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The Power of Probiotics

Posted Sep 07 2011 11:08am

Everywhere you turn it seems you will hear something new about research on probiotics.  From Jamie Lee Curtis touting the amazing health benefits of yogurt, to supplements, to new probiotic food products arriving on the shelves every day, it seems like probiotics may just be a cure-all.  While all the emerging research on probiotics is fascinating and exciting, it’s always important to educate yourself before you buy stock in a new food product. 


Here is a bit of background to help you navigate through the probiotic world:


What exactly is a probiotic? Greek in origin, the word probiotic literally means “for life”.  A probiotic is a live microorganism that protects its host (you) and helps to prevent disease.  These friendly bacteria are similar to the “good” bacteria in your body and help promote intestinal health while also hindering the growth of the “bad” microorganisms.  We have a delicate balance of these “good”  and “bad” bacteria in our body and this balance can be disrupted in a number of ways including:


  • Use of antibiotics that kills all bacteria regardless of “good” or “bad”
  • Overabundance of “bad” bacteria from infectious diarrhea
  • IBS, IBD (Crohn’s and Colitis)
  • Tooth decay and periodontal disease  (! don’t forget to floss because that bacteria will find it’s way into your gut!)
  • Stomach ulcers caused by Helicobacter pylori
  • Vaginal infections
  • Skin infections


Where are probiotics found?  Probiotics are found in both foods and dietary supplements either naturally (as in fermented products such as yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, ) or are added to the food product ( probiotic pizza anyone ?). 


Why do we care?  The emerging research on probiotics is staggering as researchers world-wide work to find evidence of beneficial results.  What are they looking for?  A myriad of results (check out this list of some of the clinical trials occuring just in the US ) as a way to control the imbalance from the gut due to all of the above mentioned conditions and lessen the unpleasant side effects through the ingestion of probiotics.


But what I find even more fascinating is that research is beginning to suggest that keeping that healthy balance of good bacteria through probiotic supplementation (via food or dietary supplements) can actually effect signaling between the cells in the intestine and the brain.  This research focuses on the signaling pathways that play a part in obesity, depression, anxiety, immune functions and more.  This means that the health of our intestines can actually effect the neurotransmitters signaling in our brain.


For example, a recent study conducted through the National Academy of Sciences found that mice who were given a specific strain of probiotic (Lactobacillus Rhamnosus JB-1) experienced alterations in the expression of receptors for a neurotransmitter effecting anxiety and depression related brain chemistry.  Further this probiotic appeared to reduce corticosterone, a hormone secreted in response to stress.


So does this mean you should guzzle down containers of yogurt, miso, and kefir and pop probiotic pills all day long?  Maybe.  Research that finds positive results from the use of probiotics study one specific strain on a specific condition or disease.  There are thousands of probiotic strains and a strain that worked for one condition may not work for another.  This is also true for the amount of bacteria used to treat the condition (measured in “Colony Forming Units” or “CFUs”).  Don’t waste your money on a supplement or strain that only provides 1000 CFU when research tells us we need 10 million CFUs to see results.


Probiotics US says you need the following information :

  • “Documentation of type of bacteria (genus, species and strain)
  • Potency (number of viable bacteria per dose)
  • Purity (presence of contaminating or ineffective bacteria)
  • Extent of research that has been published on health effects, must be provided for any strain being used in a product. Usually the culture or product manufacturer can provide this information.”


We have a lot more to learn about probiotics.  There will likely be much more information and research released in coming months and years as to the healing properties of probiotics.  In the mean time, should you be eating probiotic rich foods?  It can’t hurt you and may possibly help with overall digestive health.  But if you are specifically trying to treat one of the conditions listed above ask your dietitian if a specific strain has been shown to help. 


Keep your eyes peeled for new research.


Do you take probiotics or eat probiotic supplemented foods?

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