Get into probiotics – good gut bugs that improve our mental and physical health

How important are probiotics — “good” (beneficial) bacteria and other microorganisms? According to Dr. Mercola: “The research into probiotics indicates that supplementing with probiotics is probably more important than taking a multi-vitamin and its true importance for your health is likely right up there with vitamin D.”

We all have trillions of bacteria, fungi, yeasts and other microorganisms (gut flora) in our guts. Gut flora is a mix of “bad” (harmful) and good microorganisms. When this mix is out of balance, with too many bad types, we get sick. Celeste Perron reports that Mark Hyman, M.D., founder and medical director of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, says: “If you have an autoimmune disorder, depression, allergies, or any number of other illnesses, the underlying cause may be an unhealthy balance of gut bugs.”

Dr. Mercola says: “The secret to improving your mood and brain health is in your gut, as unhealthy gut flora can impact your mental health, leading to issues like anxiety, depression, autism and more.”

Many people have gut flora that’s out of balance, so are ill as a result. These people could benefit from eating more foods that contain probiotics, taking a probiotic supplement and/or making healthy lifestyle changes so their good gut bugs can thrive.

There are many reasons for gut flora imbalances. Key reasons include chronic stress, bad eating habits, and using antibiotics, antacids and some other medications. So a few ways to improve gut flora and boost health are to better control stress, have better eating habits, and limit medication that destroys good gut bugs.

What are probiotics?
What are prebiotics?
What do probiotics do, and how can they help us?
What are some common types of probiotics and their benefits?
Where can we find probiotics?
What can destroy probiotics, which we should be aware of?
What causes people to be low in good bacteria and high in bad bacteria?
Do probiotics have any side effects?
How can we tell if our gut flora is out of balance, so we probably need more probiotics?
How can we improve the balance of bacteria in our guts?
What are some more important tips to get the most benefit from taking a probiotic supplement?

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms such as various bacteria and yeasts. They occur naturally in the gut, and boost our health in many ways.

What are prebiotics?

Prebiotics are the food for probiotics, so prebiotics cause probiotics to flourish. Prebiotics are in prebiotic supplements and in small amounts in many foods, especially high-fiber foods. Good sources of prebiotics include onions, garlic, bananas, artichokes and many green veggies.

What do probiotics do, and how can they help us?

According to Dr. Mercola, the website Green Med Info lists over 200 studies that explore more than 170 illnesses that probiotics can help prevent and/or treat.

We all have hundreds of different types of good gut bugs. Studies have found that they, for example,:

  • affect our mood, behavior, body weight, insulin levels and cholesterol levels
  • improve the immune system — the parts of the body that fight disease. Over 70% of our immune system is in our guts, so boosting gut function improves the immune system.
  • protect us from harmful bacteria and viruses, colds and flus, some cancers, and autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis
  • possibly treat inflammation
  • help us have fewer yeast infections and urinary tract infections
  • might affect the activity of genes in our brains. This means probiotics might influence our behavior and memory, for example
  • help prevent and treat asthma, allergies, and skin conditions such as acne, dermatitis and eczema
  • produce vitamins, including vitamins B and K, which are essential for good health
  • improve and maintain the health of the bowel lining
  • help treat digestive problems such as constipation, diarrhea, gas, bloating, leaky gut and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • improve bowel movements
  • improve gut health after taking antibiotics
  • treat secondary infections caused by antibiotics
  • reduce the number of days children in day care are ill with coughs, colds and fevers
  • reduce the risk of common childhood illnesses such as ear infections, strep throat, diarrhea and colds
  • reduce lactose intolerance
  • process hard to digest foods

Recent research found that bacteria in the guts of mice directly affect their brains. Mice fed a probiotic bacteria had changes in brain activity, and reduced behaviors linked with stress, depression and anxiety. These findings might lead to new ways to control depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

What are some common types of probiotics and their benefits?

There are many different types of probiotics, each with different functions. If you have an illness that needs treating, check the types of probiotics in the supplement, and choose types that best suit the health problem.

Some types of probiotics that are often found in supplements, and one or more of their health benefits, are:

  • Lactobacillus ((L. for short) – part of the lactic acid bacteria group) acidophilus and L. bulgaricus – both reduce traveller’s diarrhea, diarrhea linked to taking antibiotics, and diarrhea of any cause.
  • L. casei – helps fight the flu, and reduces the amount of ear infections and cases of gastro in children.
  • L. rhamnosus – affects the neurotransmitter GABA, so reduces anxiety and depression-related behavior. Also helps traveller’s diarrhea, reduces the risk of diarrhea from taking antibiotics, diarrhea of any cause, and the duration of viral infectious diarrhea such as rotavirus.
  • the bacteria Bifidobacterium – relieves the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
  • some yeasts, especially Saccharomyces – reduces traveller’s diarrhea, diarrhea linked to taking antibiotics, and diarrhea of any cause.

Where can we find probiotics?

Probiotic supplements are sold in powders, capsules, tablets and liquids in grocery stores, health food stores and chemists. Some health professionals, such as naturopaths and nutritionists, sell probiotics.

