Let me ask you literally and figuratively: “do you have the guts to be healthy”?  Most of us don’t, and bacteria is likely the reason why.  It is a fact that probiotics – aka the friendly bacteria found in your gut that make up your intestinal flora - is actually considered an organ!  This organ plays a key role in your health and well-being and most of your bodily functions. That’s why we must take care of it the same way we would want to care for our heart or brain.

Probiotics can have a tremendous impact on multiple levels by favorably altering the intestinal microflora balance, inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria, promoting good digestion, increasing resistance to infection, and perhaps most importantly boosting your immune function.

But, how do they work? Probiotics are microbes that adhere to the intestinal lining which then leaves fewer sites at which bad bacteria can attach. Good bacteria can produce organic compounds such as lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and acetic acid. These natural chemicals increase the acidity of the intestine and work to inhibit the reproduction of harmful bacteria. Probiotics also release proteins called bacteriocins that work by directly killing bad bacteria.

The intestines contain many types of bacteria: commensal (non-pathogenic/“friendly”), potentially pathogenic (when in disproportionate numbers become disease causing), and pathogenic (disease causing). Those who have ideal intestinal colonies of friendly bacteria are far better equipped to fight the growth of pathogenic bacteria that can cause disease and immune dysfunction.

Supplementing probiotics can help create ideal colonies of friendly bacteria.  But, not all probiotics are created equal. It is important to keep in mind that in the world of probiotics, there are different levels of evidence. Some have “proven benefit”, others “suggested to be of benefit”, and still others that are currently being evaluated for effectiveness.

The strongest evidence lies in treatment of diarrheal illness, treatment and prevention of viral diarrhea, prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, bacterial vaginosis / yeast vaginitis, the cure rate of bacterial infections when combined with antibiotics, and general immune enhancement.

Conditions for which probiotics are suggested to be of benefit include eczema, food allergies, lactose intolerance, treatment of recurrent a very deadly bacterial infection called clostridium difficile (C.diff), inflammatory bowel disease (ie. Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis), and generally an improved resistance to common infections.

Other conditions currently being evaluated in clinical trials is a very long list. Some of the most exciting and promising include: H.Pylori infection, colic, diverticular colonic disease, Traveler’s diarrhea/bacterial enteritis, oral and respiratory tract, gingivitis, Dental cavities, ear infections, urinary tract infections, dermatitis, allergic rhinitis, ADD/ADHD, autism, and cholesterol and heart health to name just a few.

Get this: there are more bacteria in the human gut than there are cells of the body! When they are imbalanced, we are in trouble. Many situations predispose us to imbalance: C-Sections (underexposed to friendly bacteria through birth canal), antibiotic use (kills the bad but also the good), imbalanced diet too high in sugar and low in fiber (soluble and insoluble fiber).  The latter is key to identify and correct because soluble fiber is food for your probiotics and acts like fertilizer to soil.  We should be getting between 25-35 grams of fiber daily and we only get 50% of that on average. A good probiotic along with a prebiotic can help bring us back in balance.

A good probiotic also helps to establish a security system. Your guts are equipped with absorption sites called microvilli.  This is where your body absorbs nutrients from your diet necessary for life. But, the intestines are selectively permeable.  Certain things should get into your general circulation while other things should not.  The integrity and health of the intestinal villi is kept intact in part by the co-inhabitation of the friendly bacteria. When probiotics are deficient or when pathogenic or ‘bad’ bacteria disproportionately populate the intestines, your gut can become inflamed and essentially begin to “erode”.  This is the onset of an inflamed bowel. If this persists, the “security system” breaks down and a “leaky gut” ensues.  Things that should be eliminated otherwise “leak” into general circulation causing your immune system to be confused. This results in a general breakdown in health and can include symptoms such as (but not limited to) bloating, gas, cramps, food sensitivities, fatigue, aches and pains, emotional instability, and immune depression.

