Mention the word ‘bacteria’ in a conversation and you’ll get mixed reactions: some will go ‘NASTY bugs that cause disease and spoil foods!’ while others may equate bacteria to the friendly fellows that keep our gut healthy and are added to (ridiculously high-sugar) yogurt!
The truth is the bacterial kingdom is a huge one – there are numerous pathogens that can cause a wide array of health issues but there are also lots of good bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus or the bifidobacterium that have been linked to various health benefits. As you’ll discover in this article, these bacteria do much more than simply keep things running smoothly in our digestive tract.
And if you’re among those who think that the health benefits of probiotics have been overrated, keep scrolling to find out what happens if the delicate gut ecology is disrupted. I guarantee you’ll be surprised.
The amazing gut ecology
Did you know about 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) microorganisms think of your gut as ‘home sweet home’? Yep, that’s a crazy lot of zeros! Just to give you a visual idea, if you laid one dollar bills end-to-end from the earth to the sun and back, you would require way more than one trillion bills! Now, do that a 100 times more to get a (vague) idea of how much 100 trillion is… Sounds like we’re more bacteria than human!
In fact, our gastrointestinal system is home to more than 400 different species of bacteria – colonization begins right after birth and is more effective if the baby is born via the vaginal route. These bacteria which prevent pathogens from multiplying in the gut, make up more than 75% of our immune system.
Health benefits of probiotics you’re probably unaware of.
Sounds farfetched or Sci-Fi like? Well, more and more studies are showing that our brains and gut are linked. Research suggests that when the gut is inflamed – this can occur if your diet is packed with processed ‘foods’ such as vegetable seed oils, sugar, refined carbs, gluten, soy and so on – it promotes the release of inflammatory cytokines in the blood. Basically, what these compounds do is tell the immune system, ‘Code Red, Code Red! There’s something going wrong – we need to be on the alert!’ This alert signal stresses you out. Plus these inflammatory cytokines are able to cross the blood-brain barrier where they induce inflammation in the brain, creating symptoms of depression.
In one study, 45 healthy participants were given either a placebo or a prebiotic before completing computer tests that assessed how they processed negative or positive words (emotional information). The researchers found that, compared to the control group, subjects given the probiotics paid more attention to the positive information than to the negative information. Similar effects have been noted amongst patients taking anti-depression or anti-anxiety drugs.
And a 2011 French study revealed that individuals who took probiotics for 30 days experienced decreased levels of psychological distress compared to the placebo group.
Behind the link
Probiotics exert their anti-depressant functions in two ways:
- By preventing or toning down gut inflammation, probiotics can thwart this inflammatory process and thus minimize and even stop brain inflammation.
- Probiotics have been found to calm depression by acting on the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that conveys sensory information from the gut to the brain.
- Prebiotics appear to lower morning cortisol levels – high levels of this hormone have been linked to stress, anxiety and depression.
Did you know that weight gain has been linked to the composition of the gut flora? And that, compared to their leaner counterparts, obese individuals have a less diverse gut flora? In fact, it appears that obese individuals have 90% less bacteroidetes and 20% more firmicutes than lean individuals. So what, you may wonder? Well, firmicutes are better than bacteroidetes at extracting calories from food and storing them as fat. In other words, the more firmicutes you have in your gut, the more of your food will be converted into fat.
Moreover, as mentioned earlier, an unhealthy gut can lead to brain inflammation – inflammatory cytokines have been found to block leptin receptor sites, gradually making the body “leptin resistant”. Since the hormone leptin induces satiety and tells the brain to burn body fat for energy, leptin resistance makes it harder to lose weight by making you hungrier and making it harder for your body to burn fat.
Japanese researchers gave a group of 210 overweight women 7 ounces of fermented milk per day for 12 weeks. Some of the women received milk containing Lactobacillus gasseri SBT2055. The researchers found that, compared to the control group, those who received the ‘spiked’ drink lost 8 to 9% of their visceral fat. This type of fat surrounds the organs and can cause numerous health issues when present in excess. These women also lost 1 to 3% of their belly fat.
