Probiotics, also known as good bacteria or beneficial bacteria, are increasingly being cited for their ability to help relieve symptoms or prevent a number of common health problems. Now a new University of Michigan Health System study reveals how probiotics can benefit people with irritable bowel syndrome, just one of 8 reasons why you might want to try them.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria that live in the gut; that is, the intestinal tract. These good bacteria share space in the gut with disease-causing bacteria, and so it is critical to maintain a balance of these two types of microorganisms to support optimal health.
Diet (e.g., eating foods that contain good bacteria such as yogurt, kefir, miso, some milk and soy foods) and probiotic supplements are two ways to achieve and support that balance. Most probiotics are bacteria that you find naturally in the gut and mainly include species from two groups, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium.
When you support and nurture a balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, you have a better chance of not only maintaining overall health, but also fighting a variety of symptoms and diseases. Probiotics can help you do it.
Irritable bowel syndrome. If you suffer with irritable bowel syndrome, you probably already know that stress plays a big role in aggravating your symptoms. Although stress does not cause IBS, it does provoke inflammation in the intestinal tract, which in turn results in pain, diarrhea, and loss of appetite.
When you experience stress, it can suppress a substance called inflammasome, which helps maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract. According to the senior author of the Michigan study, gastroenterologist John Y. Kao, MD, “the effect of stress could be protected with probiotics which reversed the inhibition of the inflammasome,” a discovery that explains “why treating IBS patients with probiotics makes sense.”
Kao and his team made their discovery using a mouse model. In their study, mice with stress-induced IBS who were given probiotics experienced reduced inflammation.
Celiac disease. Use of probiotics and substances that support and nurture them, called prebiotics, may improve the lives of people with celiac disease. People with this autoimmune condition cannot tolerate a protein called gluten.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it causes a toxic reaction in the small intestine, resulting in inflammation and damage to the intestinal walls. Preliminary research suggests probiotics and prebiotics (nondigestible food fibers found in root vegetables, garlic, onions, and other foods) may benefit people with celiac disease.
Depression. How could good bacteria help depression? An international team of researchers have an answer. They found that mice given a probiotic (Lactobacillus rhamnosus JB-1) showed much fewer behaviors associated with depression, stress, and anxiety than mice given a placebo.
In fact, the mice given probiotics also had significantly lower levels of a stress-induced hormone called corticosterone. The brains of the treated mice also showed changes in activity of a neurotransmitter that is involved in anxiety and stress.
Diabetes and obesity. A number of studies have indicated that the bacteria in the gut have an impact on how the body acquires nutrients and regulates energy. In fact, some experts have suggested that modifying the bacteria in the gut may help in the treatment of obesity and diabetes.
One example is a report in Current Pharmaceutical Design. In it, the authors noted that their data indicated “that changing the gut microbiotia (with prebiotics and/or probiotics) may participate in the control of the development of metabolic diseases [diabetes is one] associated with obesity.”
Eczema. Several studies show that probiotics may help with eczema, an inflammatory skin condition that affects about 10 to 20 percent of infants and young children. In one study, 90 preschool children were given either placebo or probiotic supplements for two months.
Children in the probiotics group experienced significant relief from moderate to severe eczema. Another study found that daily supplements of probiotics (two strains of Bifidobacterium and one of Lactococcus) reduced the risk of eczema by 58 percent during the first two years of life.
Ulcers. A study in mice found that a probiotic strain called Bifidobacterium bifidum was nearly 95 percent effective against the bacteria (Helicobacter pylori) that cause gastric and duodenal ulcers. A recent study conducted in children with H. pylori gastritis and peptic ulcer disease showed probiotics to be effective in eradicating the infection.
Common cold. Use of probiotics has been found to have a modest positive effect on symptoms of the common cold. In the newest study, investigators reviewed 10 studies that included nearly 2,900 participants.
They found that use of probiotics had a “marginal effect…on the prevention of the common cold.” However, other studies have been more positive. For example, a study that involved 109 one-month-old infants found that those given daily doses of probiotics until they were 8 months old had significantly less respiratory infections when compared with infants in the placebo group.
Autism. Children with autism frequently experience gastrointestinal (GI) problems, and some parents are resorting to special diets and the use of probiotics to help. A study from Autism Speaks found that 17 percent of children with autism were on a special diet.
In addition, the researchers discovered that the children with GI issues were more likely than those without such problems to use gluten-free and casein-free diets and to take probiotics and digestive enzymes.
Probiotics offer potential benefits for a variety of symptoms and diseases. Although probiotic supplements are considered to be safe, you should always consult a knowledgeable healthcare provider before beginning supplementation so you can choose the best probiotics for your needs.
Ahmad K et al. Probiotics for the treatment of pediatric helicobacter pylori infection: a randomized double blind clinical trial. Iran Journal of Pediatrics 2013 Feb; 23(1): 79-84
Cani PD, Delzanne NM. The role of the gut microbiota in energy metabolism and metabolic disease. Current Pharmaceutical Design 2009; 15(13): 1546-58
Kang EJ et al. The effect of probiotics on prevention of common cold: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trial studies. Korean Journal of Family Medicine 2013 Jan; 34(1): 2-10
Sun Y et al. Stress-induced corticotropin-releasing hormone-mediated NLRPG inflammasome inhibition and transmissible enteritis in mice. Gastroenterology 2013 Mar 4.
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