The benefits of probiotics through the intake of live cultures and fermented dairy products have been recognized by many ancient civilizations . There’s still a lot of research to be done, but we have learnt some of the disorders that these power-packed microorganisms can treat.
Doctors often suggest adding probiotic supplements to your diet when you’re facing gastrointestinal ailments, but there’s a lot more that these powerful microorganisms do for your health. The common probiotics benefits can be categorized on the basis of the system that the disorders originate from and their effects on your health.
Your gut is thriving with hundreds of trillions of micro-organisms, which includes viruses, yeasts and bacteria, They are collectively called the ‘gut flora’ or microflora. Read on, instead of rushing to a drugstore to pop every available antibiotic. Gut flora occurs naturally and a proper balance between these microbes is considered an essential part of the digestive process.
Most research on probiotics has been focused on the beneficial effects of friendly bacteria on gastrointestinal and digestive health. There’s strong evidence that points to their positive impact on treating a number of common ailments, and even some uncommon ones:
- Diarrhea – According to a number of studies in the use of probiotics for diarrhea, lactobacillus GG, lactobacillus casei, lactobacillus bulgarius, saccharomyces boulardii and streptococcus thermophiles can help decrease the symptoms and occurrence of antibiotic-associated diarrhea when given as probiotic supplements during and after antibiotic treatment, reduce the risk of traveler’s diarrhea by almost 50% as well as treat acute onset infectious diarrhea and Clostridium Difficile-associated diarrhea in both children and adults alike.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) – The symptoms of IBS include abdominal pain, cramps, bloating, diarrhea and constipation, and studies point at strong evidence of probiotic supplements as a cure for these symptoms. Probiotic lactobacillus has been shown to help children between the ages of 5-14 years who suffer from IBS, reducing the frequency and severity of symptoms. Other studies show that bifidobacterium infantis may be the best probiotic for IBS symptoms like abdominal pain and irregularity in female patients.
- Lactose Intolerance – Through the production of lactic acid and the enzyme lactase, various species of probiotic bacteria help to treat lactose intolerance and gastric distress in patients who cannot effectively ingest dairy products. They also create a friendlier environment for the growth of other probiotic microbes, which leads to better intestinal and colon health as well as improved immunity. Examples of the lactic acid bacteria group that breaks down lactose and sugar in the body includes lactobacillus, streptococcus thermophilus and leuconostoc mesenteroides.
- Other Digestive Disorders – Results from dozens of other studies point to probiotics as being beneficial in a number of other digestive disorders, like Helicobacter pylori infections (linked to stomach cancer and ulcers), constipation, bloating, flatulence, nausea during antibiotic use and even some inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
Yes, there’s evidence that the proper composition of gut flora might be able to help you manage your weight. It isn’t much though, so you might not want to start gobbling down supplements in the hope of attaining a bikini-fit body just yet. The connection between probiotics and weight loss started with a 2006 Stanford University study, which found that the gut bacteria of obese individuals differs from that of people with normal body weights.
- A number of scientists believe body fat may be influenced by the bacteria in the gut. There’s still more research to be done, but certain strains of probiotics seem to help with promoting regular metabolism of fat and caloric content:
- A study published in 2013 has been the most impressive. It involved 210 people with excessive belly fat (central obesity). Over 12 weeks, they were given lactobacillus gasseri, and lost 8.5% belly fat mass. After the probiotic was stopped, the belly fat started increasing again and within 4 weeks, they regained what they had lost.
- According to another study by the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 12 weeks of ingesting lactobacillus probiotics through fermented milk products led to a 4.6% decrease in abdominal fat.
- Weird as this may sound, it happens in other species too – In some animal tests, fecal probiotic transplants from lean animals resulted in obese ones shedding weight. Apart from shedding weight, there are some probiotics that animal studies suggest could help with weight gain too.
- Other strains like bifidobacterium lactis and lactobacillus rhamnosus have also shown promising results, especially in one study of women who were trying to lose post-pregnancy weight around their abdomen.
- Research shows that certain probiotic bacteria can help with the maintenance of optimum body weight in obese patients who’ve had surgery for weight loss.
More research needs to be done to really identify the best probiotics for weight loss, but the overall benefits make it worthwhile to consider adding probiotic foods to your diet anyway.
