Your gut is home to over 500 bacterial species. Some of these internal guests are known as friendly flora because they facilitate digestion, provide nutrients, and help form the immune system. Harmful or excessive levels of other bacteria are associated with gaining weight, bloating and immune dysfunction. Probiotics maintain balance between these good guys and bad guys.
Healthy bacteria make some important nutrients such as B vitamins, vitamin K, folate, and some short-chain fatty acids. Up to 10% of your daily energy needs can be derived from by-products of these friendly gut bacteria.
For optimal health, maintaining balance between healthy and unhealthy bacteria is important, and that is where probiotics comes in. Probiotics help maintain balance between the friendly and harmful bacteria to ensure multiple benefits for your immune system. When probiotics are abundant in your body, it’s harder for disease-causing bacteria to flourish. Some probiotics strains also make bacteriocins to suppress the growth of harmful bacteria.
When it comes to probiotics, more is not necessarily better. Instead, you may do better to handpick a few specific strains of probiotics to meet your individual health needs, rather than randomly taking a high-potency, full-spectrum formula that may aggravate symptoms.
Here is a basic overview of four strains of probiotics, including some key members of each and how they could help you address specific health issues. While not exhaustive, this will serve as a starting point for your next probiotics shopping trip:
Lactobacillus is a term for a family of friendly bacteria that normally live in the digestive, urinary, and genital systems without causing disease. Lactobacillus is also found in some fermented foods like yogurt and in dietary supplements. Members of this family of bacteria are used to treating and preventing diarrhea, including infectious types and diarrhea associated with using antibiotics. Here are a few specific members of the Lactobacillus family you want to look for when treating specific conditions:
• Lactobacillus acidophilus produces vitamin K, lactase, and anti-microbial substances such as acidolin, acidophilin, lactocidin, and bacteriocin. It helps reverse constipation, especially when taken with fiber and extra water. Lactobacillus acidophilus may also be helpful to reduce cholesterol levels.
• Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus casei both convert lactose into lactic acid – helping the lactose intolerant. They boost immunity in the small intestine by producing bacteriocins.
• Lactobacillus bulgaricus can be found in many yogurts and soft cheeses. It helps to convert lactose and other sugars into lactic acid, which may be particularly helpful for the lactose intolerant. It also helps reduce cholesterol levels, breaks down complex proteins for easy assimilation, and alleviates acid reflux.
• Lactobacillus gasseri has been shown to reduce belly fat, relieve irritable bowel syndrome, restore microflora balance, reduce various types of diarrhea, optimize natural immune function; protect against the flu virus and prevent colonisation of Helicobacter pylori.
• Lactobacillus helveticus improves arterial stiffness, supports bone mineral density and increases calcium absorption in postmenopausal women.
• Lactobacillus plantarum is one of the best probiotics for IBS symptoms by reducing the frequency and intensity of abdominal pain and bloating. It has also been shown to help normalize bowel movements in IBS patients.
• Lactobacillus plantarum, Bifidobacterium infantis and Saccharomyces boulardii taken together are the strains of choice for IBS and bloating.
• Lactobaccillus rhamnosus has been shown to assist weight loss. It also prevents eczema, treats diarrhea, relieves abdominal pain associated with irritable bowel, and decreases upper respiratory tract infections.
Bifidobacteria is a family of bacteria that has been studied for their ability to prevent and treat various gastrointestinal disorders, including infections, irritable bowel syndrome and constipation. In addition to making lactic acid, they also make important short-chain fatty acids to be absorbed by the body. There is even evidence that certain bifidobacteria may actually protect the host from carcinogenic activity of other intestinal flora. Here are a few of the most common strains:
• Bifidobacterium infantis is particularly helpful for diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas, urgency and abdominal discomfort.
• Bifidobacterium lactis speeds up the frequency of bowel movements as effectively as fiber, simultaneously improving symptoms of constipation, irregular bowel movements, and flatulence.
• Bifidobacterium longum and other lactic acid producing bacteria help support immune system function and are the probiotics of choice to restore internal balance after a course of antibiotics.
Streptococcus is the name of a genus of Gram-positive, non-sporulating, chain-forming, lactic-acid bacteria. They can be harmful such as the strains of streptococcus that cause pneumonia or strep throat, but not all streptococci are bad for you. Some of the beneficial streptococci used in probiotics are Streptococcus thermophilus and Streptococcus salivarius.
• Streptococcus salivarius colonizes in the mouth and upper respiratory system, and is excellent for combating bad breath (halitosis).
• Streptococcus thermophilus is found in yogurt and cheese, and assists Lactobacillus bulgaricus by making growth nutrients.
Saccharomyces is the kind of yeast you want in order to be healthy. These yeast species lack the ability to penetrate into tissues like Candida species can, so they are not invasive. They are unaffected by antibiotics and do not acquire antibiotic-resistant genes – in short, they are very different from the harmful types of yeast that cause vaginal yeast infections, athlete’s foot, jock itch, ringworm or thrush.
• Saccharomyces boulardii can help to keep disease-causing microbes and yeasts such as candida from overwhelming your body when antibiotics kill off most of the good bacteria.
Shopping for a Probiotic
When it comes to probiotics, more is not always better! Look for a product that contains the specific strains needed for your condition instead of a product that promises to contain all probiotics known to man, and which may cause you more intestinal discomfort. These little guys are living things and die off over time, so look for freshness as indicated by the expiration date. Whatever the source, always look for “live and active cultures” on the label.
Start Out Slowly
In order to reap the full benefits of taking probiotics, some experts recommend taking probiotics for a minimum of two weeks at a time. In the short-term, adding probiotics to your diet may cause gas, flatulence, belching and bloating. Start with small doses of probiotics and gradually increase the amount you take – start with one capsule of probiotic a day for the first week and add one more the following week to prevent excessive bloating and side effects. And as always, consult with your medical team on any known health condition so you won’t fly blind. Here’s to your gut health!
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