Can Probiotics Heal Your Gut?

Why are probiotics important? Our intestinal tract contains bacteria, which are vital to our health. There’s trillions of them and some estimate there are more than 500 different species. They make up from between 30 to 50 percent of the total weight of our intestinal tract. These bacteria are in a symbiotic relationship with us. The friendly microflora protects us against pathogenic organisms such as Candida albicans, produce enzymes, manufacture B vitamins, and assist us in digesting fiber and lactose. We give them a place to live and food to thrive.

The numbers of microflora can decrease to a point where harmful or opportunistic organisms can cause illness. As mentioned, one such organism is Candida albicans. It’s yeast, which can be in our colon in small numbers, but if allowed to grow can burrow through the lining of our intestine and kill off the beneficial bacteria. Illnesses that can develop are irritable bowel syndrome, immune disorders, skin issues, digestive problems, and chronic yeast infections. Symptoms can be different for men and woman.

Antibiotic therapy is the number one cause for the decrease in our good bacteria. They can’t distinguish between good or bad bacteria, so all bacteria die. Even taking an antibiotic one time in our lifetime will cause this to happen. Other drugs that can cause an overgrowth of Candida are birth control pills and corticosteroids such as prednisone. Even a poor diet could contribute. Eating lots of refined sugar can feed the yeast so that it can grow and spread. People with diabetes can have sugar in their urine, which provides an environment for the growth of yeast.

Microflora is similar to enzymes because they are essential for proper digestion. They also make enzymes such as lactase, protease, amylase, and cellulase. This helps indigestion. Lastly, they are crucial to protecting us from bacteria and viruses that invade our bodies.

What can you do if your good bacteria are wiped out?

There is a supplement called probiotics, which you can take. It replaces lost bacteria in your intestine, and then they can colonize and grow. There are many selections, and they can contain one bacteria strain to many strains. The most common probiotic strains are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Lactobacillus Bifidus. They’ve been in use the longest. The problem with these probiotic strains is that they are not very hardy and die quickly. That’s why some manufacturers require refrigeration. Unless the label states a guarantee of potency at time of consumption, there’s no way of knowing how potent the supplement is. Some bacteria can’t survive the acid environment of the stomach so a supplement in enteric-coated capsules would be a right choice. Two strains of probiotics that can withstand the acidic stomach are Bacillus cereus and Lactobacillus F-19. Other common strains found in supplements include Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus Bulgaris, Lactobacillus Plantarum, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus salivarius, Lactobacillus longum, and Lactobacillus lactis.

History of Probiotics

Probiotics mean “for life.” It’ a combination of “pro” meaning for and “biotics” meaning relating to, produced by, or caused by living organisms. The Russian scientist and Nobel laureate Eli Metchnikoff first introduced the positive role of certain bacteria to the human body. At the beginning of the 20th century, he suggested that it would be possible to replace harmful microbes with useful ones. At that time he was a professor at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He believed that the aging process was due to toxins such as phenols, indols, and ammonia in the large intestine, produced by proteolytic microbes such as clostridia. Clostridia are typical to the gut. He noted that milk fermented with lactic acid bacteria inhibited the growth of the proteolytic bacteria because of the low pH produced by the fermentation of the lactose. Metchnikoff also observed that certain rural peoples in Europe such as in Bulgaria, who lived mainly on milk fermented with lactic acid bacteria, lived a relatively long life. He then introduced sour milk fermented with the bacteria to his diet and found his health benefited from the consumption. He called it “Bulgarian Bacillus.” His friends followed suit, and soon, physicians were prescribing the sour milk to their patients.

The first person to isolate Bifidobacterium was Henry Tissier. He also was from the Pasteur Institute. He separated the bacterium from a breast-fed infant and called it Bacillus Bifidus communis. It was later renamed Bifidobacterium bifidum. Tissier concluded it was the predominate microflora in breast-fed infants and recommended it for babies suffering from diarrhea.

In 1917, the German professor Alfred Nissle isolated the bacterium Escherichia coli from the feces of a World War I soldier who didn’t develop enterocolitis when he had a severe case of shigellosis. He used the strain to treat intestinal diseases such as shigellosis and salmonellosis with a considerable amount of success. At that time, antibiotics weren’t yet discovered. The probiotic Escherichia coli Nissle 1917 is still in use today. It’s been shown to interact with the adaptive immune system directly.

In 1920, Professor Leo F. Rettger showed that “Bulgarian Bacillus,” later known as Lactobacillus bulgaricus couldn’t live in the human intestine. So at this point, Metchinikoff’s theory was disputed, and the idea of fermented food died out after Metchinikoff’s death research activity moved to the US.

In 1935, it was found that certain strains of Lactobacillus acidophilus were very active when introduced to the human digestive tract. Tests were carried out, and it was found to help relieve chronic constipation.

In 1953, Werner Kollath, a renowned nutritionist, wrote an article in an old German journal. He said, “High-value food should supplement low-value food. To make such food supplements palatable to people, one may denote all organic and inorganic complexes as probiotics in contrast to harmful antibiotics.” Most recent publications refer to the same sources for the definition of the term probiotic. Lilly and Stillwell are given current credit for coining the name in 1965. They defined it as “ a substance produced by one microorganism stimulating the growth of another microorganism.” It is the opposite of an antibiotic. In 1974, R. B. Parker gave a different view and said, “ Organisms and substances which contribute to intestinal balance” are probiotics. Roy Fuller, in 1989, defined a probiotic as “ a live microbial feed supplement which beneficially affects the host animal by improving its intestinal microbial balance.”

In 1992, R. Havenaar and Huis weren’t Veld said, “ A viable mono- or mixed culture of microorganisms which, applied to animal or man beneficially affects the host by improving the properties of the indigenous microbiota.” The same year M. E. Sanders stated, “ Probiotics, simply defined, are microbes consumed for a health effect.”

Over the years experts have debated over how to define probiotics. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have developed one widely used definition. It’s that probiotics are “ live microorganisms, which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” Microorganisms are defined as tiny living organisms which can be bacteria, viruses, and yeast, which can only be seen under a microscope.

Probiotics are not synonymous with prebiotics. Prebiotics are nondigestible food ingredients that selectively stimulate the growth and the activity of beneficial microorganisms already in people’s colons. They’re meant as food for the target microbes. An example is FOS. When prebiotics are mixed with probiotics in a supplement, they form what is called a synbiotic.

Probiotics are available in both food and supplements such as tablets and capsules. Foods containing probiotics include yogurt, fermented and unfermented milk, tempeh, miso, and fermented soy.