Probiotics are found in various foods, especially:

  • fermented dairy products including yogurt, buttermilk, kefir (a Turkish drink), lassi (an Indian yogurt drink), and goat’s cheese (only those with live cultures)
  • pickled foods such as sauerkraut (pickled cabbage) and kimchi, which contain live cultures
  • tofu
  • tempeh (fermented beans)
  • miso paste (a paste made from fermented soybeans)
  • natto (fermented soy beans)

Beware, heat destroys probiotics. To preserve the probiotics in foods, don’t cook them; eat them raw. This is why Dr. Mercola says don’t buy pasteurized fermented foods, because pasteurization destroys probiotics. This includes most of the “probiotic” yogurts in grocery stores, as they are pasteurized. These foods will be linked with the problems of pasteurized milk products. Also, they often contain added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, artificial coloring and/or artificial sweeteners, which all worsen health.

On the topic of yogurt, about 10 years ago I worked on a university study in Perth that involved giving children in day care centers milk with added probiotics. The aim of the research was to find out if the probiotic drink reduced the amount of diarrhea, colds and flus the children developed. A professor working on the study told me and my colleagues that many shop-bought yogurts do not contain enough live good bacteria to have health benefits. This concurs with ABC Health and Wellbeing Medical Writer Peter Lavelle’s comments and Dr. Mercola’s comments. Lavelle reports that “…some UK studies found that many products on the market contained doses of bacteria too low to be effective.” Dr. Mercola says commercial yogurts “…typically do not have live cultures and are loaded with sugars that feed pathogenic [disease causing] bacteria.”

What can destroy probiotics, which we should be aware of?

Probiotics are sensitive, so can be destroyed by many things, including:

  • antibiotics, antacids, anti-inflammatories and certain other medications
  • processing, for example the pasteurization of milk
  • heat
  • stomach acid
  • bad diets such as those high in sugar/fizzy drinks/processed foods/junk foods, and low in fiber, fresh fruit and veggies
  • prolonged storage

What causes people to be low in good bacteria and high in bad bacteria?

Many factors can cause a gut flora imbalance such as:

  • bad eating habits, including eating too much sugar (including fructose), and/or too many processed foods/fried foods/junk foods/refined grains
  • fizzy drinks
  • antibiotics and some other medications such as heartburn pills and anti-inflammatories
  • drinking too much alcohol
  • smoking
  • recreational drugs
  • high levels of stress
  • pollution
  • agricultural chemicals such as pesticides
  • antibacterial soap
  • bacteria from contaminated water
  • chlorinated and fluorinated water
  • some viruses

Do probiotics have any side effects?

Peter Lavelle says that: “The evidence shows they’re safe in normal healthy people.”

Carolyn C. Ross, M.D., says: “Probiotic supplements are generally quite safe and carry few side effects (except for those with impaired immune function or serious illnesses such as pancreatitis).”

How can we tell if our gut flora is out of balance, so we probably need more probiotics?

Signs and symptoms of having gut flora that’s out of balance include:

  • frequent indigestion
  • frequent colds/other infections
  • gas
  • bloating
  • stomach/gut pain/cramps
  • constipation or diarrhea
  • food sensitivities
  • fatigue
  • headaches
  • nausea
  • carbohydrate cravings such as cravings for sugar/bread/potatoes/pasta

How can we improve the balance of bacteria in our guts?

Below are some positive lifestyle changes we can do to help good gut bugs flourish, and reduce the number of bad types:

  • Eat fermented foods that have not been pasteurized. As previously mentioned, pasteurization kills good bacteria.
  • Take a probiotic supplement, especially after taking antibiotics and/or other medications that destroy good bacteria.
  • Eat a healthy diet that’s low in sugar, processed foods, fried foods and junk food. Sugar nourishes the bad bugs in our guts. A healthy low-sugar diet helps good gut bugs flourish.
  • Eat a diet high in fiber, fruit and vegetables.
  • Drink less fizzy drinks, even better none at all.
  • Drink filtered instead of unfiltered water. Choose a water filter that removes chorine and fluorine, which both destroy good bacteria.
  • Don’t smoke.
  • Drink little or no alcohol.
  • Dr. Mercola says that if you’re a new mother, breast feed your baby. Research shows that breast milk “… contains substances that may significantly enhance your baby’s gut and brain development — a gift that will literally last a lifetime.”

What are some more important tips to get the most benefit from taking a probiotic supplement?

  • Keep probiotics in the fridge. As previously mentioned, heat (possibly even room temperature) destroys probiotics.
  • Take probiotics with water on an empty stomach. The bacteria can then bypass the stomach, so less are destroyed by the stomach acid that can kill probiotics.
  • Take a high dose probiotic and prebiotic, because probiotics need prebiotics to live. High doses of probiotics (billions of live bacteria per dose) help ensure enough will make it past the stomach. Five to ten grams of prebiotic fiber every day can be helpful. More prebiotics might be needed for some health problems, such as a pre-existing bowel problem.
  • Choose a probiotic supplement with a double-walled capsule, so it can get past the stomach acid.
  • Take probiotics every day to keep levels up. The number of good bacteria in our guts can return to previous lower levels within two weeks, unless we take probiotics regularly.
  • Choose a probiotic with no added sugar and/or calories. This is to avoid excess calories being taken with the probiotics.
  • Buy probiotics with a long shelf-life. Being live organisms, bacteria and yeasts suffer from the ageing process. The longer they are stored, the less effective they become.

written by Nyomi Graef

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