Not only do the organisms in the gut, known as the gut microbiome, digest the nutrients you need to thrive, but they also ward off infection and help make neurochemicals essential for brain function.

When the gut microbiome is balanced, you stay healthy and have a lot of energy. Out of balance and you are prone to health issues from weight gain and brain fog to diabetes and cancer. With so many roles, is it possible to optimize gut function?

Emerging research on probiotics shows that these “good” bacteria help boost natural gut flora and provide many benefits for optimal gut health.

Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide a range of health benefits by boosting the diversity of the gut micro- biome. These microorganisms, usually bacteria or yeast, are different from those found naturally in the human microbiome in the skin, mouth, vagina and gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli are the most common types of probiotics associated with health benefits. Research demonstrates the improvement of conditions such as chronic intestinal inflammation, diarrhea, constipation, vaginitis and atopic dermatitis. Specifically, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli have been shown to modulate the immune system, make digestive enzymes and boost gut microbiota activity after antibiotic treatment.

‘“No guts, no glory” might be closer to the truth than we realize.’

These effects also help to maintain the gut barrier, which is crucial for the functions of the gut. For example, probiotics help the gut resist pathogens, bad bacteria and viruses by binding to receptors in the GI tract that pathogens can otherwise inhabit. Probiotics also use the same nutrients that pathogens feed on and subsequently make antimicrobials that prevent their growth.

Probiotics are generally safe with proven benefits to the consumer. They should survive the digestion process, colonize the gut and retain their beneficial properties even when stored. There is increasing evidence from hundreds of human studies that show they can treat GI disorders and promote GI health in general. A diverse microbiome results in carbohydrate fermentation, which improves the absorption of calcium, magnesium and phosphorous.

Currently, probiotics must be defined at the levels of genus, species and strain. This is important, as all probiotic strains have not been shown to confer the same health benefits. At present there are no standard guidelines for probiotic dosage and recommendations can range from treatment once or twice daily to once per week. It is also important to keep in mind that organisms behave differently when administered in combinations rather than alone.

Most of the research in probiotics has focussed on the digestive system. However, there is evidence that probiotics also help maintain a healthy vaginal microbiome and may help decrease the occurrence of urinary tract infections (UTI’s). The vaginal microbiome contains a large amount of Lactobacilli bacteria and these high levels have been shown to maintain a healthy state by preventing the accumulation of bacteria that lead to yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and UTI’s.

With increasing choice in products containing probiotics, it is important to know how to read labels and evaluate the health claims of this popular health supplement.

Probiotic supplementation can be done in a variety of ways, as probiotics are found in a range of foods as well as in dietary supplements.

Probiotics are present in a number of foods that naturally contain living “good” bacteria cultures. These include:

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir
  • Kimchi
  • Sauerkraut 
  • Miso
  • Tempeh

If you are interested in a specific health benefit associated with a particular strain of probiotic, such as reducing gut inflammation associated with GI disorders, your best bet is to use probiotic capsules containing that particular strain (or strains).

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Author: Elizabeth O’Leary is a Master’s student in the Psychology & Neuroscience program at Dalhousie University, currently studying the effects of probiotics on stress resilience.

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