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Maintaining a Healthy Microbiome: A Nutritionist’s Take on the Probiotic Craze

Every year there is a new health craze introduced that promises huge health benefits. From coffee enemas to juice cleanse, we’re constantly inundated with new ways to achieve optimal health – and reminded how the latest research shows we’ve been doing everything wrong.
These days it’s all about probiotics.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years, you’ve heard about the importance of probiotics in achieving and maintaining a healthy gut.

microbiome

Beneficial bacteria have become the new craze for those seeking new and better ways to achieve ultimate health and vitality. In fact, sales of probiotic supplements are estimated to reach $2.5 billion by 2018 and sales of food and beverages containing probiotics are estimated to reach $10 billion.

With these kinds of numbers you have to think to yourself that there must be something to the science behind healthy intestinal flora and fauna – and a healthy microbiome overall.

Where Did It All Begin?

Health bacteria are found in fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir and aged cheeses. Fermented foods can be traced back all the way to 6000 B.C. but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the science behind the health benefits of fermentation began to be considered.

One of the earliest probiotic trials was conducted in 1935 when scientists found evidence that the implantation of Lactobacillus acidophilus in the human digestive tract could relieve common ailments, namely chronic constipation.

In the decades that followed, bacterial research waned until the mid and late 1980’s when salmonella outbreaks and ‘mad cow disease’ created food safety concerns. The 1990’s brought further studies and trials to determine the advantages of certain strains of bacteria in the gut. These days you can’t watch a television program without seeing a commercial advertising the benefits of probiotic foods, beverages and supplements nor can you open a magazine or walk through the grocery store without seeing these products.

Studies Show Benefits in Treating Some Ailments with Probiotics, But Are Inconclusive on Others

We’ve been promised everything from increased immunity and more energy to enhanced brain function and a reduction in bad cholesterol – and all we have to do is add probiotics to our daily diet.

So what are the studies saying about these promises?

One of the biggest problems in understanding how probiotic supplements and foods rich in probiotics can benefit our health is in the fact that there are so many different strains of bacteria that are found within them. Some products are said to contain many thousands of different strains.

Lactobacillus rhamnosis , lactobacillus plantarum, lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium longum are just a few of the strains that have been isolated and studied alone and in combination with one another, but many, many other strains – and combinations of strains – have yet to be studied.

This fact alone has made it extremely difficult to prove to any real degree of certainty exactly what benefits can be attained from ingesting probiotics, either in supplement form or in food. 

The effect of probiotics in connection with relieving Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) has been the focus of many extensive studies. The results of these studies have come up with a number of variable and conflicting results. The studies have looked at single and combination strains to find out which IBS symptoms can be treated with their use.

Lactobacillus plantarum was found in some studies to reduce the occurrence of gas in patients, and in others to reduce pain associated with IBS. There was, however, no evidence that it relieved constipation. Another study of Lactobacillus acidophilus in patients showed that it reduced pain but did not impact the frequency of bowel movements.

There have been dozens of studies looking at the effects of additional bacterial strains on IBS, but again, the results varied among test subjects –some experiencing benefits and others seeing no changes.

Other studies using Bifidobacterium infantis have found positive results in managing IBS. Again, the truth behind the effectiveness of probiotics is further complicated by the variety of bacterial strains in conjunction with a variety of IBS symptoms– and the fact that, in the big picture, so few strains and strain combinations have been put to the test.

With all the studies that have been done, the most positive findings are related to the effective use of probiotics in the treatment of diarrhea. The Journal of Pediatrics published a study that concluded the use of Lactobacillus could significantly decrease nosocomial diarrhea in babies.

Another infant study showed benefits in treating diarrhea caused by antibiotics, traveler’s diarrhea and infectious diarrhea. These same benefits, however, did not come to light in a study that looked at the effect of probiotics on seniors with diarrhea related to the use of antibiotics. This could very well be telling in its own right, revealing the possibility that taking probiotics in normal doses alone may not be enough to counter the effects of antibiotic drugs, which are known to eliminate good bacteria along with the bad. 

Make No Mistake - Scientists Do Agree on The Importance of Healthy Intestinal Bacteria

There is a strong consensus in the scientific community that healthy gut microbiota is vital to the overall health and development of humans.

The disagreement lies in whether ingesting probiotics in the form of supplements or probiotic-rich foods contributes to a healthy gut or if the human body is already equipped with everything it needs to fight infections and diseases.

Universally, scientists do agree that a healthy diet is essential in maintaining a healthy balance of intestinal bacteria.

While these studies leave many questions unanswered about the benefits of taking probiotic supplements or eating foods rich in probiotics as a way to treat ailments and diseases, there is still much to be discovered about these microscopic organisms.

And though scientists around the world have widely disagreed about the touted benefits of ingesting probiotics as a way to reverse or cure serious diseases, most agree that further studies need to be done to explore the advantages of using probiotics in both prevention and treatment of disease. Additionally, studies need to be done on both healthy and ill individuals.

Scientists also generally agree that taking probiotic supplements or eating foods known to contain them is safe in most patient groups, but say that a heightened level of caution is appropriate when recommending probiotics for premature infants and those suffering from immune deficiencies.

What’s a Person to Do?

With all of this information swirling around it can be very difficult to decide if probiotics are right for you. We know for sure that a healthy gut is an important piece of our overall health, but do we need to ingest supplements to achieve that?

Many nutritionists believe that a healthy gut can be obtained just by watching your diet. Healthy digestion begins with eating a plant-based diet incorporated with omega-3 enriched foods. Fruits and vegetables, fish and nuts should be the largest part of your diet.

Cutting down or completely avoiding sugar and processed white flour can also have positive effects on your gut health. Meat and dairy products should also be avoided as much as possible due to the use of antibiotics in animals, which can impact your gut health in the same way that taking antibiotics can. When choosing a cut of beef or piece of chicken, select only meat that has been raised naturally without being fed or otherwise treated with antibiotics.

Fermented foods are filled with the healthy bacteria, and though additional studies still need to be done to determine if ingesting these foods actually contributes to more healthy bacteria residing in the gut, introducing these foods to your diet can potentially aid in digestion and generally does not pose any health risks.

When choosing the best probiotic foods, look for the label that shows that the product contains “live or active cultures.” Sauerkraut, kefir, miso, kombucha and yogurt are all great choices for fermented foods with live or active cultures.

Certain medications, particularly antibiotics, proton pump inhibitors and anti-inflammatories, should also be avoided when possible as these medications attack the good gut bacteria in addition to fighting bad bacteria.

Don’t Take Your Health Into Your Own Hands

One of the problems when a new health craze comes along is that people may use it to take their health into their own hands. This can be a dangerous approach, especially if there are serious health concerns.

For instance, if you are considering probiotics to help with serious intestinal issues, seek the advice of a Registered Dietitian first. The experience they have had with other patients and clients will help give you the answers you need in determining if this is the best course of action.

Don’t expect your health problem to be remedied by the simple introduction of probiotic supplements, eating the latest probiotic yogurt, or drinking bottles and bottles of kombucha, no matter what these products might claim.

Discuss your issues with a physician to arrive at a conclusive assessment of your overall health and then work with a nutritionist or Registered Dietitian to get advice on how probiotics may help before taking matters into your own hands.

Most importantly, always consult with a professional when considering probiotic supplements during pregnancy, while nursing, and before giving them to a child.

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