Getting the right probiotics for digestive health and immunity
Probiotics are receiving a great deal of attention in the health world and for good reason. But for some of us who don’t fully understand their uses and benefits we may still wonder – What are they? Do we really need them? Which strains are right for my needs?
What are probiotics?
The Latin root for the word probiotic translates as “for life”. In short, probiotics are the friendly microorganisms that are not only beneficial for us, but also essential.
The human body contains hundreds of billions of living bacteria, far exceeding the number of cells we have. Some of these bacteria are health promoting while others are neutral or potentially harmful. The harmful effects of damaging bacteria, such as salmonella, may be more commonly known, but without the presence of healthy bacteria as an integral part of our complex internal ecosystem, we would be unable to survive.
Maintaining balance between the friendly and unfriendly bacteria is essential for our health.
The word ‘gut’ is often used to describe our digestive tract, a tunnel that is roughly 9 meters in length. Inside the digestive tract of humans resides over 400 species of bacteria, which weigh around 2kgs! It may seem strange that we have this much bacteria living in our guts but it is naturally occurring and essential.
Some strains of friendly bacteria, a.k.a. probiotics, such as Bifidobacteria, are passed from a mother to her children. This transfer occurs during the birthing process and as well as through breastfeeding. Passing on of healthy bacteria is essential for the colonization of gut flora and the development of the immune system in newborn babies.
Digestion and immunity
Probiotics serve several very important functions. They are essential for digestive processes from aiding the breakdown of food through the secretion of enzymes to the elimination of waste. Healthy gut bacteria also manufacture B Vitamins and Vitamin K and are an integral part of our immune system. Our friendly bacteria support the health and function of the mucosal barrier of our gut lining, protecting us against unfriendly pathogens like bacteria, viruses and yeast and helping to produce antibodies and proteins essential for immunity. About 66% of your body’s immune cells reside in the gut, thus making a healthy gut a major focal point of your overall health.
Uses and sources
Probiotics can be obtained through our diets from foods naturally containing healthy bacteria. These include fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchee and natto. Another great source of probiotics, for those who are not allergic or sensitive, are cultured dairy products such as yogurt, kefir and buttermilk.
Probiotics have been found helpful for:
• Aiding digestion and reducing gas, bloating and constipation
• Food poisoning and traveler’s diarrhea
• Skin irritations such as eczema and psoriasis
• Food sensitivities
• During and after the use of antibiotics
• Inflammatory conditions such as IBS, colitis and Crohn’s disease
Modern day dietary and lifestyle habits negatively impact the microflora in our gut. Factors such as stress, unbalanced diets, consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates, over consumption of caffeine, alcohol and tobacco and over use of antibiotics all contribute to an environment where friendly bacteria struggle to survive and unhealthy bacteria thrive.
Regular consumption of probiotic containing foods is an important part of a healthy diet, however sometimes food sources alone are not enough and supplementing with additional probiotics is necessary.
The common strains
Probiotics naturally inhabit our digestive and urogenital tracts but there are certain strains which support various functions. The most common friendly bacteria are:
• Lactobacillus acidolphilus and bifidus, essential for maintaining healthy gut microflora.
• Lactobacillus rhamnosus, effective for supporting healthy urogenital health by inhibiting the ability of pathogens to attach the lining of the vaginal and urinary tract
• Saccharomyces boulardii, a friendly yeast species found to produce lactic acid which improves the digestibility of foods.
Choosing the right probiotic supplement
There are many types and brands of probiotic supplements out there. You can choose the right product for your specific needs. Some probiotics require refrigeration in order to maintain their probiotic strength. However, certain brands/products are heat stable and can be stored at room temperature or used when traveling. Be sure to check products to determine if refrigeration is required.
For general digestive and immune support:
• Multi strain blend containing Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria strains
• Look for a product that contains Bifidobacterium infantis, Bifidobacteria breve and Bifidobacterium longum. These are the 3 most common strains found in the GI tract of healthy breastfed newborn and infants.
For pregnancy and post natal:
• L. rhamnosushas been found to positively influence intestinal flora in infants when taking during pregnancy and breastfeeding
• L. fermentum, L. gasseri and L.salvarius may provide symptomatic relief from diagnosed lactational mastitis
For travelling aboard:
• L. acidophilusRosell-52 has been found to provide a protective barrier against foreign microbes.
• Saccharomyces boulardii has been found to flush out pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella (responsible for 70% of Traveller’s Diarrhea).