Beyond Digestive Health: The Hidden Benefits Of Probiotics
Probiotics have come a long way. Russian scientist and Nobel laureate Élie Metchnikoff introduced the modern hypothesis of the positive role played by certain bacteria in 1907. Metchnikoff was the first to suggest that it was possible to modify the gut microbiota and replace harmful microbes with useful microbes. Nearly a century later, the World Health Organization (WHO) first defined probiotics in 2001 as "live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host." Launched in 2007, The Human Microbiome Project (HMP) was a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research initiative that improved our understanding of the microbial flora involved in human health and disease.
A lot has happened with probiotic research in a very short period of time. Therefore, it’s reasonable to assume that there is much more to be learned about probiotics, our relation to them, and the host of benefits they can provide us.
Initially, Probiotics Were All About Gut Health
Probiotics have shown promise for a variety of gut related issues, including:
- Prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea (including diarrhea caused by Clostridium difficile)
- Treatment or prevention of traveler’s diarrhea
- Treatment of infant colic
- Remission or maintenance of inflammatory bowel disease
- Reduction of symptoms and pain from irritable bowel syndrome
- Alleviation of constipation
- Remission or maintenance of ulcerative colitis.
After digestion, immunity is the second most talked about use of probiotics. It makes sense because about 70 percent of your immune cells reside in your gut. Certain probiotics such as Bacillus clausii have been shown to prime the immune system by increasing white blood cell activity and even boost your immune system by accelerating your body’s natural response to pathogens.
Emerging evidence suggests that probiotics may help prevent and even treat seasonal allergies like hay fever and environmental allergies to things like dust mites. Researchers suspect that probiotics can help allergy sufferers by modulating the immune system and limiting the release of inflammatory chemicals involved in the allergic response. This theory is summarized in the “hygiene hypothesis” where early childhood exposure to particular microorganisms (such as the gut flora) contributes to the development of the immune system. The hygiene hypothesis is based upon epidemiological data that shows that people who are exposed to microorganisms that are both beneficial and harmful have lower rates of both autoimmune and allergic diseases. You can think of this exposure to microorganisms as training or school for your immune system.
Did you know that you have two brains? Researchers are calling the gut microbiome your second brain because of all the processes it influences and manages. Research shows that your brain and gut brain are connected via a partnership called the gut-brain axis. This suggests that the microbiota in the gut can impact what happens in the brain. Take serotonin for instance, which is an important neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, sleep, memory and learning, body temperature, behaviour, and heavily influences depression. Amazingly most of your serotonin (over 90%) is produced by and found in the intestine. Your gut microbiota influences this production along with other mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as GABA, dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline. The gut-brain axis is an emerging area of microbiome science and studies have shown that supplementing with probiotics can lead to less stress and anxiety, better memory and lower levels of cortisol in the morning.
According to the American Heart Association, probiotics may help to maintain healthy blood pressure, especially in those already diagnosed with hypertension. Probiotics may also help to keep cholesterol in check. Some probiotics can support a healthy balance between good and bad cholesterol by breaking up bile salts. Your body has to use cholesterol to make more bile which in turn lowers your cholesterol levels. More recent research suggests that probiotics may also boost vascular function and may even improve cardiac remodeling (repair after trauma) in the heart.
High sugar intake, as well as poor oral hygiene, are the primary contributors to halitosis (bad breath) as well as periodontal disease. A growing number of studies suggest that certain species of Lactobacillus can offer benefits for oral health and play a role in preventing and treating oral infections, cavities, periodontal disease, thrush and halitosis. Research suggests that probiotics reduce the levels of pathogenic bacteria in your mouth, reducing inflammation and producing substances such as lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide that inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and yeast.
Skin is the largest organ of the human body, and requires a lot of nutrients to stay healthy. Your skin is covered in bacteria, both good and bad. In fact, if you removed all of a person's own cells, but left the bacteria covering them, you'd still have a perfect outline of that person. While the bacterial makeup of a someone's skin is important, the health of your gut and the bacteria that resides there also plays a big role. An imbalance in your digestive system can deprive the entire body of nutrients and lead to skin problems. Conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and acne have all been heavily linked to poor gut health.
Urinary Tract Support
Probiotics such as Lactobacillus dominate the urogenital flora of healthy premenopausal women and it has been suggested that supplementation to restore a healthy bacteria balance may protect against UTIs in women who are prone to them. Probiotics crowd out unwanted bacteria and help maintain a health pH in the urogenital tract. The evidence from the available studies suggests that probiotics can safely prevent recurrent UTIs in women.
Researchers have found that overweight and thin people have very different gut bacteria populations, suggesting that bacteria may be a factor when it comes to obesity. What’s fascinating is that when overweight people begin to lose weight, their gut bacteria starts to resemble that of thin people. Researchers are looking into whether supplementing with probiotics to make the gut healthier can also help people lose weight. So far they’ve observed that probiotics improve blood glucose levels and weight control by lowering inflammation and balancing gut-derived hormones such as ghrelin and leptin that regulate appetite.
Apart from the digestive benefits that probiotics provide, you can see that they offer a great deal of other health advantages too. By adding a probiotic to your daily routine, you can support nearly every organ system for whole body health!