The human colon contains more than a billion bacteria, and we're discovering more and more about how the makeup of that bacteria can dictate a lot about your health. Why is it that autoimmune diseases like Crohn's, colitis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis are so much more prevalent in developed countries than they are in less developed ones? One theory is that less childhood exposure to a variety of gut bacteria actually increases the chances of developing such diseases, because the lack of exposure to these bacteria suppresses the development of an immune system response to them. It's probably safe to assume that the greater exposure to antibiotics and sanitization products in developed countries is what's causing this difference.
But it's not just the autoimmune diseases listed above that have a link to gut bacteria. Everything from irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, constipation, allergies, urinary tract infections, yeast infections, and even weight have been linked recently to the bacteria in our gastrointestinal systems. Recent studies have shown that cultures that eat an unprocessed, high-fiber plant-based diet rather than a typical western diet high in sugar and fat have a wider variety of gut bacteria species, and more types associated with suppressing disease and with keeping weight down .
But there is a way to restore a healthy gut flora and reverse the state of your gut health, and that is through probiotics. Probiotics are defined by the WHO as "any living microorganism that has a health benefit when ingested". The word derives from "pro" and "biota" – Greek terms meaning "for life". There is growing evidence that probiotics can treat and prevent many illnesses, including those mentioned already, and there is exploding interest in North America around probiotic-rich foods and probiotic supplements.
It may seem counter-intuitive to ingest bacteria when we've been conditioned for so long that bacteria is to be avoided at all times, but our digestive systems already contain 100 trillion microorganisms of this type of bacteria and most are helpful. They don't make us sick, and in fact they keep away pathogens, aid digestion, aid in nutrient absorption, and help immune function. The safety of probiotics has been well established, and it is generally accepted that they are safe even in high doses.
One growing school of thought is that probiotics should go hand in hand with any sort of antibiotics treatment. Antibiotics not only kill illness-causing bacteria, but also the healthy intestinal bacteria that helps us digest. Two large studies showed that probiotics reduce diarrhea associated with antibiotics in children by 60% when compared to a placebo. These studies seem to confirm the logic in the old world practice throughout Europe of making sure children taking antibiotics got lots of yogurt in their diet.
What other health issues can probiotics help with?
A recent, large study showed that women taking probiotics during pregnancy had a 30 percent lower chance that their offspring would develop childhood eczema, which is an early sign of allergies. Their children also had 50 percent higher levels of tissue inflammation which is though to trigger the immune system and reduce the development of allergies. There are theories abound that probiotics can be an important element in preventing or delaying the development of allergies in children.
Several studies have shown that probiotics help with the delicate balance of bacteria present in the vagina and prevent the overgrowth of harmful microorganisms. Taking antibiotics, birth control pills, or being pregnant increase the odds of that bacterial balance being thrown off, which can result in various ailments such as vaginosis, yeast infections, and urinary tract infections. Probiotics can help preserve vaginal health and prevent those conditions entirely.
It's already been mentioned the impact that probiotics can have on preventing diarrhea while taking antibiotics, but studies suggest they can also prevent irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) an ailment associated with abdominal pain, bloating, cramps, diarrhea, and constipation. Probiotics have also been shown to be helpful with preventing the relapse of crohns disease and reducing the severity. There is also growing interest in using probiotics to treat constipation, primarily in children. No studies have emerged, but there are many anecdotal reports of a reduction or even complete elimination of constipation in kids who were given a daily high-quality probiotic supplement.
It's unclear exactly how probiotics work when it comes to keeping weight off, but there are signs that they are effective in that area. In addition to the previously mentioned study on cultures with a more probiotic-rich diet having more gut bacteria associated with leanness, another study by Stanford University researchers found that obese people had a different gut bacteria composition than those of normal weight, which is a clear sign that gut bacteria does play a role.
What are the best sources of probiotics?
There are many high quality probiotic supplements on the market these days. Look for a supplement made by a well-known and trusted brand, and that contains a high number of bacteria. 15 billion and upwards of live probiotics per capsule is a good recommendation. Also ensure that it contains different strains of bacteria since different strains are associated with different health benefits and having more will provide optimal results.
There are several foods that are rich in probiotics. Yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, pickles, tempeh, kimchi, and kombucha tea are some of the foods that can give you a good dose. Including some of these foods in your diet can go a long way toward improving gut health.
It's amazing how much has been discovered about our bodies and the ways in which diet and lifestyle can affect health even just within the last decade or so. The health of the gastrointestinal system is one of those areas where society has recently undergone a bit of an enlightenment, and a big driver of that is the discovery of the amazing benefits of probiotics. Whether through supplements or diet, it's safe to say that everyone can benefit from getting a bit more of this healthy bacterial wonder.