Today, nearly everyone I speak to suffers with some kind of digestive issue. One of the most common issues I hear about is IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) which affects between 25 to 40 million people in North America. Jewish people (specifically those of Ashkenazi descent) are primarily affected. But what exactly ARE probiotics? How do they work? Are they actually worth purchasing? It is easy to become overwhelmed with all the information out there. Probiotics can be an incredibly effective method for treating IBS and reducing the severity of the symptoms. Further, they can help to improve mood, your immune system, your ability to break down food/eliminate waste and absorb nutrients.
What are probiotics?
Within our bodies (depending on your size) there are about 2-6 lbs of bacteria – with concentrated amounts in our small intestine and colon. Our digestive system is full of living microorganisms in place to help us break down food and absorb the nutrients within them! When things are working well here, there is a balance of good and bad bacteria. This means roughly 85% good and 15% bad. This means that things are moving through our system well, we feel energized after we eat and our immune system is strong. In people with IBS, the balance is actually backwards – being 85% bad and 15% good. When the balance of good to bad bacteria gets thrown off by say, antibiotics, dysbiosis, IBS, IBD, leaky gut syndrome, or really any digestive disturbance…the bad bacteria are the ones flourishing. Antibiotics cannot differentiate the good from the bad and wipe out all bacteria. Once the microbiome is wiped out, the bad guys are the ones to grow back most quickly and can easily run the show (the “show” being your overall digestion. Not fun). We want the “good guys” to be the ones primarily digesting our food – this way we get the most out of it.
To sum up, probiotics are: Living microorganisms that replenish our gut with GOOD bacteria to help reset the balance.
How probiotics help: your body break down and eliminate foods
If you are suffering with IBS, IBD or any kind of digestive disruption, probiotics help you clear out toxins faster and more efficiently due to helping to better bowel function. Probiotics also help produce digestive enzymes which means the “good guys” are breaking down our food as opposed to bad bacteria fermenting it – which can cause uncomfortable gas and bloating. They also help to detoxify bile and deactivate many toxic chemicals or pollutants we might have ingested. If your stomach acid isn’t killing these bacteria, the probiotics will help to. Further, good bacteria help to control cholesterol levels and obesity because they help digest fat properly and create healthy fatty acids.
How probiotics help your immune system
Good bacteria essentially keep your gut “primed” for any illness that might come your way – ensuring that if an infection or virus comes your way, you are ready to knock it out. Probiotics help keep unhealthy organisms under control by altering the acidity of their environment. For example, lactic acid bacteria in our guts creates an acidic environment that produces antibacterial/ antifungal/ antiviral properties! They protect against radiation and pollutants because they crowd out the “bad guys” filling our bodies with beneficial bacteria. Further, they protect against parasites which can cause a whole slew of digestion and health problems – especially when you are travelling!
Mood & digestive system; “our second brain”
Our digestive tract has been dubbed “our second brain” because any changes there have serious effects on the rest of our bodies, especially our mental state. 95% of our serotonin which is our neurotransmitter that allows us to feel feelings of happiness and bliss is created inside of our gut. When bad bacteria (which include things such as yeast and parasites) are the ones primarily running our digestion, we damage the membrane of our GI tract making it more permeable. This can lead to undigested food particles travelling through our bodies, creating inflammation, food sensitivities and many other issues. Inflammation is an imbalance that we heavily feel in our minds. It manifests as feelings of fogginess, fatigue, anxiousness… the list goes on and on. Yeast overgrowth (referred to as candidiasis) can actually manifest as ADHD- like symptoms as well as depression, fatigue and many others. These are just a few examples as to how improper digestion affects our mental state.
When the gut is happy, the brain is happy. Scientists have found that certain microbes that live in our GI tract communicate with our brains through our vagus nerve and can help heal and maintain long-term brain health. This demonstrates an actual anatomical connection between our guts and our brains!
How probiotics help the body absorb more nutrients
Probiotics help to heal the lining of the intestines, which is where we do almost all of our absorption of nutrients. Good bacteria specifically help you to absorb calcium, magnesium and iron! Bad bacteria can often feed off of iron and instead of helping you absorb it, they use it to grow uncontrollably. Ensuring that iron gets into the right hands in our intestines is crucial for overall health. Lastly, probiotics help you to manufacture B vitamins! This means that we are getting the most out of our food as B vitamins help with energy metabolism.
Some great food sources of probiotics
Fermented foods contain live microorganisms and billions of strains of good bacteria. Some of my favorite sources of probiotic rich foods are:
- Natto – fermented soybeans
- Apple cider vinegar
If you decide to go with a supplement form, ensure that there are as many strains of bacteria as possible. A therapeutic dose for someone with intestinal issues (such as IBS) or someone who has just finished a round of antibiotics should be at least 50-80 billion strains of beneficial bacteria. For anyone else starting off, I would make sure you are getting at least 15 to 25 billion strains of bacteria. This way you ensure you are getting the most out of what you are paying for! Further, make sure to check the labels. We want the probiotics we take to be in a form of bacteria that can actually “Recolonize” our digestive tracts. Bifidobacterium Lactis (also called B. animalis) are strains of bacteria present in animals but are not present in humans. Therefore, while you are taking the probiotic supplement you will feel a difference but after you stop, the bacteria will leave your digestive tract and no real progress has been made. Some of the best strains of bacteria to look for on the supplement label are:
- Bifidobacterium longum
- Bifidobacterium Infantis
- Bifidobacterium Bifidum
- Bifidobacterium breve
- Lactobaccilus acidophilus
- Streptococcus thermophilus
- Lactobacillus brevis
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
These strains of bacteria will help to recolonize your gut with good bacteria and ensure that you are training your body back to health – rather than becoming reliant on supplements.
Eating right is made so much more effective when you can rest assured that you are digesting and absorbing things properly! Our digestive tracts really are our second brain – when filled with good bacteria they help in so many bodily processes. Bacteria in our guts affect and control our energy levels, our happiness, our immune system and our ability to break down and absorb food. I want to be sure that the bacteria in my system are the ones on my side – not those in place to hinder my progress towards health. By incorporating some probiotic rich foods into your diet you can drastically improve your life.