work on your whole body, not just on one organ or on a single symptom.
Nevertheless, some areas of the body benefit from probiotics more than others. One of these areas that see the greatest improvements in function when you take probiotics is your gut. At least when you take the probiotics in the right way and in the right situation. I say “right way” and “right situation” because there’s a lot of variation in the health conditions that probiotics can help with, depending on the strains they contain. But more about that later. First, let’s talk briefly about healthy bacteria.
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Human Gut Microbiota
You have a staggering 10,000 species of microscopic organisms in and on your body, that occur there naturally. This is known collectively as your “microbiota” or “microbiome” and it contains trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that cover every inch of your body. These creatures aren’t neutral stowaways catching a free-ride like they were once thought to be. They seriously affect how your body works. Humans genuinely cannot be healthy unless these microscopic creatures are present in a healthy balance!
How Do Probiotics Improve Gut Health?
When you take probiotics, you increase the population of one (or just a few) natural microbiota species in your gut. One out of 10,000 is a tiny proportion. So, it isn’t always predictable what the effect of this bump in bacterial numbers will do for your health, exactly. Especially since studies are kind of limited in what they can predict for us here because every single person’s microbiota is 100% unique to them.
No two people will have the exact same balance of microbes on their bodies. This fact is slowing down scientists’ progress in really understanding the microbiota. In fact, there’s still a lot of research needed before we will have the full picture of exactly how your microbiota affects your well-being and how probiotics improve gut health.
But the research we do have so far has revealed that probiotics can be very effective as a treatment or as an adjunctive (used in combination with other medicines) for digestive conditions, if, as I mentioned before, you take the right probiotic strain at the right dose.
For example, this review of probiotics for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), showed that certain probiotic strains were effective for pain, while others were effective for distension, and all the strains studied helped reduce flatulence. Studies like this highlight why it’s vital that you choose clinically proven probiotics — for your condition (and even your condition’s specific symptoms) — from a reputable company.
Strain is Everything
The importance of making sure you’re taking the right probiotic for your condition is underlined yet further by the fact that we now know that there are some conditions for which taking a probiotic may be harmful or counterproductive.
For example, there are studies that suggest you should avoid taking probiotics if you’re suffering an active bout of an autoimmune condition because probiotics may be able to overstimulate your immune response if you are in this hyper-inflammatory state. (This advice, of course, does not apply if you’re under the care of a health professional and he or she recommended a specific probiotic for you. Some practitioners have expert knowledge in the use of probiotics for autoimmunity and they can safely prescribe the right strain and right dose for you.)
How Do Probiotics Work?
Probiotics improve gut health through many different mechanisms because your gut microbes are involved in many different processes:
- Competition – Every tiny microbe in your gut needs nutrients and a physical space to occupy, even the bad, illness-causing microbes. So, when you fill the space with healthy bacteria, there’s no room for bad bacteria to grow. Bad bacteria cause digestive symptoms if they’re allowed to multiply.
- Production of antimicrobial compounds – One of the other ways microbes survive in your gut is by producing chemicals that are toxic to other microbes. Good bacteria can actually stop bad bacteria from growing, keeping your microbiota in balance.
- Changing your acid-alkaline balance – By making your gut more acidic, good bacteria prevent bad bacteria from multiplying. This means symptom-free digestion because your gut stays healthy.
- Influencing your immune cells – Probiotics can modify the way your immune cells behave, helping your body fight off disease using its own defenses. A healthy gut is essential for good immunity.
- Signaling your brain and nerves – Good bacteria use chemical messages to communicate with your brain and nerves. This improves the way your digestive and immune system function.
- Reducing inflammation – The chemicals that probiotic bacteria produce help to keep inflammation down in your gut. This also reduces inflammation in other parts of your body by keeping pro-inflammatory chemicals out of your blood.
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Best Probiotics for Digestion
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As we’ve already discussed, the precise strain and dose will be different for each symptom and condition you’re trying to address. Bacterial species from the families Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are good for general digestion and used repeatedly in trials because they’re so effective. They belong to a group called “lactic-acid producing bacteria” (LAB).
LAB are unique and important because they can digest carbohydrates without the presence of oxygen, and, as the name suggests, they produce lactic acid. This is what acidifies your gut, keeping bad bacteria out.
You can get these healthy LAB bacteria into your body in a couple of ways.
- Consume fermented foods. Sauerkraut, pickles, tempeh, miso and other fermented foods are rich in LAB bacteria, particularly Lactobacillus LAB species. Such foods have been used to treat digestive disorders for thousands of years and they are still effective today.
- Take a probiotic supplement. Official probiotic supplements are convenient, concentrated capsules, powders or drinks containing controlled doses of specific, isolated strains of scientifically-researched beneficial bacteria.
If you decide a more concentrated (and more thoroughly researched) probiotic supplement is right for you, here is a brief list of clinically proven strains, their available brand names, and the conditions they can help address to get you started!
- Acute infectious diarrhea – Lactobacillus casei ssp. rhamnosus (Lactobacillus GG), available as Swanson Probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus
- Ulcerative colitis – Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus delrueckii subs. bulgaricus, Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium infantis, and Streptococcus salivarius subs. Thermophilus, available in Hyperbiotics Pro-15 Probiotic Supplement
- Crohn’s disease – Lactobacillus johnsonii, available in Labo Nutrition’s Gastricell
- Irritable bowel syndrome – Lactobacillus plantarum 299 v (Lp 299 v), available as Swanson Probiotics Inner Bowel Support
- Constipation – Bifidobacterium longum, available as Life Extension Bifido GI Balance
|Swanson Probiotic Lactobacillus Rhamnosus||Hyperbiotics Pro-15 Probiotic Supplement||Labo Nutrition’s Gastricell||Swanson Probiotics Inner Bowel Support||Life Extension Bifido GI Balance|
Take Home Message
Probiotics improve gut health through a variety of complex mechanisms in your gut. They can prevent infection and illness caused by bad bacteria, improve your immune responses, influence your nerves and brain and reduce inflammation. It’s important to choose the right species and strain for the condition or symptom you’re trying to treat. Always choose clinically proven probiotics and take the recommended dose.