16 Science-Based Health Benefits of Probiotics
HEALTH, 15 Oct 2018
[From TMS Editor: Typically, commercially pickled items like sauerkraut and cucumber pickles are pickled with vinegar. While the vinegar is fermented, the vegetables have not been fermented. … However, when you add vinegar to fermented foods, it destroys much of the good bacteria also.]
If you haven’t heard about the amazing benefits of probiotics by now, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!
Probiotics are a type of beneficial bacteria that live in your gut. While this may sound strange, they’re actually a very important part of your immune system. In fact, up to 70 percent of your immune system cells reside in your gut!
There’s a huge amount of scientific evidence to support the health benefits of probiotic bacteria.
It’s been found that the many different species of probiotics can not only enhance your digestion, but also your skin, respiratory system, cognitive function, mood… and so much more.
The health benefits associated with probiotics begin from the moment we’re born right through to old age.
Much of our gut bacteria are established at birth and are usually nourished by the breast milk we receive from our mothers. As we grow and develop, our gut bacteria change, too. They’re affected by our lifestyle, diet and other things we face in daily life – age, gender, stress, pollution, the environment and so on.
Many of the scientific studies on probiotics show that they can provide positive changes for those with food allergies, behavioral disorders, mood changes, autoimmune disease, arthritis, chronic fatigue, skin disorders, and even cancer. That’s why a probiotic-rich diet is so valuable.
Now, let’s get started! Here are the top 16 benefits of probiotics as shown by scientific research.
- Treat Digestive Disorders
The most well-known benefit of probiotics is in enhancing digestive function. Research has shown that certain strains of probiotics can help to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal issues such as gas, bloating, and indigestion. Probiotics can also help to prevent these issues from developing in the first place.
Your entire gastrointestinal tract is lined with microflora, all of which play an important role in the way your body digests food. An imbalance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria can lead to a variety of unpleasant digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease.
Scientists now know that probiotics that can treat specific diseases or conditions by restoring normal bacterial microflora and improving the functioning of the GI tract.
There is evidence that probiotic supplementation can help to reduce the symptoms of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, Clostridium difficile colitis, infectious diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, paucities, and irritable bowel syndrome, among other disorders.
- Reduce Diarrhea
Different types of probiotics can help to prevent diarrhea caused by infections and antibiotics, as well as type of diarrhea caused by irritable bowel syndrome. When taken daily, probiotics can help to slow gut motility (which is often the cause of diarrhea) and restore normal peristalsis.
One study found that probiotics helped to prevent diarrhea in children who acquired infections in daycare centers. When the children were treated with Lactobacillus GG and Bifidobacterium lactis (alone or in combination with other strains), they suffered fewer episodes of diarrhea and also fewer upper respiratory infections.
Many clinical trials have found that probiotics can treat and prevent diarrhea. In most cases, treatment can take effect in just one day.
Probiotics can also be a useful travel companion. They can help to defend against bacteria encountered while on vacation or traveling abroad.
- Improve Gut Integrity
The condition known as ‘leaky gut syndrome’ occurs when the cells lining the gut wall become loose and more permeable. This condition is also referred to as ‘increased intestinal permeability’, and is often a result of inflammation in the gut. Inflammation may be caused by food allergies or gastrointestinal infections.
Probiotics have been found to modulate gastrointestinal immunity by reducing the production of inflammatory cytokines and downregulation proinflammatory molecules. This helps to reduce inflammation in the gut. This probiotic-mediated modulation of gene expression can therefore help to prevent leaky gut syndrome and maintain the health of the gut wall.
The strains that appear to provide the greatest benefit in reducing this inflammation are certain strains of Bifidobacteria, Lactobacilli, Bacillus and Saccharomyces, thanks to the way in which they can influence the gene expression of molecules and induce an anti-inflammatory response in cultured enterocytes.
- Boost the Immune System
One of the most common reasons for taking probiotics is to support the immune system. There’s a wealth of information regarding the benefits of probiotic bacteria in improving the diversity and overall efficacy of immune cells, particularly following supplementation with Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species.