‘Bacteria that’s good for the brain’ – It sounds weird, right? Well, some researchers at UCLA suggest that the regular intake of yogurt that contains probiotics might well increase your brain-function. How do they do this? Well, let’s get the medical jargon out of the way first!
There’s something called the gut-brain-microbiota axis, which is prone to immune-mediated deficits. In layman’s terms, this axis is part of the system that allows signals to transfer between your brain, gut and bacteria.
- Everyday psychological stresses can interfere with the functioning of this pathway. Lack of sleep, extended use of antibiotics and a poor diet can make the effects more severe, which is where probiotics come to the rescue.
- People who suffer from anxiety may also have an overgrowth of the fungus candida albicans in their bodies, which has been blamed for disorders related to depression and anxiety.
- Probiotic lactobacillus supplements can help bring about a more relaxed frame of mind and soothe away stress and tension, by inhibiting the growth of pathogens and improving digestive functioning.
- In fact, a study conducted to research the psychological benefits of consuming probiotics supplements found that each one of the 132 test subjects who suffered from depression-related symptoms felt their mood improve significantly after taking probiotics!
Certain probiotic bacteria strains might just be able to fix any damage and improve brain functioning as a whole. According to preliminary research, probiotics are particularly useful in treating anxiety, mood swings and anxiety-related disorders, changing brain neuro-chemistry for better mental health and treating other disorders related to depression.
Considering the benefits that probiotics seem to have on other parts of the body, including the brain, it shouldn’t be surprising that they can help with disorders related to the heart and promote better cardiac health too.
Apart from tackling obesity, which is a major cause of heart disease, researchers have found some promising results indicating that certain strains may also effectively manage:
- High Cholesterol – Cholesterol is responsible for the clogging of arteries, reducing blood supply in the heart and increasing the risk of cardiovascular conditions. At the 2012 American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, research was presented linking probiotics to lower cholesterol levels.
The study revealed that blood LDL (bad cholesterol) levels could be lowered by a probiotic. The formulation contained lactobacillus reuteri NCIMB 30242, which could lower cholesterol esters linked to saturated fatty acids.
- Blood Pressure – Other research conducted to study the effects of probiotics suggests that milk fermented using LAB strains can also reduce blood pressure and help with maintaining it on a regular basis.
- Glucose Levels – Probiotics may also be effective at lowering glucose levels in your body, which can lead to cardiovascular ailments as well as other problems like diabetes.
Vaginal microflora has a delicate balance, which is easily disturbed by a number of factors like antibiotics, exposure to pathogens and improper diet. In fact, one report concluded that an alarming 75% of women in America are affected by yeast infections during the course of their reproductive years.
Nearly half of them suffer recurrent infections, and Candida infections are another common complaint experienced by 5-8% of all women. Research into probiotics has some good news, particularly for women’s health:
- Certain species of bacteria have been identified as effective at protecting against unfriendly bacteria and yeast. These are primarily the acidophilus bacterial (acid-loving) strains of the lactobacillus genus, which can be consumed orally and have shown extensive benefits in the treatment of bacterial vaginosis.
- Some studies indicate that they can inhibit the growth of candida albicans, gardnerella vaginalis and other pathogens. They also keep unfriendly bacteria from attaching themselves to the vaginal lining, preventing the occurrence and recurrence of bacterial and yeast infections.
- They may also play a special role in the health of pregnant women, who are particularly susceptible to vaginal infections, which can lead to pre-term labor and other complications.
- A study involving 125 premenopausal women diagnosed with bacterial vaginal infections found probiotics to be more than twice as effective as standard antibiotic therapy.
- Vaginal suppositories with lactobacillus acidophilus can help prevent or manage vaginosis and yeast infections, or support antibiotics used for treatment.
Allergies and Immune Health
At the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia, researchers are studying the use of probiotics as a treatment for curing children of serious and sometimes even fatal peanut allergies. Children were given lactobacillus rhamnosus and peanut flour, and an astounding 80% could gradually tolerate peanuts after 18 months.
In fact, probiotics for allergies are not restricted to peanut intolerance alone, but can be used to reduce and treat the symptoms of all kinds of food allergies in people of all ages.
- This success has been attributed to the strengthening of the immune responses, since probiotics respond to stress levels in the body, activating and stimulating the immune system. It might seem counterintuitive, but several strains of probiotic bacteria have proved to be effective at strengthening the functioning of the systemic and mucosal immune system against various infections.
