Are you hyper hygienic? If so, your obsession with being super-clean and your reliance on hand sanitizers and antibacterial-everything is harming your health. Exposure to microorganisms is crucial to the development of white blood cells, specifically the regulatory T cells responsible for keeping the immune system in check when it starts to get out of control.
Our ancestors had much more contact with animals, soil and – yes – feces, providing them access to the germs and parasites that train our immune systems to fight off infection. They didn’t need probiotic supplements but you might if one of the following is true:
1. You’re taking – or recently have taken – a course of antibiotics
When used wisely, antibiotics can be lifesaving. However, the overuse of antibiotics – in both humans and livestock – can promote the growing danger of antibiotic resistance. This issue has received considerable attention in recent years, having been described by some as the greatest threat to human health. In the context of gut health, antibiotic use can lead to a number of unwanted consequences including diarrhea and the overgrowth of yeast (i.e. Candida) and various pathogens.
Since many of the antibiotics used today are broad spectrum rather than targeted, they kill not only the bad but also the beneficial bacteria that live in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Studies have found that in some cases, even a single, short-term course of antibiotics can permanently alter the diversity and balance of intestinal flora. A lack of healthy gut flora has also been linked to an increased risk of allergies, autoimmune conditions like colitis and Crohn’s, inflammatory bowel disease and even colon cancer . If your doctor has prescribed an oral antibiotic, taking a probiotic supplement at the same time can reduce some of the side effects.
Probiotics help restore the balance of bacteria in the gut in favor of the “good guys” without lessening the effectiveness of antibiotics. A 2012 analysis demonstrated a 42% lower risk of antibiotic-related diarrhea among individuals taking a probiotic supplement. An earlier study found a similar benefit in children and a 2012 review found that probiotics taken with antibiotics prevent colonization of Clostridium difficile, a dangerous organism that can cause an infectious type of diarrhea.
2. You suspect that you have nutrient deficiencies
This can be confirmed by your doctor but here’s a list of the most common nutrient deficiencies, along with some of their symptoms:
- Iodine and selenium – hypothyroidism, which can result in weight gain, fatigue, hair loss, dry skin, low libido, goiter and impaired mental function
- Magnesium – constipation, migraines, muscle cramps/twitching, high blood pressure, loss of appetite, rapidly blinking eyes and insulin resistance
- Vitamin K2 – tartar buildup/tooth decay, osteoporosis, calcium deposits in the arteries
- Vitamin B12 – anxiety, depression, lethargy, anemia, weakness, unwanted weight loss, memory problems and symptoms of dementia
- Calcium – fatigue, muscle cramps, abnormal heart rhythm
- Iron – fatigue, pale skin, thinning hair
- Vitamin A – poor night vision and light adaption
- Vitamin D – seasonal affective disorder, muscle weakness and fatigue
- Zinc – impaired sense of smell and taste
- Vitamin C – easy bruising, red, bleeding gums
Nerve signaling, digestion, water balance and metabolism are all affected by nutrient deficiencies. Don’t assume you’re immune because you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. You can be health-conscious and eat well and still suffer from nutritional deficiencies if you have absorption issues.
A healthy gut is much better equipped to aid in digestion and research has shown that probiotics can assist with the absorption and utilization of vitamins and minerals. A 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found a 25.5% increase in vitamin D levels among participants supplementing with a strain of Lactobacillus reuteri bacteria.
While far too many doctors negligently prescribe antacids and proton-pump inhibitors to treat the symptoms of digestive issues, an unhealthy gut is usually the underlying cause of heartburn, gas, bloating, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and diarrhea. These issues can result when bad bacteria allow undigested food (specifically carbohydrates) to ferment in the gut. Probiotic supplements can correct this situation by reducing bacterial overgrowth. More specifically, probiotics have been shown to fight helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a major contributor to acid reflux and peptic ulcers and the primary cause of stomach cancer. H. pylori – the most prevalent chronic pathogenic bacteria found in humans – exerts its damage by weakening the stomach’s protective mucous coating. Probiotics prevent the colonization of h. pylori on the cells that line the intestinal wall. Further, probiotics reduce some of the side effects that can occur when h. pylori is treated using antibiotics.
4. You’re stressed out
Research has shown that chronic, uncontrolled stress alters the intestinal flora in such a way as to make us more susceptible to infection. Long-term stress can also lead to some of the digestive issues discussed above.