As mentioned earlier, around 70 percent of our immune system cells live in the lymphatic tissue of the gut. It’s for this very reason that a probiotic-rich diet can help to keep these important cells in optimal condition.
Research has shown that using both probiotics and prebiotics together is even more effective. One study in particular showed that lactic acid bacteria and Bifidobacteria may be an additional or supplementary therapy to boosting the immune system.
Together, probiotics and prebiotics can exhibit a powerful anti-inflammatory effect and help to prevent a wide range of immunity-related diseases. This is partly due to the way in which prebiotics provide ‘food’ that probiotic bacteria use to grow and develop properly.
- Speed Recovery From Illness
As well as reducing the risk of developing infections or disease, probiotics help the body to recover from current or previous illnesses.
One study involving mice showed that probiotic supplementation helped to protect mice from a viral pathogen. In this case, it was found that probiotic bacteria improved survival rates from the pneumonia virus.
The well-known strain Lactobacillus acidophilus encourages a natural resistance against certain illnesses. This was shown in a 2008 study on pigs infected with a viral pathogen. Some of the animals had been treated with an oral rotavirus vaccine, and some with L. acidophilus. When given the L. acidophilus, the pigs showed an enhanced immune response and were protected against the viral pathogen.
- Protect Against Colds and Flu
The natural immune-boosting action of probiotics can help to ward off colds and flu, particularly when used alongside micronutrients such as vitamin E, iron and selenium. Together, these nutrients help to boost the production of antibodies and other infection-fighting compounds.
One study found that taking probiotic supplements as well as multivitamins and minerals significantly reduced the duration of common cold and ‘flu – by almost two days. This was a much better recovery time that those who took only multivitamins and minerals.
Researchers suggested that this effect was likely due to the way which probiotics improved the activity of T-lymphocytes, the cells that regulate immune responses.
Another study showed that taking supplements containing a blend of probiotics, vitamins and minerals for at least three months during the winter helped to reduce the severity of the common cold, as well as the frequency of catching it. Those taking the supplement blend were 13.6 per cent less likely to develop cold and flu symptoms than those taking a placebo.
This evidence suggests that although multivitamins are helpful in filling the gaps in the average diet, probiotics boost the immune system even further by optimizing nutritional uptake and absorption.
The strains best known for improving immune system function include Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium longum, Lactobacillus paracasei, L. casei and Lactobacillus acidophilus.
- Kill GI Infections
When your gut bacteria are out of balance, pathogenic bacteria and yeasts can grow out of control. This can result in nasty gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, constipation, indigestion and other discomfort.
Traveler’s diarrhea often occurs as a result of pathogenic bacteria inhabiting the gut while traveling in unsanitary conditions.
Probiotics have been found to inhibit pathogenic bacteria from adhering to the walls of gut, reducing their ability to establish themselves and spread. This inhibition can stop disease-causing bacteria from colonizing the intestine and thereby preventing the infection.
Scientists believe that probiotics work by either blocking the receptor with specific adhesin analogues or by steric hindrance. In other cases, the probiotic bacteria have been found to adhere to the intestinal mucosa, preventing. the subsequent attachment of pathogens. This is referred to as “competitive exclusion”, because the healthy bacteria are crowding out the bad.
- Improve Nutritional Absorption
Eating the healthiest food in the world is no good if your digestive system can’t break down the nutrients! That’s why healthy gastrointestinal bacteria are so important.
Around 90 percent of nutrient absorption happens in the small intestine, so the population of intestinal microflora should be maintained as best as possible. This is where your ‘friendly’ bacteria break down food into nutrients that can enter the bloodstream and be used by the body.
Those who suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or any other type of gastrointestinal disorder will often have trouble absorbing nutrients from food.
As well as improving nutritional status by reducing the effects of diarrhea, much research now shows that both probiotics and prebiotics can help to improve the absorption of micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals from foods that we eat. Micronutrients are organic or inorganic compounds found in small amounts in food, and are essential for good health.
