Probiotic research has produced more than 14,000 studies since the 1970s.
Beneficial bacteria have attracted so much scientific attention that the topic has inspired its own research journal, Microbiome, founded in 2013.
Hundreds of probiotic supplements, including probiotic foods, have appeared on the market. The question for everyone is, why do you need them?
Two kinds of answers explain why. The first one is that an imbalance of bacteria in your digestive system underlies many of the most common chronic disorders that can strike you. These include arthritis, food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, vaginal infections, eczema, chronic inflammatory disorders, stomach ulcers, and many more. The list approaches more than 100 medical conditions overall, all of which improve when you restore a healthy population of friendly bacteria in your GI tract.
The second answer is that in modern times you are exposed to many factors that can destroy your native gut bacteria. A partial list of these factors includes food additives (colorings, preservatives, “natural flavors”), chlorinated and fluoridated water, refined carbohydrates (especially sugar), artificial sweeteners, antacids, antibiotics, oral contraceptives, synthetic hormones, pesticides, steroids, air pollution, household cleaners, toxic metals, and plasticizers (mostly from bottled water and linings in canned foods and drinks).
Let’s take a look at two of the most prominent issues associated with an imbalanced microbiome.
Recent research on the role of the microbiome in bowel disorders shows how important probiotics can be. The two primary types of bowel disorders are irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
IBS is particularly troubling since modern medicine has not figured out an organic cause for it. However, rebalancing the microbiome with probiotic supplements has been shown to be beneficial in several human clinical trials (1).
IBD is a chronic inflammation of the small intestine or colon that is usually diagnosed as either Crohn’s Disease or as ulcerative colitis. Both conditions benefit from supplemental use of lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria, particularly in combination with non-digestible fibers (‘prebiotics’) that stimulate the growth of intestinal bacteria and heal the cells of the colon (2).
Most people don’t know that about 70% of their immune system is housed in the small intestine. This makes sense when you realize that your GI tract comes into contact with more foreign molecules and organisms than any other organ. Moreover, the lining of the small intestine is only one cell thick, which puts a premium on healthy friendly bacteria to protect it.
It should be no surprise that recent studies provide evidence for the microbiome’s role as a causative agent in autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis (3). The good news is that medical science is beginning to realize the importance of probiotics for rebalancing intestinal bacteria in resetting a healthy immune response (4).
Tips for Choosing a Probiotic Supplement
Current research clearly demonstrates the challenges everyone has in maintaining a healthy microbiome and the importance of probiotics in doing so. Entire books have even been written on the topic (e.g., The Probiotic Promise: Simple Steps to Heal Your Body from the Inside Out by Michelle Shoffro Cook, 2015).
The question is, how do you choose the best supplement from among the hundreds of products on the market. These three criteria are a good starting point: 1) dosage; 2) diversity; and, 3) stability.
Dosage means the number of colony forming units (CFU) per serving, which should be clearly labeled on the front of every product. Low-end products offer 1-2 billion CFU, while better products provide from 25-50 billion CFU. This is the range that is appropriate for daily maintenance of your microbiome. Products with these dosages are widely available at nutrition stores.
The upper end is a medical food called VSL#3, with 450 billion CFU per day. It is only available at certain pharmacies or online at vsl3.com. Consider a product like this if you have an inflammatory bowel disease.
Diversity refers to the number of different strains of bacteria in a product. Different products offer anywhere from one to 15 strains. All strains should be labeled by name on the product label. A greater diversity provides more value for supporting your microbiome.
The most common exception to this tip is a type of yeast, Saccharomyces boulardii, which is routinely packaged by itself since it is fungal and not bacterial. This organism is particularly important during and after antibiotic therapy and for keeping Clostridium difficile (C-diff) blooms under control in your colon. Overgrowth of C-diff has become a particularly problematic colon infection in recent years. It responds only to special antibiotics and is the main problem that has fostered treatment by fecal transplants.
- Didari, T, Mozaffari, S, Nikfar, S and Abdollahi, M. Effectiveness of probiotics in irritable bowel syndrome: Updated systematic review with meta-analysis. World J Gastroenterol. 2015 Mar 14; 21(10): 3072–3084.
- Saez-Lara, MJ, Gomez-Llorente, C, Plaza-Diaz, J and Gil, A. The role of probiotic lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria in the prevention and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease and other related diseases: A systematic review of randomized human clinical trials. BioMed Research International Volume 2015 (2015), Article ID 505878, 15 pages.
- Bedaiwi, MK and Inman, RD. Microbiome and probiotics: link to arthritis. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2014 Jul; 26(4): 410-415.
- Vieira, AT, Teixeira, MM and Martins FS. The role of probiotics and prebiotics in inducing gut immunity. Front Immunol. 2013 Dec 12; 4:445.