A good probiotic empowers the immune system. 80% of your immune system activity happens in your gut.  This is managed by the Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT).  Probiotics are part of the intestinal immune system but they interact with our primary and secondary defenses.  Probiotics help support a healthy body by helping to digest foods and acquire nutrients (like vit-B12, vit-D, and vit-K), encouraging immune system development. 

Just as there are multiple strains and species of harmful bacteria, and friendly probiotic bacteria are no exception. Bacteria are identified by a type of DNA fingerprint.

Specialized functions are attributed to specific bacteria and the category of a probiotic supplement is subdivided according to the strain and that is associated with a health outcome.  Let’s look at Lactobacillus as an example. The genus is Lactobacillus. A species that many are already familiar with is L. acidophilus. But there are many others such as L. reuteri, L. rhamnnosus, L. plantarum, L. casei, and L. brevis just to name a few. But the strain L. reuteri ATCC 55730 may work differently than the strain L. reuteri ATCC PTA 5289. It’s all in the research documented by the alphanumeric fingerprint.

When you supplement with probiotics, it is key to identify the amount or “colony forming units” (CFUs) that it contains. A general rule of thumb is the more the better. In fact, the World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live organisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit to the host”. This brings us to the third important defining feature of a good probiotic supplement: it must be alive or at the very least be able come back to life once ingested. This means a probiotic must be able to survive the harsh acidic environment of the digestive system and then the very alkaline juices of the first segment of the gut to multiply where they are needed to confer health benefits in the small and large intestines.

A good probiotic should have a clear suggested duration of use on the package. Many companies would like you to think that supplementing with them every day is necessary – and some research does suggest that is true for certain species.  Health experts however believe that this is more of an exception when dealing with conditions such as IBS or IBD.  Introducing appropriate strains and allowing them an opportunity to propagate – as in the case of post antibiotic supplementation – may only require 4-6 weeks of supplementation.

Canadian food and supplement manufacturers are obliged to list in any given probiotic-containing product the precise number of cells expected to be alive and active at the end of a product’s life. This is key. Keep in mind that a probiotic that is close to expire probably won’t hurt you, but it will likely do nothing for you.

In summary, a good probiotic has:

  1. a specific, measurable health benefit (defined by science specific to a strain / DNA fingerprint);
  2. a defined dosage regimens (usually in the tens of billions);
  3. the ability to survive passage through the digestive tract;
  4. a clear duration of use;
  5. shelf stability (CFU expected to remain alive by expiry date)

Many people ask if I have a favourite probiotic and although I use many that I like in clinical practice, here is where it is easy to be very specific. Innovite Health – a leading formulator of natural health products (that I’ve been using for over 15 years in clinical practice) specifically formulate probiotics using strains that have been proven safe and effective for intestinal and immune health. In their Ultra Strength Probiotic, they intelligently selected acid and bile resistant strains with the ability to effectively colonize the gut. They use excellent Lactobacillus strains including L. acidophilus DDS-1, L. plantarum, and L. salivarius for small intestine support along with a combination of four Bifidobacteria strains B. longum, B. lactis, B. bifidum and B. lactis HN019 for the large intestine. I have seen many of my patients return to optimal health on this probiotic.

If I haven’t given you enough reasons to consider adding probiotics to your health regime, here’s yet another: cold and flu season is right around the corner! Probiotics are known to fortify your immune system, and they can be effective in preventing and fighting the flu! Research has found that taking probiotics reduces duration of the common cold and flu by almost two days as well as reducing symptom severity. They are immune boosters by positively affecting the activity of white blood cells and immune cells including leukocytes, T-lymphocytes, monocytes that regulate the immune system. You’ve long heard me promote the benefits of ColdFx as a key part of an active, healthy lifestyle. That is because good health begins with a strong immune system. But, don’t wait until you feel a cold or flu coming on! Pro-activity is vital. Instead, take Innovite’s Ultra Strength Probiotic and ColdFx starting now as a daily routine to protect yourself this season.

And, now, you have the guts – and the immune system - to be healthy!