Before getting into the benefits of probiotics. Let’s take a look at what probiotics actually are. Probiotics are live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits.1
Probiotics are classified as a genus, which is the first name listed, such as Lactobacillus, then the species, which is the name listed after such as acidophilus. Then from there is the specific strain and there are tens, if not hundreds, of strains within the species L. acidophilus (as there are within any bacterial species) e.g. NCFM®, Rosell-52 etc. The strain name usually consists of numbers and letters which indicate a microbiology institute e.g. NCFM = ‘North Carolina Food Microbiology’ research centre. It’s only at this level that a probiotic can really be judged on its worth, as the strain name points towards the research and the quality of the probiotic.2 The number and letters listed applies to probiotic supplements.
Although people often think of bacteria and other microorganisms as harmful “germs,” many microorganisms help our bodies function properly. For example, bacteria that are normally present in our intestines help digest food, destroy disease-causing microorganisms, and produce vitamins. Large numbers of microorganisms live on and in our bodies. In fact, microorganisms in the human body outnumber human cells by 10 to 1.3
The human intestinal system is thought to contain over 500 microbial species and approximately 1014 functional bacterial cells and also include fungi, yeasts, viruses, and protozoa. 4
So, probiotics are already in our bodies, however which particular strains and how much greatly vary from person to person.
Now let’s look at some of the benefits of supplementary probiotics. There is increasing evidence in favour of the claims of beneficial effects attributed to probiotics, including improvement of intestinal health, enhancement of the immune response, reduction of serum cholesterol, and cancer prevention. These health properties are strain specific5
Studies have demonstrated that certain members of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium spp. decrease the levels of carcinogenetic enzymes produced by colonic flora through normalization of intestinal permeability and microflora balance as well as production of antimutagenic organic acids and enhancement of the host’s immune system. Furthermore, evidence suggests that food products containing probiotic bacteria could possibly contribute to coronary heart disease prevention by reducing serum cholesterol levels as well as to blood pressure control. Proposed mechanisms include interference with cholesterol absorption from the gut, direct cholesterol assimilation, and production of end fermentation products that affect the systemic levels of blood lipids and mediate an antihypertensive effect. Nevertheless, these probiotic effects are still a matter of debate as further research is needed in long-term human studies 6
Some of the other major health benefits include treatment of irritable bowel-associated diarrhea, antihypertensive effects as well as improvement of lactose metabolism. Uses of probiotics for the management of anxiety and depression as well as boosting dermal and oral health. 7
Studies also supported that probiotics play a role in modulation and improvement of mood, stress response, and anxiety signs in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and chronic fatigue patients. Research has been conducted to examine the impact of probiotics on the gut-brain axis. 8
In a recent study of breast fed infants suffering from atopic eczema, B. lactis and L. rhamnosus GG were found to be effective in decreasing the eczema severity. Furthermore L. rhamnosus GG has been found successful in preventing the occurrence of atopic eczema in high risk infants, when supplied prenatally to selected mothers who had at least one first degree relative with atopic eczema, allergic rhinitis, or asthma.9
Gut health also relates to allergies. Allergic infants and young children have been found to have a different composition of intestinal bacteria than those who do not develop allergies. It is hypothesised that the intestinal microbiota stimulates the immune system and trains it to respond proportionately to all antigens. An altered composition of intestinal microbiota in early life can lead to an inadequately trained immune system that can, and often does, overreact to antigens. 10 Studies are still being done to see which specific strains and amounts could help with which allergy.
Stress can greatly effect the state of ones gut health. Key findings, showing that stress influences the composition of the gut microbiota and that bidirectional communication between the gut microbiota and the central nervous system influences a host’s stress reactivity. Stress has been shown to influence the integrity of the gut epithelium and to alter peristalsis, secretions, and mucin production, thereby altering the habitat of the intestinal microbiota and promoting changes in microbial composition and/or metabolism.11this can effect someone ability to properly digest certain foods and also the ability to extract the nutrients from those foods.
Although the information about the minimum effective concentrations is still insufficient, it is generally accepted that probiotic products should have a minimum concentration of 106 (1 million) CFU/mL ( colony forming unit) or gram and that a total of some 108 (100 million) to 109 (1 billion) probiotic microorganisms should be consumed daily for the probiotic effect to be transferred to the consumer. 12
Along with specific dosages, It is important to note, all probiotics are not alike. For example, if a specific kind of Lactobacillus helps prevent an illness, that doesn’t necessarily mean that another kind of Lactobacillus would have the same effect or that any of the Bifidobacterium probiotics would do the same thing.13 The most common genus of probiotics seen in products are Lactobacillus And Bifidobacterium. This is due to the fact Most of our knowledge about safety and benefits comes from studies of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium; less is known about other probiotics. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm
There are several ways to incorporate more probiotics into your life, one is through food sources and another is through supplements. In choosing supplements, there are some important factors to consider. One is the delivery system of the probiotic, in terms of the type of capsule which holds the probiotics. Labels should indicate some kind of coating such as calcium alginate 14is used in order to protect the probiotics from being destroyed by acid in the stomach.
Since there are so many different benefits to a variety of strains, a multi-strain probiotics appear to show greater efficacy than single strains, including strains that are components of the mixtures themselves.15
Then also looking for an expiration date. Probiotics are a live supplement and their efficiency and potency can’t live forever! There have been over 5,000 publications detailing the health benefits of probiotics as well as their ability to delivery viable functional probiotic bacteria. 16