Dr. Andrew Brandeis breaks down what you need to know about your digestive system and how a proper probiotic therapy may be key to its optimal health.
The importance of maintaining a healthy digestive system for overall health and wellness cannot be overstated. Typically, in a healthy, well-functioning system, digestion is taking place, in one form or anther, continuously. Its job is as obvious as it is vital: to break down what we consume into nutrients like carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and vitamins which are then used by the body for energy production, growth and cell repair, as well as a range of other key processes. Over the past few years there has been a growing scientific consensus that the addition of supplemental forms of probiotics to a healthy diet may promote and support the overall and longterm health of the digestive system and thus help to treat and even prevent certain illness.
Now, for some valuable albeit cringe-inducing reading: the average adult gut carries an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms. While sometimes, rather euphemistically, labeled microflora, these microorganisms are essentially bacteria and can be thought of as the body’s frontline defense, protecting against harmful pathogens while aiding in nutrient absorption, and supporting immune function. Probiotics (from pro and biota, meaning "for life") are considered "friendly" live bacteria that can colonize the gut, providing additional beneficial microorganisms. A helpful analogy may be to think of the gut as a garden. A garden is essentially an ecosystem, and for any ecosystem, large or small to function properly requires multiple components working in balance. From the soil and sunlight to the seeds and sowing, these elements — and many more — create a nexus that enables it to thrive. Probiotics can be thought of as a way to help maintain balance thus ensuring a healthier garden. More specifically, high quality probiotics, when used properly and taken in appropriate doses, improve the makeup of the gut microbiome which, in turn, affects key functions of the body including immunity, metabolism and mood.
Additionally, some digestive disease specialists recommend probiotic supplements for disorders that conventional medicine has yet to find effective treatments for, the notable example being IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome). Further, some clinical studies suggest that probiotic therapy can help delay the development of allergies in children, support the nervous system, and treat vaginal and urinary infections in women. While a recent New York Times article stated that, “specific probiotics have also been shown to help treat pouchitis, ulcerative colitis, colic and infectious diarrhea, and to reduce the risk of developing Clostridium difficile infections after taking antibiotics*.”
With this initial, basic background, it’s important to understand that not all the bacteria that make up probiotics are equal. While most types provide beneficial support, there are three main classes that should be included in a probiotic supplement:
- Bifidobacterium lactis to support healthy digestive function
- Lactobacillus salivarius to dramatically decrease the level of harmful bacteria forming in the mouth, throat and digestive tract
- Saccharomyces boulardii for immune system support
Interestingly, probiotics from the gastrointestinal system produce more neurotransmitters than the brain. For example, Lactobacillus spp produce acetylcholine and GABA; Bifidobacterium spp produce GABA; Streptococcus and Enterococcus produce serotonin; and Bacillus spp produce norepinephrine and dopamine. These are a general examples. For a more robust and targeted approach, it is recommend that a probiotic course be determined in consultation with a health care professional.
While continuing research is, of course, required, the growing body of scientific evidence that favors proper probiotic therapy is persuasive. Given the fact that our digestive system’s microbiome is the starting line for the overwhelming majority of our body’s functions — turning what we eat into energy — it follows that ensuring its optimal performance is crucial. Therefore, supplementation with the right probiotic course may represent a foundational step towards maintaining optimal, long term health.
(*It should be noted that the article also sighted that in 2019 researchers concluded that, “the benefits and feasibility of probiotic consumption in healthy adults remain uncertain”.)