- Help to Restore Gut Function
Probiotics not only help to restore the integrity of the gut lining but also the composition of the gut microbiome. Supplements can help to introduce new beneficial strains to the natural microbial populations of the intestine and boost the diversity of the healthy bacteria.
This is like adding extra ‘armies’ of disease-fighting immune cells to your gut, helping to ameliorate any inflammation caused by infections and reduce the risk of further disease-related conditions.
Taking probiotics as part of your daily diet even helps to protect the gut against inflammatory bowel diseases such as ulcerative colitis. There’s also evidence that probiotics can improve ulcerative colitis and help in returning the gut to its normal healthy function.
The probiotic species Lactobacillus is especially helpful in this way, with studies showing that can support the integrity of the intestinal barrier. Lactobacillus also helps to maintain the immune tolerance of the digestive tract and reduce the translocation of bacteria across the intestinal mucosa.
As an added bonus, Lactobacillus has been found to reduce proliferation of pathogens that cause gastrointestinal infections, IBS and IBD.
- Reduce Gas and Bloating
Intestinal gas is often a result of too many species of bad bacteria in the gut, which cause food to ferment badly.
Gas is actually a normal byproduct of digestion, and contains a combination of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide and often methane. The average human produces between 1-4 pints of intestinal gas each day!
Our intestines contain large amounts of bacteria which are required for breaking down foods we eat. These bacteria also help to consume excess gas.
It’s the ‘friendly’ bacteria in our gut that swallow up gas. The more colonies of friendly bacteria we have, the less gas! However, the opposite is also true: when we have large amounts of bad bacteria, we end up with more gas and flatulence.
Fortunately, it’s been found that certain strains of probiotics can help to relieve gas and bloating. Although scientists aren’t quite sure how this works, it appears that Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis can reduce gas production in the gut.
They also help to crowd out unhealthy microbial populations and deter more gas from being created. This can make a huge difference in the amount of bloating and flatulence someone experiences in a normal day.
- Protect Against Antibiotic Resistance
According to the World Health Organization, one of the most serious health threats of our time is the global resistance to antibiotics. This has occurred as a result of overprescribing and overuse of antibiotics for minor ailments (such as colds), allowing bacteria to ‘adapt’ to the drugs in a way that means they are no longer inhibited by them.
It’s believed that the solution to this problem may be in probiotics. Unlike antibiotics, probiotics promote the development of healthy bacteria to kill off bad bacteria, strengthening the natural immune system.
In this way, probiotics may be able to reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance by rebuilding the populations that are often lost to antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics kill the good bacteria in your gut, but probiotics can replace them.
In some cases, of course, treatment with antibiotics is essential. However, health experts suggest that supplementation with probiotics can actually boost the efficacy of antibiotics and reduce the likelihood of becoming resistant.
Numerous reviews have suggested that probiotics may reduce the risk of certain infectious diseases, therefore reducing the need for antibiotics.
- Improve Mental Health and Reduce Stress
One of the most important revelations about the benefits of probiotics is the role they play in the ‘gut-brain’ connection. This is the direct line of communication between the brain and enteric nervous system. It’s been found that this communication is what links the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain to your peripheral intestinal function.
Researchers have shown that many mental disorders or behavioral problems can be linked to poor gut bacteria. Digestive discomfort caused by an imbalance of gut bacteria or poor digestion can contribute to poor mental health.
In the same way, sensitivity to gastrointestinal irritation can cause signals to the central nervous system that influence mood. It’s been found that people suffering from Irritable Bowel Syndrome tend to have higher rates of sympathetic nervous system function and lower rates of parasympathetic function. This could explain the reason that IBS sufferers are more prone to stress.
The good news is that probiotics appear to alleviate symptoms of mental distress and anxiety by reducing the inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. This, in turn, helps to downregulate the hormones that activate sympathetic nervous system function (such as stress hormones).
