The use of beneficial bacteria, commonly known as ’probiotics’, to improve health dates back over a hundred years, but only in the last few decades have probiotics become very popular. They are now widely available and even used clinically to manage a variety of complaints.
Understanding what probiotics are, how they work and their unique health effects is important because not all probiotics have the same effects. In this blog about Good Bacteria for Digestive Wellness we will explore the differences between some popular probiotic bacteria.
You will also discover some of the unique, and perhaps surprising, benefits of good bacteria. By harnessing the benefits of probiotics you can help improve the health of your digestion and keep your digestive system in balance.
You are mostly made of bacteria; in fact the bacterial cells in your body outnumber your own cells 10 to 1. Most of these bacteria are found in your digestive system, where they act as a vital organ much like you liver or brain and influence the health not only of your digestive system, but your whole body.
Modern lifestyle factors including stress, alcohol, antibiotics, lack of exercise and junk food can cause an imbalance in your bacteria, decreasing the good ones such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria and favouring the overgrowth of bad bacteria.
Probiotics are good bacteria that can help improve the health of your gut, by restoring your natural balance. Some probiotics also have beneficial health effects, reducing digestive issues or increasing your resistance to infection, for example.
The effects of probiotics are unique to the types (strains) of bacteria used. There are many types of Lactobacillus (genus or family) acidophilus (species) but only one Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1 (strain), for example. It is the strain of bacteria that determines its health effect.
Prebiotics are natural fibres that improve the balance of good gut bacteria and effect of probiotics by providing substrate for their growth. A full-spectrum prebiotic provides a mixture of both short-chain (e.g. oligosaccharide) and longer-chain prebiotics (e.g. inulin). Short and longer chain prebiotics act at different sites in the large intestine (colon) so a full-spectrum blend will nourish bacteria throughout the colon. Full-spectrum prebiotics provide the full range of molecular link-lengths from 2 to 60 links per molecule and are amongst the best-studied types of prebiotics.
Prebiotics found in supplements are commonly derived from chicory root, but can also be found in foods such as Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion leaves, garlic, leeks, onions and asparagus. Choose probiotic supplements which feature well-studied strains of bacteria and also include prebiotics (called symbiotics or synbiotics) to synergistically enhance the activity of the formula.
You may not have heard of it (or be able to pronounce it), but the non-pathogenic yeast Saccharomyces boulardii has been used for the past 30 years for the prevention and treatment of digestive illness, especially diarrhoea, caused by bad bacteria.
Remarkably, Saccharomyces boulardii was first discovered by French microbiologist, Henri Boulard in 1920 in the skin of Lychee fruit when he noticed that the fruit skins were a traditional treatment for diarrhoea.
Since then, Saccharomyces boulardii has proven very effective, with a recent analysis of 10 clinical studies showing that Saccharomyces boulardii significantly reduced the risk of diarrhoea with antibiotic use. Saccharomyces boulardii is naturally resistant to antibiotics.
It has also been used to prevent diarrhoea and digestive upset when travelling.
In one study a supplement of 250mg taken five days before travel and then every day while away significantly reduced risk of diarrhoea in tourists travelling to northern Africa, the Middle East and Far East.
The anti-infectious properties of Saccharomyces boulardii appear to be in part due to its ability to inhibit the growth of bad bacteria in the gut including Candida albicans, E. coli and parasites while improving the balance of good bacteria and the health of your gastrointestinal tissues.
This remarkable yeast is one of the great success stories in probiotic therapy.
Lactobacillus acidophilus was first isolated in 1900 and is one of the best-known probiotic bacteria.
For over 40 years a particular strain of Lactobacillus acidophilus known as the DDS-1 strain has been the subject of a great deal of research and consequently is one of the original strains of acidophilus used as a probiotic.
In fact, some of the defining characteristics of probiotics are based on the pioneering research into Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1. It was one of the first shown to be resistant to stomach and bile acids, adhere to intestinal epithelial cells and multiply rapidly in the gut.
