Can we talk about gut bugs? I know this is a food blog, so it might sound a little gross to get into the nitty-gritty of what goes on once our pretty, appetizing meal goes on to its final resting place, but I happen to be passionate about probiotics—defined simply as any microorganism that provides a benefit to its host when consumed. You’ve probably heard of them, or seen them at the grocery store, as they come in many forms. In foods, they occur naturally in fermented items like yogurt, kimchi, and miso. As a supplement, you can take them in liquids, capsules, and even suppositories. The more I research about probiotics, the more I want to share my findings with others. Next time we’ll get back to attractive embodiments of deliciousness, I promise, but for now, let me tell you a little bit about these good gut flora and why we can benefit from them.
First, a little personal history: my journey with probiotics began as a last resort. In 2009, after my second child was born, I experienced several weeks of mysterious stomach pain and what I will euphemistically call “the Big D” (hint: it starts with D and ends with “iarrhea”). The physician’s assistant I was seeing at the time seemed at a loss for what was causing my problems and wanted to put me on a long-term regimen of Dexilant, a medication for acid reflux. I felt in my gut (pun intended) that this was not the solution to address my GI issues. At least, I certainly did not want it to be the solution. Somewhere along the line, though, I had heard about probiotics as a remedy for stomach issues. I decided that before I would put myself on a prescription medication of dubious appropriateness for my condition, I would give probiotics a try. What happened in the next three weeks was nothing short of miraculous. As the days on probiotics went by, I saw my GI health go from abysmal to totally normal. I remember raving to my brother over the phone, “I’m like the poster child for bathroom health!” (I shall not elaborate further.) Ever since, I have been ardently pro-probiotics.
What I didn’t know when I began popping good bacteria six years ago was just how far-reaching their positive effects would prove to be. Today, research on probiotics is an incredibly hot topic in the medical field. (An example: when I searched my community college’s database of academic journals for the term “probiotics,” it showed 1,216 results from 2015, compared with 726 results from 2009 and only 335 in 2004.) When I attended the Nutrition and Health Conference in Dallas last year, it felt like all anyone was talking about was the “gut microbiome”—medical-speak for the bacteria in your intestinal tract. Several presentations from cutting-edge researchers focused on how what’s in our bellies effects what goes on in other parts of our bodies. For this post, I’ve compiled some of the incredible, multi-faceted benefits research has proven probiotics to confer. (And there are even more than I list here.) By the time we’re done, maybe you’ll be convinced probiotics are worth a try.
A recent meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials analyzed the effects of probiotic consumption on blood pressure control. Consuming probiotics reduced systolic blood pressure by 3.56 mm Hg and diastolic blood pressure by 2.38 mm Hg. If you’re trying to keep your blood pressure in the healthy range, every millimeter of mercury that bp cuff measures counts.
The textbook Probiotics, Prebiotoics, and Synbiotics (to be published in 2016) has this to say about probiotics’ preventative effect against cancer: “Probiotics have been documented to exert anticarcinogenic properties and prevention of cancer by several mechanisms, including the stimulation of the immune system, decreasing the incidence of infections, regulating gut inflammation, and binding toxic compounds.”
Probiotics have repeatedly been shown to improve digestive health, especially reducing or eliminating antibiotic-associated diarrhea (just like in my experience with them!). There’s also good news for IBS sufferers: in July 2014, a 12-week double-blind study revealed statistically significant improvement of IBS symptoms in participants who took a multi-strain probiotic.
Several studies have indicated that the composition of gut flora correlates with development of type 1 and 2 diabetes. Males with type 2 diabetes were found to have significantly less healthy gut bacteria than non-diabetics. Also, probiotics have been shown to improve fasting glucose in diabetics. The decreases in blood glucose are modest, but significant. For a diabetic, even a small improvement in blood sugar can mean higher quality of life.
A 2010 article in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that during a 12-week study, taking probiotics significantly reduced abdominal fat and overall body weight in subjects with BMI in the high/obese range.
A study performed earlier this year at Leiden University in the Netherlands revealed that subjects who underwent just a four-week regimen of probiotics reported significant positive “cognitive reactivity to depression.” In layman’s terms: people felt better and less depressed.
Several types of infections have been shown to exhibit improvement when treated with probiotics. Studies have found probiotics to be useful in the treatment of salmonella, upper respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, and vaginal infections, to name a few. Probiotic therapy has even been deemed an effective treatment for infantile eczema.
Research suggests that certain probiotic strains are capable of stimulating the body’s IGA and B cells, which defend against antigens that could harm us. I can say from personal experience that in general, when I am faithful about taking probiotics, I notice I get fewer colds, flus, and stomach viruses.
No, probiotics will not help you get rid of rats, but there is a TON of probiotics research being performed on rats. Rat studies have shown probiotics to reduce inflammation, prevent allergies, curb obesity, and improve Alzheimer’s symptoms. While we may not be able to extrapolate this data to humans yet, my guess is we’ll see human studies on these same topics very soon. As similar as humans essentially are to rats, surely some of these benefits of probiotics will prove true for us.
So, need I say more? Are you wondering how to make probiotics part of your life? Since I’m not a doctor, my best advice is to talk to yours about starting a probiotic regimen. And if your doctor’s not into probiotics, you can always do your own research, experiment if needed, and find one that works for you. With all the evidence for their widespread effectiveness, I believe you won’t regret it.
Bixquert, Miguel. “Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome with Probiotics: Growing Evidence.” The Indian Journal of Medical Research 138.2 (2013): 175–177.
Oaklander, Mandy. “Can Probiotics Help Depression?” Time. Time, 10 Apr. 2015.
Gourbeyre, Pascal, Sandra Denery, and Marie Bodinier. “Probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics: impact on the gut immune system and allergic reactions.” Journal of Leukocyte Biology. May 2011, 89:685-695.
Homayouni, Aziz, et al. “Effects of Probiotics on the Recurrence of Bacterial Vaginosis.” Journal of Lower Genital Tract Disease. 18.1 (2014): 79-86.
Kadooka, Y., et al. “Regulation of Abdominal Adiposity by Probiotics (Lactobacillus Gasseri SBT2055) in Adults with Obese Tendencies in a Randomized Controlled Trial.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 64 (2010): 636-43.
Lin, Rong-Jun, et al. “Protective effect of probiotics in the treatment of infantile eczema.” Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine 9.5 (2015): 1593+.
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Sisson, G., et al. “Randomised clinical trial: a liquid multi-strain probiotic vs. placebo in the irritable bowel syndrome – a 12 week double-blind study.” Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics 40.1 (2014): 51+.
Wollowski, Ingrid, et al. “Protective role of probiotics and prebiotics in colon cancer.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2001 73: 2 451s-455s.
Zareie, M et al. “Probiotics Prevent Bacterial Translocation and Improve Intestinal Barrier Function in Rats Following Chronic Psychological Stress.” Gut 55.11 (2006): 1553–1560. PMC.