The term probiotic is derived from the Latin preposition pro meaning “for”, and the Greek word biotic which means “life” — thus probiotics, or healthy bacteria, are life-promoting. And based on the official WHO definition, probiotics are “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.”
Prebiotics come mostly from oligosaccharides (complex carbohydrates that we cannot digest) and act as food for probiotics. In other words, prebiotics help keep probiotics alive.
How are probiotics named?
If you’ve ever had a look at a probiotic supplement, you must surely have noticed that they have weird sounding names such as Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1. Well, these friendly fellows are named using Latin nomenclature that indicates:
- Their genus – the group of bacteria to which these particular probiotics belong. The most common ones are the lactobacillus and the bifidobacterium.
- The species of the bacteria such as acidophilus.
- A strain designation such as DDS-1.
‘What’s in a name?’ you may wonder. Well, in the probiotics world, knowing the name of the bacteria in a supplement will help you connect that specific organism to published studies. For instance, if the manufacturers of supplement X claim that their product can ‘alleviate diarrhea’, you should expect to see Lactobacillus rhamnosus listed on the package.
Do we really need probiotics?
Short answer: YES!
Let me ask you something: why do you think industrialized countries are now plagued with an unprecedented increased incidence of asthma, allergies and various autoimmune diseases? Although more research is warranted, the modern medical thinking that ‘germs cause disease’ has brainwashed most of us into believing that health depends on excessive cleanliness. So we take antibiotics for anything and everything while hand sanitizers are a must for many of us… The irony is that this ‘pursuit of cleanliness’ has actually helped pathogens colonize our guts leading to the various health issues mentioned.
You see, beneficial bacteria act via numerous interrelated mechanisms to promote health at the molecular level. For instance, probiotics:
- Help the body produce vitamins B and K.
- Improve overall gastrointestinal motility and function.
- Ensure optimal digestion and nutrient absorption.
- Improves immune function.
- Hinders the growth of pathogens, bacteria that can cause disease.
- Produce short-chain fatty acids that maintains the health of our guts.
- Help tone down chronic low-grade inflammation that has been linked to a host of chronic diseases.
In other words, if our gut flora is disturbed, the consequences can be tremendous. Check out this article to find out more.
Can probiotics make you sick?
Whenever you substantially change your diet or start taking a probiotic supplement, you may experience some mild to pretty awful symptoms – this is known as the Jarisch–Herxheimer reaction which is more commonly referred to as ‘die-off’. This reaction occurs when toxins released by dying pathogens (such as yeasts, parasites, bacteria, viruses and so on) overwhelm your body’s ability to get rid of them. This toxin accumulation can cause some cold-like symptoms such as:
- Muscle aches
- Skin eruptions and rashes
- Excess mucus production
- Brain fog and lethargy
- Trouble dealing with stress
- Increased gastrointestinal problems (diarrhea, constipation, etc.)
In children, die-off reactions can also present themselves as bedwetting, irritability, tiredness, restlessness and any other symptoms characteristic to your child.
In some susceptible individuals, probiotics may cause bloating and flatulence – these adverse effects are usually mild and subside with continuous use. If you find that these symptoms persist for more than seven days; there may be something wrong with your digestion – ask a physician or dietitian specializing in digestive health for advice. Or you could be reacting to something in the supplement. S. boulardii may cause constipation and increased thirst although these effects are rare.
Are there individuals who shouldn’t take probiotics?
The following groups should not take probiotics unless they are under medical supervision:
- Individuals with a compromised immune system.
- Those who are severely ill.
- Premature infants.
- Individuals with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), a form of dysbiosis where the bacteria that are supposed to live in the large intestine migrate up in the small intestine where they do not belong.
- Individuals with cardiac valvular disease (Lactobacillus probiotics may pose a minor health risk amongst patients with this condition).
- Individuals already taking broad-spectrum antibiotics to which the probiotic is resistant.
- If you take sulfasalazine, a medication used to treat ulcerative colitis, do not take any supplement containing L.acidophilus without your doctor’s green light. This bacteria can speed up the metabolism of sulfasalazine. The way a drug is metabolized (or converted into active chemical components by the body) will influence its effectiveness and determine if it will be toxic or not.
- Special precautions are required when administering probiotics via a jejunostomy tube as this delivery route bypasses the stomach. This could increase the number of viable probiotic organisms able to reach the intestine and cause severe die-off symptoms.
- Although they are immune-compromised, HIV patients could benefit from probiotics. Research suggests that probiotics can improve gastrointestinal and immune functions in this particular group.
In one small study, researchers gave subjects diagnosed with acute pancreatitis either a placebo (the control group) or a probiotic supplement. They found that the probiotics group had more infections than the control group. Moreover, 16% of the patients in the probiotics group died compared with 6% in the placebo.
Now, this doesn’t automatically mean that the probiotics killed these patients – critically ill patients can die of infections from bread yeast! But there is a possibility that the weakened immune system of these patients considered the probiotics as harmful invaders and triggered an attack reaction against them.
Besides supplements, where can probiotics be found?
Fermented foods are naturally loaded with probiotics and are a must in any healthy diet. Some of the most beneficial probiotic foods include:
- Kefir, a fermented dairy product
- Sauerkraut, fermented cabbage (or other vegetables)
- Kimchi, the Korean version of sauerkraut
- Coconut kefir
- Natto, Japanese fermented soybeans (provided that it is made traditionally with non-genetically modified soy.)
- Beet and carrot kvass
- Sauerrüben (lacto-fermented turnips)
- Fermented pickles
If you’re planning to buy commercially produced fermented foods, make sure that they haven’t been pasteurized – the pasteurization process does not differentiate between good and bad bacteria. It kills all of them and you’ll be left with a product that has no probiotic properties whatsoever.
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