In another study, obese individuals were given either a placebo or a probiotic containing Lactobacillus rhamnosusfor 12 weeks. This constituted the weight loss plan which was followed by a 12-week weight maintenance plan. The researchers reported that the women in the treatment group lost an average of 9.7 pounds, compared to 5.7 pounds in the placebo group. No significant weight loss changes were seen between the men in the placebo and treatment group. What’s interesting is that the women who received the probiotic continued to lose body fat after the maintenance phase whereas the control group gained weight.
In a lab study, scientists transferred the gut flora of obese mice into the guts of skinny ones. Guess what happened? These skinny mice immediately started eating excessively and gradually became obese.
Behind the link
- Probiotics may help improve metabolism while increasing adiponectin, an anti-inflammatory signal that enhances the body’s ability to burn belly fat. Adiponectin also regulates lipid and glucose metabolism.
- Probiotics can help decrease intestinal permeability thus keeping the intestinal barrier strong. In doing so, the friendly bugs could help prevent inflammatory compounds from entering the bloodstream and reaching the brain where, as explained earlier, they can induce leptin resistance.
3. Probiotics may protect against the metabolic syndrome.
The metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of conditions, such as high blood pressure, insulin resistance, accumulation of fat around the organs and abnormal lipid profiles, which occur together, increasing your risks of diabetes and heart disease. Although you need to have more than one of these conditions to be diagnosed with the metabolic syndrome, having any of them predispose you to serious health issues. And the more of these conditions occur together, the greater your risks for adverse health issues. Ready for some good news? Research suggests that probiotics can help you slip out of this risky web!
The probiotic strain Bifidobacterium (B.) animalis subsp. lactis 420 (B420) was shown to significantly improve the metabolic syndrome by counteracting the adverse effects of an unhealthy diet.
Subjects who received a conventional yogurt with added Lactobacillus (L.) gasseri SBT 2055 experienced a considerable reduction in visceral and subcutaneous fat, body fat mass, as well as body weight, waist and hip circumferences. This suggests that probiotics can have a beneficial influence on metabolic disorders.
Behind the link
- Probiotics can considerably reduce tissue inflammation and metabolic endotaxemia which has been shown to be one of the factors that initiate obesity and insulin resistance.
- Probiotics can help regulate weight by influencing energy metabolism, which is how the body regulates energy intake, expenditure, and storage.
4. Probiotics can enhance heart health.
A crucial strategy that can considerably help reduce our risks of dying from heart disease lies within our own intestinal tracts. Ensuring that beneficial bacteria are thriving in your gut could protect you from various heart conditions.
Congestive heart failure
In a small study published this year, researchers gave 20 patients suffering from congestive heart failure supplements containing the probiotic S. boulardii. The probiotic group experienced improved heart function, reduced inflammatory markers and a reduction in cholesterol levels. These effects were not seen in the placebo group.
A review of nine studies showed that, compared to the control groups, subjects who received a probiotic experienced reduction in blood pressure. This drop in blood pressure was more significant when:
- The probiotic therapy was continued for over eight weeks.
- Multiple species of probiotics are consumed.
- The daily consumption dose is at least 10 colony-forming units.
In one study, adults with elevated cholesterol were given either a placebo or Lactobacillus reuteri in capsule formfor nine weeks. The probiotic group experienced a 9% reduction in total cholesterol while LDL levels fell by almost 12%. What’s interesting is that these patients also had an 8% reduction in apolipoprotein B-100, a marker of LDL particle number and a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Plus high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP) and fibrinogen (two important markers of inflammation) also dropped by 1.05 mg/L (62%) and 14% respectively.
Bifidobacteria supplements have also been shown to raise protective HDL cholesterol levels in humans and reduce total and LDL levels.
Behind the link
- By toning down inflammation, promoting body fat loss and preventing oxidation of LDL particles, probiotics can help protect the heart.
- Probiotics such as Lactobacillus reuteri NCIMB 30242 has been found to increase levels of circulating vitamin D – this vitamin is not only essential for bone health but is now proving to be crucial for blood pressure control and overall heart and brain function.