According to a study in the Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology:
“Stress, which is defined as an acute threat to homeostasis, shows both short- and long-term effects on the functions of the gastrointestinal tract … The major effects of stress on gut physiology include:
- Alterations in gastrointestinal motility
- Increase in visceral perception
- Changes in gastrointestinal secretion
- Negative effects on regenerative capacity of gastrointestinal mucosa and mucosal blood flow
- Negative effects on intestinal microflora
Most of your immune system resides in your gut. When your immune system mistakes a harmless substance for something toxic, it overreacts and skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis can result. Note that these are symptoms triggered by an underlying inflammatory state. Not only do probiotics help fight this inflammation but they also help the immune system distinguish between pathogens and substances that pose no threat – and to respond appropriately.
Studies conducted in Korea, Russia and Italy have found that, when used in conjunction with standard treatments, probiotics speed up the rate of acne clearance. Other studies have found that probiotics help acne patients to better tolerate antibiotic treatment. According to the research, the most effective strains include Lactobacillus, L. acidophilus and B. bifudum. Early research on topical probiotics has also shown promise in reducing active skin lesions by providing a protective shield and by reducing inflammation. And a 2012 review in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eczema can be prevented in babies with a strong family history of the condition when mothers are given probiotic supplements during pregnancy. Researchers have discovered that probiotics reduce levels of a certain type of white blood cell that controls mechanisms of allergy. Levels of other allergy markers have also found to be lower in children receiving probiotics.
6. You’re moody
The term “brain-gut axis” refers to the relationship between the gastrointestinal and nervous systems. The two are actually connected via the vagus nerve. Research has shown that neurotransmitters are produced in the gut. For example, serotonin – a chemical responsible for mood balance – is most heavily concentrated in the gut. A 2011 study found that the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus had a significant effect on another neurotransmitter – GABA, which is critical to relaxation.
A recent study conducted at UCLA found that subjects given the probiotic strains Bifidobacterium animalis, Streptococcus thermophiles, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Lactococcus lactis exhibited reduced stress responses to an emotional task. Probiotics alter the activity of the brain most closely related to stress, emotion and anxiety in response to environmental stimuli.
Choosing the Right Probiotic
Trying to capitalize on unprecedented consumer interest in nutraceuticals, hundreds of supplement companies jumped on the probiotic bandwagon in recent years and have flooded the market with their offerings. Many of these manufacturers are fly-by-night operations putting out poorly-researched, inferior products that provide little to no benefit.
So, how do you go about picking the best probiotic supplement from the dizzying array of products available at drugstores and online. Here are some guidelines:
- Stomach acid can kill probiotics before they reach the intestines. BIO-tract is a delivery system that protects the probiotic from stomach acid and provides a controlled release. Several brands make use of this technology, including Renew Life’s FloraSMART line, Nutrigold, Twinlab and Nature’s Bounty Optimal Solutions products.
- By the time you swallow a probiotic capsule, it’s sat on a truck, a warehouse and a store shelf – all of which diminish the potency of the product. Heat, light and oxygen can further reduce the strength of your probiotic supplement so it’s important to choose one that contains a high number of live organisms. This will be expressed on the label as colony-forming units or CFUs. A company can only guarantee the number of CFUs present at the time of manufacture and you can assume many will be lost en route to your intestines so the higher the number, the better. The product you choose should contain at least one billion CFUs. Jarrow and Klaire Labs are well-respected companies that make high-potency probiotic supplements, including one in a powder form for those who prefer it.
- Different strains of bacteria provide different benefits so it’s best to opt for a product that provides multiple strains, including the species Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. If you’re considering a probiotic to address a specific health issue, it’s helpful to know which strains have been studied for use in treating those conditions. For example, Bacillus coagulans has been shown to be effective in relieving symptoms of IBS and is available in Schiff’s Digestive Advantage Intensive Bowel Support product. The strain Lactobacillus plantarum 299v – found in Nature Made Digestive Health – has been shown to normalize bowel movements and relieve bloating. Culturelle contains the strain Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, which has been shown to prevent eczema, treat diarrhea and decrease upper respiratory infections in children.
What About Fermented Foods
Fermented foods – sauerkraut, kefir, natto, miso, etc. – are great natural sources of probiotics and I recommend including them in your diet. The reality, however, is that most people aren’t eating enough of these foods on a regular basis. Probiotic supplements are an effective and convenient alternative.
Diagnoses of inflammatory bowel disease, allergies, autoimmune conditions and mood disorders have increased dramatically over the past several decades. The “hygiene hypothesis” attributes their increased prevalence – in part – to our reduced exposure to a sufficient variety of microorganisms and the immune system dysfunction this can cause. Though soil might be the most powerful source of beneficial microbes, I wouldn’t try to convince most domesticated humans to take a spoonful of it with their morning cup of joe. Until dirt achieves superfood status, a probiotic supplement is a more realistic option for those concerned that their gut is making them sick .