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The real scoop on probiotics

In this great article by Dr Willliams learn more about why probiotics are so important, but why just taking a supplement is not all it takes. J. E. Williams, OMD, FAAIM

For the natural health conscious, probiotics factor high on their list of supplements. And, most of these people know that probiotics, or friendly bacteria that live in the gut, play important roles in digestive function, including assimilation of nutrients from foods and supplements. However, the beneficial functions of probiotics do not stop at a happy gut; they also support a healthy immune response. This is because probiotics inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria by producing organic acids, hydrogen peroxide, and unique natural antibiotic substances. In turn, these process and neutralize toxic compounds.

There are studies that illustrate the effectiveness of probiotics in supporting a healthy immune response. For instance, a Scandinavian study has shown that those who supplement with probiotics before surgery are less likely to have postoperative infections. In fact, the use of antibiotics to treat all hospital-based infections decreased for those taking probiotic supplements. Furthermore, a healthy gut in which there are robust probiotic populations prevents colds and flus. A study in China showed that school-aged children who supplemented with probiotics suffered from upper respiratory infections 34% less than children who did not.

Despite what these studies show, simply adding a probiotic supplement is not enough to stay healthy if you have low levels of probiotic species or imbalances of friendly to potentially harmful bacteria. Normalizing probiotic populations requires time and the right ingredients. First, you need a product that contains active, live probiotic species. If you haven’t had a stool test, where you can find out which species you need to supplement, a broad spectrum of probiotic species is best. Second, you need enough of them. On average, 5 billion active organisms are sufficient. However, if you have low levels (determined by stool testing), you need more – at least 25 billion, twice daily. Thirdly, they have to get past stomach acid and the upper intestinal digestive enzymes, which can destroy bacteria on contact. No one has tested the absolute best time to take probiotics, but my clinical experience suggests that taking them immediately before meals helps move them past the stomach and through the small intestine faster. Others say between meals; but, though I did recommend that approach for many years, I now question whether it makes good sense to have live bacteria sitting in the stomach for hours – exposed to a bath of gastric acid. For practical purposes, taking them with food makes sense, too.

To help build strong probiotic colonies, you also need the right substrate of fiber and prebiotics, a category of nutrients that support the growth of healthy microflora. The most commonly recommended prebiotics are inulin and fructooligosaccharides (FOS). They can be taken as supplements but are also found in foods like chicory root, garlic, onion, and other fruits and vegetables. Naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and dairy drinks (like kefir) are good sources of prebiotics. Getting enough soluble fiber is also important. You need at least 20-25 grams daily, and more if you have digestive concerns.

Malabsorption of sugar causes the wrong type of fermentation in the gut with symptoms of gas, bloating, pain, diarrhea or constipation. It also disrupts colonization of probiotics and favors potentially pathogenic microorganisms like yeast and fungi. It is well known that lactose can cause this effect, but other sugars, including sucrose and fructose, cause similar problems. When attempting to recolonize the gut, cut back on the simple sugars, or better yet, eliminate them entirely for a few months.

KEY POINTS FOR PROBIOTIC REPLACEMENT THERAPY

  • Take a probiotic product containing live species.
  • Take enough: 5 billion for general health, up to 50 billion for replacement.
  • Take just before or with meals.
  • Provide enough fiber and prebiotics.
  • Cut back on all sugars.
  • Eat a wide range of fermented foods.
  • Be regular by taking them daily for at least one year.

The probiotic product you take needs to guarantee precise identification of species and number of units. Advanced probiotic manufacturers use DNA-based technology and PCR (polymerase chain reaction) to identify bacteria types. The combination of viable bacteria that adhere to and colonize the gut with a low sugar, high fiber, plant-based diet is necessary in repairing the gut. Getting the right bacteria to recolonize your gut is not easy. It takes time, up to a year or longer to make progress. However, your health depends on it, and it will be worth the time and effort for improved immunity and digestive health.

Your Question of the Day: Do you take probiotics? If so, what kind?

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