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How Effective Are Probiotics To Health

by | September 24, 2018

Gut health has become a really hot topic lately, not only with the general public but in the field of research as well, and with this comes the question of how effective are probiotics to health? Scientists and medical caregivers believe that the health of our gut is far more important that we initially thought or have been able to prove thus far. Many links have been discovered between poor gut health and innumerable health conditions.

What is gut health?

Our intestines are occupied by trillions of helpful bacteria and outnumber our own cells 3:1. These bacteria, called our own personal flora, help make vitamins, assist with digestion, stimulate the immune system, and even fight off harmful invaders. While every person has their own diverse combination of personal flora, disruptions in this balanced combination can lead to anything from mild to severe malnutrition, all the way through to serious, chronic illnesses.

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Our gut health can easily be disrupted

There are many things that can cause our personal flora to become imbalanced or to even become somewhat destroyed. The most common flora disruptor is prescription antibiotics and the overuse or misuse of them. The role of an antibiotic is to destroy bacteria, preferably harmful bacteria. However, good bacteria are the inevitable innocent bystanders. Radiation, chemotherapy, and other medications people take are also major contributors to the destruction of our good bacteria. Some others culprits include inflammation, emotional stress, lack of exercise, smoking, and over-sanitation.

Probiotics for the win?

Enter the world of probiotic supplementation. According to a 2012 survey by the National Institutes of Health, there are nearly 6 million people in the US alone that are taking probiotic supplements, with a revenue in the double-digit billions. This survey even showed that roughly 300,000 children are taking probiotics. Now 6 years later, these numbers are likely to be substantially higher.

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The belief in their powers

People believe, and many manufacturers and websites claim, that these probiotic supplements promote the growth of good bacteria, prevent and treat diarrhea, improve mental health, reduce allergies and eczema, promote heart health, help improve some bowel disorders, help lose belly fat, and even boost the immune system… All things that are linked to having a healthy gut flora.

The theory behind them

Probiotics generally contain more than one strain of bacteria and can range in number from 1 billion cells to more than 250 billion cells. There are two species of bacteria that are often used, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, and, less frequently, a yeast is used called Saccharomyces Boulardii. Since they are bacteria and our gut needs bacteria to be healthy, the theory that ingesting billions of cells of these healthy bacteria will be beneficial, makes logical sense.

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But do they actually work?

The truth of the matter is, there are just no completed studies that substantiate the many claims that are out there. The phenomenal sales and beliefs that people have about probiotics are all built on a foundation of a plausible and rational theory, but it is just that right now, a theory. However, there are some preliminary studies showing benefits in people with severe diarrhea.  While the medical and science communities do believe there are further potential benefits to consuming them, they also believe that more conclusive research is needed.

Can they be harmful?

Just like vitamin supplements, probiotics are not highly regulated in any country. Therefore, not all of them are of the same quality nor are they 100% safe. People who are generally in good health usually have little to no side effects, with mild cramping and gas being the most reported. However, there are documented cases of immunocompromised people having life threatening infections that have led to sepsis. This is because their already compromised system cannot handle the introduction of bacteria that their body is not used to.

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An interesting alternative

While each capsule of a probiotic will contain several different types of each bacterial species, there is no proof that, should they escape your stomach acid, your personal flora will contain that type. The implications of this means that your trillions of bacterial cells are likely to just gobble up the few million foreign bacterial cells you are feeding it, since those cells will not have an army of friends waiting to join their ranks. An interesting avenue of research for people with intestinal and bowel conditions as well as the immunocompromised is personalized medicine. Laboratorians would first determine which bacteria are present and how many and then create a probiotic tailored to that person’s individual flora needs. One such treatment that has resulted from this line of genius, is fecal implantation, yes, that means other people’s poop, inside you. Don’t be grossed out, it has helped many people.

As always, you should never take any type of supplement without first consulting with your medical care team.  

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