- Probiotics also increase the metabolism of cholesterol by promoting its breakdown and helping the body to remove it from the body. For instance, L. reuteri produces the enzyme bile salt hydrolase that “traps” cholesterol in the intestine and promotes its excretion via the feces.
5. Probiotics can boost immune function.
Pop quiz: Where is the major part of our immune system situated?
In the gut? Yep: over 75% of the human immune system resides in the gut. That’s not all; the intestinal immune system produces more antibodies than the rest of the body put together! So it’s not hard to understand that if your gut flora is unhealthy, your immune system will suffer.
Bowel inflammation is a major culprit behind colon cancer, the third most common cancer in the world. Researchers have found that probiotics can protect patients with colitis against this cancer.
Probiotics have also been found to reduce the risks of infections such as:
- Antibiotic-associated diarrhea (this often causes illness and death in the elderly) and traveler’s diarrhea.
- Diarrhea in people with lactose intolerance (supplementation lasted for two weeks).
- Allergies and chronic sinus infections known as chronic rhinosinusitis.
In individuals with irritable bowel syndrome, Bifidobacteria supplementation considerably reduced abdominal distension and improved symptom scores along with faster bowel transit times – this reduces cancer risks.
Behind the link
- Probiotics help strengthen the barrier function of the intestinal lining thus making it less likely for bacteria in the intestines to enter the blood stream and can cause infections.
- Probiotics can restore and rebalance the gut microbiome. In doing so, these friendly bugs promote optimal immune surveillance, enhancing the production of immune cells that search for and destroy infecting organisms and cancers.
- Probiotics can help prevent the over-stimulation of the immune system.
- Probiotics have been found to secrete antibacterial peptides, substances that are capable of killing harmful bacteria in the gut.
- Probiotics also produce B vitamins and vitamin K, powerful nutrients that constitute an excellent line of defense for the body.
6. Probiotics hold promise for skin issues.
Did you know that your skin is the window to your gut and liver? Over a hundred years ago, dermatologists Drs. Stokes and Pillsbury directly linked skin inflammation to changes in the microbes and bacteria present in the gut. Research shows that a damaged gut can:
- Upset hormonal balance thus increasing oil production in your skin.
- Reduce the skin’s natural production of antimicrobial peptides, resulting in worsening skin inflammation or red and swollen pimples that hurt like crazy!
- Hamper your body’s gastric acid production – pathogens in the stomach have been shown to decrease acid levels in the stomach thus creating a medium in which they can thrive. Not only does this cause inflammation but insufficient gastric acid also mean that fewer nutrients (including antioxidants that can tone down inflammation) will reach your skin cells.
Probiotics can clear acne and tone down rosacea
In a 1961 study, 80% of 300 acne sufferers experienced clinical improvement after taking probiotics. This was replicated by Russian and Italian scientists who showed that acne and rosacea patients who received probiotics experienced better symptom clearance compared to the control group. Moreover, acne sufferers who consumed a Lactobacillus-containing beverage for 12 weeks had fewer acne lesions and produced less sebum.
Probiotics can tone down eczema
Although genes play a major role in the development of eczema (also known as atopic dermatitis), studies suggest that probiotics can help prevent the condition especially when given at an early age. In fact, a review of 21 studies involving 11,000 children at risk of developing eczema showed that supplementing with Lactobacillus rhapsodic GG or Lactobacillus rhamnosus strain HN001 slashed kids’ risk of developing eczema in half compared to those taking a placebo. Children who took other strains of probiotics also had a 50% reduction in their risk of eczema.
Behind the link
- Probiotics may actually re-seal the gut lining while helping to restore the gut’s microbiota – this prevents both systemic and local inflammation two known markers of acne and rosacea flares.
- Probiotics appear to act as a protective shield by preventing pathogens on the skin from eliciting an immune reaction that leads to pimple formation, stinging, burning and dryness. They also exert calming effects on skin cells, thus preventing them from reacting to pathogens they perceive as threats.
- These friendly bugs also produce antimicrobial substances that are able to break through the cell walls of bad bacteria thereby killing them.