In this way, those who suffer from depression may also benefit from probiotics. Researchers have suggested that the dysfunction of microRNAs could contribute to stress- and anxiety-related disorders, with one study showing that specific strains of B. longum can reduce the stress response in healthy people.
- Support Skin Health
Those suffering from acne, psoriasis or eczema could find some relief in supplementing with probiotics. Research has shown that probiotic supplements can help to treat these conditions, as well as prevent pediatric atopic dermatitis and infant eczema. It’s even been suggested that the integrity of gut bacteria is linked to the development of acne.
When it comes to skin conditions, probiotics seem to work by reducing inflammation and fighting bacteria or yeasts that cause skin infections. The strain L. casei, in particular, has been found to reduce inflammatory skin conditions.
A study in which 64 women were given Lactobacillus K-1 50 mg daily for 8 weeks reported that the subjects had improved skin barrier function and an overall improvement in their skin inflammation. The researchers suggested that this was due to the probiotics inhibiting the priming and expansion of cells that trigger a certain immune response.
Other studies suggest that lactobacilli may be a potential preventive and therapeutic strategy for allergic and chronic inflammatory diseases.
It’s been found that lactobacilli colonies are often lacking in the intestinal microflora of allergic children compared to nonallergic children, which may contribute to their developing skin allergies.
Other research has found that supplementation with this particular strain shortly after birth can reduce the incidence of atopic eczema in young children.
- Decrease Systemic Inflammation
Although inflammation can be necessary to create a pathway for the immune system to carry out an attack against invading viruses and bacteria, chronic inflammation can lead to illnesses such as allergies, infections, and even autoimmune diseases. Many diseases and health conditions are the result of chronic inflammation.
While pharmaceutical drugs are often prescribed as means of reducing inflammation, these can cause numerous unpleasant side effects.
Probiotics, however, have been found to reduce inflammation and inflammatory damage in the gut, where up to 80 percent of the immune system resides.
Probiotics help to downregulate inflammatory chemicals that are released in response to an ongoing health issue. At the same time, probiotic bacteria help to provide a beneficial defense against any harmful pathogens that may be prolonging the infection.
- Reduce Risk of Chronic Disease
Probiotics and synbiotics (combined prebiotics and probiotics) are now being used to prevent and treat chronic diseases, due to their role in immune system modulation and the anti-inflammatory response.
Probiotic strains have been found to reduce the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines. When administered to animal patients, probiotics were shown to improve clinical symptoms, histological alterations, and mucus production.
One study has also suggested that probiotics may be able to reduce inflammation and improve immune health in HIV-positive individuals who are yet to undergo treatment.
In this case, it appears that Bifidobacterium longum and other lactic-acid producing probiotics (such as those found in yogurt) are the most promising strains for reducing inflammation.
- Provide an Alternative to Vaccines
In recent years, there have been many fears that vaccines provided to children and babies contribute to behavioral disorders. The good news is that probiotics may be the answer to providing the immune defense that children need against diseases, without the potential risk of vaccines.
A review published in 2017 examined 26 studies in which probiotics were used in place of vaccines. Around 40 different probiotic strains were tested for their efficacy in functioning as 17 different vaccines.
The researchers were able to show that around half of these studies reported probiotics to be beneficial. The most effective of these were in using probiotics in place of oral vaccines and parenteral influenza vaccination.
Studies have suggested that L. acidophilus may be one of the best candidates for vaccines. It appears that recombinant Lactobacillus acidophilus strains that are used as oral vaccination strains can prevent gastric infection and allow direct contact between the antigen and the immune system.
As an added bonus, using Lactobacillus acidophilus as a vaccine means there is no need to culture pathogens and to purify antigenic components, as is required for vaccines.
The Bottom Line
The many benefits of probiotics have proven by scientific research for several decades now, and new discoveries are still coming to light.
From strengthening the immune system to potentially saving the world from antibiotic resistance, the ways in which these ‘friendly’ microorganisms can benefit the body continues to grow.
And, with the many environmental problems and health issues facing our world today. It’s never been so important to look after your gut bacteria.
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