Probiotics: Waging a War Against Bodily Ills
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as live microorganisms that, when ingested in adequate amounts, bestow a health benefit on the host. These friendly bacteria are essential to health and wellness.
More than 100 trillion bacteria populate the gastrointestinal tract (from mouth to anus). These microorganisms constitute the intestinal microbiota or gut flora (also called microflora, intestinal flora, etc.). This flora facilitates and supports numerous bodily functions, including, but not limited to, establishing, regulating, and bolstering the immune system, aiding digestion, manufacturing vitamins, facilitating nutrient absorption, and defending the body against various diseases. So complex are the microbiota’s functions that it acts like an organ.
Probiotics are live bacterial strains that already exist in our bodies. However, diet, stress, antibiotics, and other factors can damage the intestinal flora, cause dysbiosis (an imbalance of good and harmful intestinal bacteria), and induce chronic maladies, such as obesity, diabetes, and autoimmune diseases. Consuming probiotics helps ensure that a healthy balance between good and pathogenic bacteria pervades your gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), creating a vital you.
Numerous pages could be written expounding upon the ways that probiotics fight valiantly to safeguard your health and life. However, this article highlights a few critical maladies for which probiotics offer a natural, safe, and effective remedy.
Probiotics Cure Bacterial Vaginosis
While this is not the most riveting or comfortable topic to discuss, it is important. After all, health and vitality begin with understanding the body.
Like the colon, the vagina houses an ecosystem of good bacteria, with lactobacillus being the predominant species. Microorganisms, such as lactobacillus, function optimally within a certain pH range. These bacteria produce lactic acid, which maintains the vaginal pH and possesses anti-microbial properties that keep pathogens at bay. When you think of dangerous bacteria, you may recall your childhood when your mom poured hydrogen peroxide and slathered bacitracin on a cut or burn to disinfect it and prevent infection. The vagina actually employs these substances too and for a similar purpose. Lactobacilli create bacitracin and hydrogen peroxide to frustrate the establishment and proliferation of pathogens. If the vaginal pH is not maintained, however, these beneficial microbes will decrease and consequently so will lactic acid production, leaving the vagina vulnerable to opportunistic bacteria.
When a woman suffers from bacterial vaginosis (BV), the pervasiveness of lactobacilli diminishes and the vaginal pH escalates as opportunisitc bacteria multiply. No one wants to hear “opportunistic bacteria” and his/her genitalia in the same sentence. Thankfully, probiotics provide a simple and natural cure. Studies show that taking probiotics, particularly functional foods as yoghurt containing lactobacillus acidophilus, are effective in curing BV. Like the resident lactobacilli in the vaginal microflora, probiotics taken orally or applied locally via suppositories retard the growth of and kill pathogenic bacteria while simultaneously restoring the proper vaginal pH and microflora.
Rather than potentially suffer from BV, which can lead to serious conditions and ailments, such as abnormal vaginal discharge, urinary tract infections, heightened HIV risk, abortion, infertility, and preterm birth, take probiotics!
Friendly Bacteria Relieves Constipation
You may have heard a man say that he could not fathom a pretty girl going "number 2." However, honestly, everyone poops and has suffered from constipation at some time, even the daintiest of women; and the affliction is never welcomed. Thankfully, probiotics offer a safe and effective solution. The World Journal of Gastroenterology cites a study that clearly demonstrates that consuming friendly bacteria alleviates colonic impactions. The study participants drank a probiotic milk for two weeks. After said time period, study participants’ stool frequency nearly doubled or rose by 100% and their comfort during a bowel movement increased by more than 50%. Moreover, stool consistency, which assesses whether waste matter looks healthy, significantly improved.
One major contributor to constipation is slow colonic transit time (the time it takes the colon to expel waste matter). Again, probiotics are the answer. As discussed earlier, maintaining a consistent and low pH is important for microbial balance and health. Probiotics stimulate the production of short-chain fatty acids, such as lactic, butyric, and propionic acids. These acids lower the colon’s pH, balancing the intestinal microecology and normalizing intestinal transit time.
Probiotics even accerlate waste expulsion. Research reported in the journal Ailmentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics showed that healthy study participants, those with normal colonic transit time, experienced a 20% decrease in transit time after consuming a probiotic yoghurt product 3 times a day for 11 days. A larger study involved both individuals with normal and slow intestinal transit times and tested the affects of different probiotic doses. The “normal” group was divided into two subsets, one that ate 125g and another that consumed 250g of probiotic yoghurt daily. These groups experienced a 20% and 42% reduction in colonic transit time, respectively. Likewise, the “slow” group was similarly divided and consumed the same quantities of yoghurt. This led to a 28% and 38% reduction in colonic transit time, with the subgroup that ate 250 g of yoghurt experiencing the larger decrease.
Faster intestinal transit time naturally leads to more frequent and comfortable bowel movements because the stool does not have time to harden and become difficult to pass.
As studies show that intestinal microbiota differ in those suffering with functional constipation versus those with normal bowel regularity and that taking probiotics actually changes and balances the gut flora’s makeup, it is no surprise that the more probiotics you ingest, the better your colon functions.