Early on, Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1 was also shown to produce B-vitamins and enzymes that help digest proteins and fats, reduce toxic compounds in the gut, stimulate the immune system and produce a unique natural antibiotic called ‘Acidophilin’ which inhibits the growth of several undesirable microorganisms.
These characteristics have made Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1 one of the most popular probiotics for supporting daily digestive health and wellbeing for decades.
More recently a clinical study found that Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1 demonstrated statistically significant reductions in abdominal symptom scores for diarrhoea, abdominal cramping, and overall symptoms related to lactose intolerance.
Bloating, discomfort, pain and alterations in bowel habits such as constipation and loose bowel movements are collectively termed irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Some, but not all, probiotics have been shown to benefit symptoms of IBS. In research studies, one of the more promising is a blend of 4-strains of good bacteria.
A unique blend of 4-strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria was studied in people with IBS over a period of eight weeks. Compared to placebo, there was a significantly greater improvement in IBS symptoms and quality of life, days without pain, and satisfaction with bowel habits in the volunteers receiving the probiotic.
Although numerous probiotics have been studied in IBS many only relieve certain symptoms such as gas and some are no better than placebo, which makes this 4-strain probiotic particularly important.
It is thought that probiotics that have potent benefits on the gut flora are most likely to improve IBS. This same 4-strain probiotic has also been shown to maintain healthy gut bacteria even after antibiotics, which are well known to disrupt your gut bacterial balance. The ability of this specific combination to promote healthy gut bacteria may help explain it benefits.
Good bacteria are important for the development of a healthy immune system, and some research has shown that a daily probiotic may help reduce risk of infection.
Young children are the most susceptible age group to coughs and colds so to see if a daily probiotic could keep their immune system healthy, a group of children aged between 3-7 years took a multi-strain blend of four probiotic bacteria with a small amount of vitamin C every day for six months.
The kids’ probiotic resulted in a 50% reduction in symptoms of coughs and colds, as well as a 33% reduction in numbers of episodes of cold symptoms.
There was also a significant reduction in the use of cough and cold medications as well as a 50% reduction in the need for antibiotics, suggesting this simple daily probiotic is an effective way to support a healthy immune system and keep kids fit and healthy.
Q: Can’t I just eat yoghurt?
A: Yoghurt can be made with acidophilus but the types of bacteria used to culture yoghurt are often not the same strains of bacteria shown to have probiotic health effects. Research has shown that yoghurts often have very low levels of bacteria in them to begin with and may not influence your gut bacteria. Most widely-available probiotic yoghurts and drinks will be challenging for those who are dairy or lactose intolerance, also many contain additives including sugars, artificial sweeteners, flavourings or preservatives.
Q: When is the best time to take them?
A: Good probiotics are resistant to digestive acids and are able to reach the gut and exert their effects so there is no special time to take them. The best time is a time that is convenient and that you will remember, such as with breakfast each day.
Q: Are probiotics safe for children?
A: Probiotics can used safely in children. It is best to use a children's probiotic and follow the dosage instructions for different age groups.
Q: Can I use them with antibiotics?
A: Yes, several studies suggest probiotics can be used with antibiotics and may help prevent the negative effect of these medications on your good gut bacteria. The probiotic Saccharomyces boulardii is not affected at all by antibiotics and is a good choice.
Q: What can I expect when taking a probiotic?
A: Probiotics can take some time to work so we recommend trying a product daily for at least four weeks to see if it works for you. Sometimes people notice minor changes in bowel habits over the first few days but this typically subsides as your digestive system finds its balance. Probiotics are safe to take indefinitely.
Q: Can I take probiotics while pregnant?
A: Probiotics can be used safely while pregnant, and some studies suggest they may have benefits for mother and baby.
Q: Do probiotics interfere with medication?
A: There are no interactions between probiotics and common medications. If you are taking immune-suppressants you should speak with your healthcare provider before using probiotics.
The information contained in this blog is not intended to treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a health practitioner. Please consult a qualified health practitioner if you have a pre-existing health condition or are currently taking prescribed medication. Food supplements should not be used as a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.