- The increased body resistance against numerous pathogens and strengthened immunity in regular probiotic consumers also leads to reduced risk of common cold and other infections. In one study, a group of students displayed increased lymphocytes production, which is an indication of the body’s immune response, when they were given a fermented dairy drink.
- Probiotics may even be able to replace childhood vaccines, which suppress the body’s natural immune response, only combat a single viral strain at a time and may put the immune system at greater risk by encouraging virus mutation. The immune protection a baby receives from the beneficial microflora in mother’s milk can be increased if the mother has probiotics before and during pregnancy.
Another notable effect of probiotics on human wellness is that they can improve skin health and reduce the symptoms of acne, psoriasis, eczema and other skin diseases. Many consider probiotics for acne to be just a marketing fad, but research proves that there may indeed be some truth in these claims after all:
- There have been three large studies that focused on the link between consumption of dairy products and acne. However, they did not study the effects of probiotics themselves, so it’s possible that fermented dairy products do not cause skin disorders the way certain milk-based foods do.
- The health of your skin is linked to the health of your gut, and a poor balance between good and bad bacteria can lead to skin inflammation and disorders. Promoting a better balance of gut bacteria can actually help reduce these conditions and related skin issues.
- Certain extracts from probiotic dairy-based products and fermented foods have been found to reverse the effects of gastrointestinal disorders and successfully reduce acne caused by digestive problems.
- Other studies show that probiotics passed on from mother’s milk and during childbirth can help prevent and treat childhood eczema, as well as lead to better immune responses, digestion and overall health of children.
Other Benefits of Probiotics
In addition to treating ailments and promoting better health, some probiotics can even manufacture vitamins or help with their absorption in the body, especially B vitamins like niacin, pyridoxine, folic acid, and biotin. Strains like lactobacillus brevis help us absorb Vitamins D and K by synthesizing them in the gut, while lactobacillus acidophilus probiotic strains improve the absorption of nutrients and vitamins from food.
Here are some other health issues that they can help with:
- Osteoporosis – Probiotics are rich sources of lactic acid, organic compounds that stimulate the body’s capacity to absorb vital minerals like calcium, helping to strengthen bone mass and density. The presence of toxic bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract can lead to weak and brittle bones, so regular intake of probiotic supplements and foods may also reduce the damaging effects of osteoporosis.
- Menopause – No, probiotics cannot stop menopause from occurring, but they can help with the recycling of estrogen to delay or reduce the onset of peri-menopausal and menopausal symptoms, as well as treat age-related conditions like osteoporosis, which go hand in hand with menopause.
- Urinary Health – Probiotic-rich diets can help decrease the chances of contracting and treat the symptoms of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in men, women, children and even pets. They’re particularly useful at combating UTIs that occur after taking antibiotics, by encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria (that crowd out bad bacteria) in the urinary tract and its adherence sites.
- Cancer – A healthy balance of beneficial bacteria in your gut can help avoid cancer and reduce bladder cancer recurrence, since probiotic bacteria produce enzymes that impede the production of tumors throughout the body, and some even have the ability to promote detoxification and aid in absorption of nutrients and antioxidants.
- Radiation Damage – Probiotic-rich diets could also help protect your body from radiation (through X-rays and CT scans, for instance). While more research is needed to correctly identify the link, many believe that an adequate probiotic content in the body prevents damage to the small and large intestines through radiation.
- Infections – Many probiotic microbes produce antibacterial agents that combat hostile pathogens, i.e. disease-causing bacteria. They also prevent pathogenic bacteria from spreading in the body by changing the local levels of acidity, depriving them of nutrients, or producing bacteriocins (natural antibiotic-like substances).
- Gluten-Induced Conditions – The symptoms and effects of gluten sensitivity (GS) and celiac disease in patients suffering from these disorders could be lessened by taking probiotics.
- Liver Disease – Specific probiotic bacteria species and strains like leuconostoc mesenteroides also seem to offer benefits in treating liver disorders like cirrhosis and fibrosis.
All in all, the results gathered about probiotics benefits so far seems to clearly indicate that they are a crucial part of our digestive system and even the body’s natural defense against infections and diseases.
So, if you’ve been suffering from health problems that just don’t seem to go away despite medication and treatment, probiotics might just be the right path – even while the world waits for extensive research on all their possible benefits, the regular intake of foods with probiotics and probiotic supplements really can’t hurt!