7. Probiotics can improve oral health.
What is your ‘go-to’ product to combat oral issues? Toothpaste and mouthwash? Well, not only do these products not work as advertised but they can actually worsen your oral issues. Instead, try probiotics! Skeptical? Don’t be; after all your digestive tract starts with your mouth so it’s only logical that good bacteria can affect your oral health. In fact, unbalanced bacterial flora in the mouth has been linked to increased risks of cavity formation, gingival inflammation and bad breath.
Probiotics and dental caries
Scientists found that a probiotic mouth rinse was as effective as chlorhexidine (the gold standard mouthwash with antibacterial properties) in decreasing plaque accumulation. However, unlike chlorhexidine-containing products, probiotic mouth rinses do not cause brown discoloration of the teeth and tongue, oral mucosal erosion, taste alterations and other nasty side-effects.
Children who consumed probiotic-infused milk on a daily basis for seven months experienced a substantial decrease in dental caries compared to the control group who were given plain milk during the study period.
Probiotics and periodontal diseases
Periodontal diseases can be classified into 2 types: gingivitis and periodontitis. Gingivitis refers to a mild form of periodontal disease that involves inflammation of the gingiva (or gum) which is part of the soft tissue that lines the mouth and acts as a seal around the teeth. If left unchecked, gingivitis can lead to a more serious infection known as periodontitis, a progressive, destructive ailment that affects all supporting tissues of the teeth, including the alveolar bone. Probiotics may be a solution to this problem: compared to chlorhexidine, probiotic mouth rinses have been shown to be more effective at decreasing gingival inflammation.
Probiotics and bad breath (halitosis)
Gas-emitting bacteria on the tongue and below the gum line are the main culprits behind foul breath. When subjects were given probiotics infused into a mouth rinse, lozenge, chewing gum or tablet for four weeks, they experienced a significant improvement in bad breath. Researchers utilized either Streptococcus salivarius K12 or Lactobacillus salivarius WB21.
Behind the link
- Studies show that the friendly bugs in your mouth – yeah, that’s not a very nice picture – produce hydrogen peroxide as well as other antimicrobial substances that suppress the growth of harmful bacteria.
- Probiotics compete with these pathogens for food and adhesion sites on the mucosa.
- Good bacteria are also able to alter the oral environment by modifying its pH levels and/or its oxidation-reduction potential. This in turn thwarts the pathogens’ ability to colonize the oral cavity.
- Probiotics such as Lactobacillus casei Shirota and Lactobacillus brevis have been found to exert anti-inflammatory effects which can help people with periodontal diseases.
- Probiotics are also able to stimulate non-specific immune responses which can keep oral disorders at bay.
8. Probiotics may play a role in fertility.
While probiotics are in no way a ‘cure’ for fertility issues, supplementation with Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Lactococcus lactis, and Bifido breve have been found to be valuable in enhancing fertility and keeping pregnancy complications at bay.
Lactobacillus has been shown to enhance semen quality while protecting the sperm against pathogens such as Prevotella and Pseudomonas.
Lactobacillus gasseri OLL2809 could help prevent the growth of endometrial tissue and promote healing. This particular probiotic strain may also help improve the quality of life in patients suffering from endometriosis.
Behind the link
- Individuals suffering from endometriosis, PCOS, uterine fibroids, adenomyosis, dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and autoimmune conditions often face infertility issues as well as another common element: chronic inflammation. Scientists speculate that, by down-regulating chronic low-grade inflammation, probiotics could potentially optimize fertility by protecting the eggs and sperm against oxidative stress.
- Probiotics can crowd out bad bacteria thus optimizing cervical mucus – pathogens can reduce the cervical mucus to such an extent that conception may be compromised.
- A healthy gut and vaginal flora protect women against infections (such as bacterial vaginosis or yeast overgrowth) that can cause their fertility to dwindle.
- Carrying excessive amounts of body fat has been linked to infertility in both men and women. Since probiotics can help in weight management, they could also indirectly improve a couple’s chances of conceiving.
Check out this article to learn more about where to get probiotics and how to choose probiotic supplements.
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