Good Microbes Help Treat Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Explaining the connection between probiotic intake and relief from IBD requires a quick biology refresher that includes examining the immune system and the make-up of the gastrointestinal wall. The immune system is composed of cells, organs, tissues, and the mucosa-associated lymphoid tissue (MALT), which is comprised of small concentrations of lymphoid tissue dispersed throughout the body. This tissue can be found in the eyes, skin, GI tract, and other areas of the body and contains disease-fighting white blood cells or immune cells. MALT specifically found in the GI tract is aptly named gut-associated lymphoid tissue or GALT. This tissue is located in various parts of the gastrointestinal wall, which is divided into the four following sections: mucosa, submucosa, muscularis externa, and serosa (please see image below). The mucosa is further sectioned into the lumen (the innermost part of the gastrointestinal wall where the gut flora resides and undigested food particles pass), epithelium, lamina propria (the GALT is located here), and muscularis mucosae (please see the picture below). This is probably more than you ever wanted to know about your gut; however, this is all imperative information to understand the ways that probiotics treat IBD.
IBD, which includes ulcerative colitis (UC) and Crohn’s disease (CD), causes the GI tract or parts of it to become chronically inflamed. The former primarily involves an inflamed mucosa and occurs only in the colon, while the latter involves inflammation of the entire gastrointestinal wall, i.e. all four layers, and can occur anywhere along the GI tract.
The exact causes of IBD still baffle the medical community. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted that the condition involves miscommunication between the GALT in the lamina propria and friendly intestinal bacteria in the lumen (see the diagram above), and this leads to inflammation. In fact, it is worth noting that studies indicate that mice lacking intestinal bacteria or “germ-free mice” do not develop IBD, thus making it quite salient that a direct connection exists between the disease and gut flora. The most pervasive explanation for the pathogensis of IBD is that a compromised and consequently excessively permeable epithelium enhances the exposure of immune cells (GALT) to antigens (substances that elicit an immune response) produced by the resident, friendly intestinal microbes. Under normal conditions, the body tolerates its own antigens and only attacks foreign ones. With IBD, however, the immune system mounts an assault against itself. This leads to an aberrant immune response that produces on-going inflammation of the mucosa or entire gastrointestinal wall. Other characteristics of IBD include dysbiosis.
This explanation may leave you wondering what causes an impaired, leaky epithelial barrier in the first place. The research states that intestinal dysbiosis, primarily caused by a poor diet (typical "Western" diet), stress, antibiotics, birth control, and NSAIDS (e.g. Aspirin), can induce a permeable epithelium because the gut flora is involved with mucosal development, structure, function, and integrity. Another explanation involves the epithelium’s actual make-up. Under normal conditions, the epithelium creates a sound barrier, which regulates the entry of nutrients, water, and other substances into the body while restricting the entry of food residue, foreign antigens, and pathogens. This barrier is constructed of protein complexes that create seals between adjacent epithelial cells called tight junctions. With IBD, abnormal permeability results from the redistribution and reduced expression of certain proteins, a process that breaks the seals and causes them to leak. Besides these reasons, atypical epithelial cell death can also produce impaired permeability.
With more than 2M Americans afflicted with IBD and 70K plus new cases per year, this is a serious condition. IBD causes severe pain, bloody stool, obstructed bowels, malnutrition and other complications. It can also breed colon cancer and lead to a colectomy, the removal of the colon. Thankfully, scientific reports and studies show that probiotics can help treat UC and CD.
Before delving into the scientific studies, please review the bullets in the boxes below that summarize the causes of IBD and the curative benefits of probiotics:
Research reported in The American Journal of Physiology-Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology examined the influence of probiotics on epithelial permeability, tight junction protein expression and distribution, and epithelial cell death in mice with colitis. The results indicated that probiotics drastically reduced colonic inflammation, maintained the integrity of the epithelium by precluding the redistribution and altered expression of tight junction proteins, and completely prevented epithelial cellular death.
Moreover, a clinical trial, reported in the journal, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, involved 30 patients with UC. The patients were treated with probiotics for 6 weeks and remission was achieved in 63% of them.
The above studies deal with the use of probiotics alone to treat active UC. Many other studies compare the efficacy of probiotics versus antibiotics to prevent relapse following traditional medical intervention. Research shows that probiotics are equally or more effective in maintaining remission.
The journal Inflammatory Bowel Disease published a study involving small children with active CD. Following the administration of probiotics, 76% of study participants experienced remission and needed no additional therapies.
Additionally, a study on CD reported in the journal Gut found that probiotics modulate the immune response of intestinal immune cells, curtailing the release of pro-inflammatory proteins in the mucosa, and consequently helping to stop chronic gut inflammation.
The studies here also focus on using only probiotics to treat CD. However, more extensive research exists on the efficacy of probiotics in conjunction with antibiotics to maintain CD remission or the use of probiotics after antibiotic or surgical intervention. The research consistently reveals that probiotics more drastically reduce the relapse rate.
Beneficial Microorganisms Enhance the Immune System Generally
Besides the aforementioned benefits, research shows that probiotics bolster the immune system. Studies indicate that probiotics increase the secretion and expression of proteins in the mucosal immune system that help to physically trap and remove pathogens. Research also indicates that probiotic consumption increases white blood cell activity. Probiotic supplementation for overall health can be further explored here: http://www.medizin.uni-tuebingen.de/transfusionsmedizin/institut/eir/content/2009/107/article.pdf
So, in summary, eat or take probiotics! You can enjoy probiotics as raw cultured vegetables or raw kefir or take them as supplements.