Riding a wave of enthusiasm for their health and digestive benefits, probiotics are taking the world by storm. The international probiotic market topped $31.3 billion in 2015, according to online data gathering source Statista, and was on track to smash that record in 2016.
Derived from root words meaning “for life,” probiotics represent a broad range of live bacteria, whether taken in food or as supplements, that can help restore the optimal balance of bacteria in the gut.
We all have a delicate mix of good and bad bacteria in our digestive systems. When that balance is upset, any number of maladies and discomforts can arise. Probiotics provide good bacteria to return the intestinal flora to a healthy and beneficial level. Think of it as replacing the bad with the good.
Various genetic, lifestyle, health and environmental factors can knock the digestive system out of balance. Poor diet alone can impede the efficient function of the digestive system.
Physician Vincent Pedre, who wrote the book “Happy Gut,” in a New York Times article last year titled “Seeking a ‘Happy Gut’ for Better Health” cited the overprescribing of antibiotics, which can destroy good and bad bacteria.
“There was a study recently that showed that just one course of antibiotics will alter the gut flora for up to 12 months,” Pedre told the Times. “The study looked at a very common antibiotic, Cipro, which we commonly use to treat urinary infections, traveler’s diarrhea and food poisoning.”
A Dec. 1, 2015, Harvard Medical School Health Publications article, “Health benefits of taking probiotics,” says: “Probiotics are generally considered safe — they’re already present in a normal digestive system. … An estimated 100 trillion microorganisms representing more than 500 different species inhabit every normal, healthy bowel. These microorganisms (or microflora) generally don’t make us sick; most are helpful. Gut-dwelling bacteria keep pathogens (harmful microorganisms) in check, aid digestion and nutrient absorption, and contribute to immune function.”
The article adds that probiotic therapy could help people with Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome. “Because these disorders are so frustrating to treat,” the article reads, “many people are giving probiotics a try.”
Loosely defined by the World Health Organization as “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host,” probiotics are credited with improving a wide spectrum of pediatric and general gastrointestinal disorders and an array of other conditions ranging from Type 1 diabetes and coronary disease to allergies, asthma, yeast infections, colon cancer and depression.
In an April 7, 2016, article titled “10 Benefits of Taking Probiotics” on the health website Activebeat, Catherine Roberts describes probiotics as friendly bacteria often associated with healthy digestion. She provides a checklist of everyday ways probiotics can help and says that whether taken in supplement form or eaten in foods such as plain yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut and dark chocolate, probiotics can:
- Optimize digestion. The increase of beneficial bacteria in the gut from probiotics might prevent lactose intolerance by “helping the body digest milk products more comfortably and efficiently.”
- Improve absorption. Probiotics have been proved to help the body integrate essential vitamins and minerals from food, especially calcium and B vitamins.
- Safeguard against infection. The beneficial bacteria defend against a multitude of ills, from persistent yeast and urinary tract infections to acne and E. coli.
- Strengthen immunity.Maintaining healthy intestinal flora can increase the production of lymphocytes, which are immune system responders.
- Improve bowel movements.Healthy bacteria foster the correct balance in the stool for more comfortable, regular and complete bowel movements. Probiotics also protect the body from traveler’s diarrhea and other travel bugs.
- Reduce allergies. Studies indicate that a probiotic-rich diet eases the body’s allergic response. One study showed that the babies of mothers who took probiotics during pregnancy had 30 percent fewer allergies as infants.
- Promote detoxification. As natural detoxifiers, probiotics prevent the need for store-bought cleansing kits or colon cleanses. These benefits have also reduced instances of peptic ulcers and bad breath.
- Ameliorate antibiotic damage. Probiotics replenish the healthy digestive tract bacteria killed by antibiotics.
- Promote women’s health. Probiotics restore healthy vaginal flora, leading to fewer yeast infections and less bacterial vaginosis.
- Prevent urinary tract infections. The urinary tract also requires a healthy bacterial balance. Taking probiotics can restore the healthy ratio to help prevent infections.
Because probiotics fall into the food and dietary supplement category, they are not approved or monitored as pharmaceuticals by the Food and Drug Administration and are often more widely supported by integrative medical practitioners than by traditional physicians.
Stephanie Grossman, an internist with CentreSpring MD (formerly the Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine), answered questions last year about the growing popularity and use of probiotics.
AJT: In your experience, what ailments are best treated with probiotics?
Grossman: In the practice, I have seen probiotics help patients experience improved digestion (IBS and IBD are well-researched examples of how important probiotics are to the gut), improvement of gastrointestinal infections, enhanced immune system through a process of regulating lymphocytes and antibodies, decreased inflammation, and enhanced bioavailability of key nutrients such as zinc, iron, calcium, copper, magnesium and all the B vitamins.
AJT: What are examples of typical results of probiotic therapy?
Grossman: Patients reported experiencing improved digestion, including decreased bloating, constipation and diarrhea; less ectopy (improvement of rashes and autoimmune processes such as psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis); less food sensitivity; improved immunity (more resistance to respiratory infections); and less yeast infections.
AJT: What other types of illnesses show positive indications when treated with probiotics?
Grossman: I have seen my patients who are using probiotics experience improvement with anxiety-depression secondary to the potential to change brain chemistry. They have also seen probiotics help with coronary disease by helping to lower LDL cholesterol, and many who have dealt with chronic fatigue syndrome report improvement, seeing that probiotics can help to decrease inflammation.
AJT: Have you pinpointed specific strains of probiotics to target certain illnesses?
Grossman: There are various helpful strains of lactobacillus, bifidobacterium and saccharomyces.
AJT: Is there a typical recommended dosage or strength?
Grossman: For most patients, we often start with at least 20 billion colony-forming units (CFUs) of probiotics, with four to five strains; however, doses of up to 450B CFU have shown efficacy in symptomatic relief of IBS.
AJT: Do probiotics work better for certain segments of the population (such as children or the elderly) than others?
Grossman: We often start at a much lower colony count for children, i.e., 5B CFU. Some patients may be particularly sensitive to probiotics, so even a smaller colony count should be initiated.
AJT: Gut health has become a common buzzword. In your opinion, how important are probiotics for overall health today?
Grossman: It’s one supplement that is beneficial for most if not all people to take. Many people, though, do a great job with the intake of probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt, kefir. kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and tempeh. It’s interesting how these foods have been staples for various cultures for generation.
AJT: With all of the positive indications, why do you think there has not been acceptance from the broader, more traditional health care community?
Grossman: As doctors, we are trained to treat the illness, often with pharmaceutical agents and/or procedures. In addition, we are subspecialized, in that a rheumatologist or a cardiologist may not consider a probiotic to enhance health with an agent traditionally used to support the gut.
AJT: Have you seen an increase in the use of probiotics? Are more and more people discovering their benefits?
Grossman: Yes, many of my new patients have started probiotics before being seen by our team.
AJT: Are more people going beyond the traditional doctor model and seeking a more integrated approach to their health care?
Grossman: Yes. A recent report by the National Health Interview Survey reported that 38 percent of Americans are using complementary and alternative medicine. I believe that many patients do not discount conventional medicine but want their providers to have a better knowledge of practices and products to enhance and maintain health. A more integrative approach is the best way to meet these needs.