Probiotics - do you really need them?
Most of us have heard about the benefits of probiotics, and many of us, without fully understanding what they are or what they do, are happy to consume these friendly bacteria. The good news is that there has been a lot of research showing the benefits of probiotics, so kudos to you if you have been taking them. The bad news is that not all commercially available probiotics are created equal and some of them don’t make it to their final destination, and as a result, you might be throwing your money away.
The forgotten organ:
The bacteria that line your intestines and help you digest food are known as gut bacteria or intestinal flora. These bacteria are so crucial for human health that many scientists refer to the intestinal flora as the forgotten organ. During digestion, they make vitamins that are vital for life (vitamin K and some of the B vitamins), turn fibers into short-chain fats that stimulate the immune system, and make small molecules that benefit the brain. Our health depends on these bacteria so strongly that people with certain diseases often have a very different mix of bacteria in their intestines compared to healthier people.
What are Probiotics:
As defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization (FAO/WHO), probiotics are "live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host".
In other words, when these microorganisms are ingested they have a positive effect on the intestinal flora.
Probiotics may contain a variety of microorganisms. The most common are bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Other bacteria may also be used as probiotics, and so may yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii. Probiotics have shown promise for a variety of health purposes. For example, when people take antibiotics, especially for long periods of time, they disrupt the natural gut balance and allow harmful bacteria to thrive. This dysbiosis can manifest as frequent gas or bloating, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, and constipation. In addition, there is a lot of evidence supporting probiotic therapy for the treatment of infant colic, periodontal disease, ulcerative colitis, and much more (1). For the entire list of conditions for which probiotics have been studied click here (2). Other areas of potential use of probiotics include the prevention and treatment of diarrheal diseases in adults and children, prevention of vaginitis and urinary tract infection in adults, food allergy prevention, and antitumor action in the gut, bladder and cervix (3).
One of the roles of the stomach acid is to protect the body against bacterial pathogens that can be ingested with food or water. Hydrochloric acid is very strong and kills the majority of bacteria that get into the stomach each day. The question then is how, or, do probiotics survive this very acidic environment of pH of 1.5 to 3.
Not all probiotics are created equal:
If probiotics are to reach the small intestine so that they can colonize and do their job, they must survive the acidic gastric environment of the stomach. To avoid probiotics coming into direct contact with the stomach acid and being destroyed, some manufacturers use time-release technology. The basic idea is that the probiotics are kept in a capsule and once the capsule leaves the highly acidic environment of the stomach, the probiotics are released. Another technique is Enteric Coating. With this technique the capsule is coated with a special coating that allows the capsule to arrive to the small intestine with the probiotics intact. There are two possible problems with these techniques: first, the use of synthetic chemicals is involved to protect the probiotics, and second, there is the possibility that the coating does not get dissolved and the entire capsule makes it all the way to the colon and then expelled.
Another strategy to get those bacteria to their destination:
Because the pH in our stomach is always changing depending on the time of the day and the amount of food in the stomach, some manufactures take advantage of this and tell their consumers when to take their products. That’s why you see sometimes manufacturers recommending their probiotics to be taken with breakfast. The stomach acid is naturally at its weakest in the mornings, and with the addition of food, the effect of the acid is diluted even more. In fact, some studies show that most healthy people have a pH of 4 after having breakfast in the morning.
When we talk about probiotics we need to be more specific. Some strains are better than others in treating different health issues. Also, some strains can survive a more acidic environment than others. For example, the strain Rosell-52 from the species Acidophilus and the genus Lactobacillus, has been shown to be very effective in treating IBS - Irritable Bowel Syndrome (Benes, Z. et al., 2006). Also, this strain, Lactobacillus Acidophilus Rosell-52, has been shown to survive an acidic environment of as low as pH 3.
What about prebiotics?
If you are not trying to replace the probiotics recently killed by taking antibiotics, or heal yourself from a health issue, eating a healthy diet full of prebiotics might be all you need, as this will encourage the growth of good bacteria (probiotics) in the gut by providing them the food they like.
Prebiotics are the high fiber foods that your body can’t digest. As they pass through your digestive tract, they feed the probiotics living there. They are “food” meant to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Prebiotics are mainly carbohydrates that are present in vegetables and grains. Good source of prebiotics are: artichokes, spinach, leafy greens, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, apples, barley, oats, flaxseeds, legumes, and seaweed.
Something else to consider, especially if you get your vegetables from a farmer’s market or grow your own, are elevated biotics.(4) Anthony William coined the term “elevated biotics” to refer to the microscopic, life-giving organisms that cover the above-ground surfaces (leaves and skins) of raw, unwashed (or lightly rinsed) organic produce. This probiotic film that sits on top of organic vegetables and fruit that you may find in farmers market or in your own vegetable garden, can easily survive the digestive process. In addition, they can travel to the very end of the small intestine (ileum) where they are responsible for creating one of the most critical vitamins for the proper functioning of the body, vitamin B-12.
Again, if you are not trying to replace the probiotics that were killed by antibiotics, or heal yourself from a health issue, consider taking advantage of the powerful elevated biotics that sit on the leaf of the kale, on the skin of the apple, and on the fuzz of the peach, as a way to increase the variety and number of healthy bacteria.
TCM and probiotics:
Treating digestive issues through foods has been a Chinese and Asian tradition for many centuries. In fact, it was China that introduced sauerkraut to Western cultures in the 12th century. Many other probiotic-rich foods have a history in Asia; fermented cabbage (kimchi), soy (soy sauce and fermented soy beans) and miso have all been consumed for centuries for great digestive health.
In addition to using foods to treat digestive issues, TCM, throughout the years, has identified many acupuncture points and created several treatment protocols to address digestive issues. Although points around the digestive area and along the Stomach and Spleen channels are used to address the symptoms, stress-reducing points are always used to address the root cause as well. Several studies (5) indicate that most digestive issues are caused by stress, so by reducing stress and relaxing the mind, our digestive health begins to improve.