The author of Probiotics for Dummies examines the research to highlight a few lesser-known benefits of “good guy” bacteria that may just surprise you.
Probiotics are the “good” bacteria in your body. When Russian scientist Eli Metchnikoff discovered them in the early 20th century, he was exploring why Bulgarian peasants lived a long time. Although he attributed their long life to the fermented milk they drank (fermented food products contain probiotics), today these beneficial bacteria have become known primarily for treating digestive and urogenital issues.
But current probiotic research is delving into the fascinating connections between probiotics and our bodies in ways that go far beyond the more traditional uses for good bacteria, from brain development to aging to mood disorders. As the medical community’s understanding of probiotics expands, so does the potential for these beneficial bacteria. Here’s a look at some of the amazing—but lesser-known—powers of probiotics.
Probiotics Boost Your Immune System.
The bacteria in your gut play a critical role in immunity; in fact, 70% to 90% of your immune system is in your gastrointestinal tract. Good bacteria produce antimicrobial substances (enzymes or proteins) that inhibit or kill bad bacteria. They also produce mucin, a protein found in saliva and the mucosal linings of your GI tract that helps protect against friction and erosion, creating an unfavorable environment for bad bacteria. Probiotics also beat back bad bacteria using what is called the barrier effect. Basically, they compete for space and nutrients, which keeps bad bacteria from thriving.
Probiotics also strengthen your natural defenses. They cause anti-inflammatory responses in the GI epithelial cells (the cells that line the GI tract), which strengthens the gut barrier and prevents bad bacteria from entering the bloodstream. In addition, probiotics break down dietary sugars into short-chain fatty acids, which provide a major source of energy to epithelial cells to regenerate themselves.
Other immune system effects include increasing production of immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibodies, proteins that recognize and fight foreign invaders in your body and decrease the number of inflammatory mediators (molecules that immune cells release when you have an infection).
Probiotics May Prevent Allergies.
About one in five people in the world suffers from allergies, and that number continues to rise. Childhood asthma has been on a sharp increase in recent decades, with the incidence increasing 50% between 1980 and 2000. Your gut flora play a role in allergies because they maintain the lining of the digestive system, preventing foreign substances from entering the bloodstream. Several studies have found differences in the gut flora of people who have allergies and people who don’t. While studies regarding asthma and probiotics aren’t definitive and need more exploration, success has been found with probiotics and treating eczema. Bacteria studied include bifidobacteria and lactobacilli. In a Netherlands study, daily supplementation with probiotics prevented asthmalike symptoms in children with eczema. (It’s estimated that 40% of kids with eczema develop asthma later in childhood.)
Probiotics Fight Cavities.
In our mouths, a battle of good and evil is being waged all the time. Here, Streptococcus salivarus are the primary “good guys” and Streptococcus mutans are the “bad guys.” The good bacteria found in probiotics help to fight the bacteria that cause bad breath, plaque and cavities by simply overcrowding them. Interestingly, probiotics are now available in mint form, which include a patented blend of three strains of good bacteria that cause the bad guys to clump and stick to teeth, which makes it easy to brush, floss and rinse away.
Probiotics Promote Healthy Pregnancies.
Taking probiotics during pregnancy has been shown to have positive effects on both mother and baby.
Benefits for Mom:
• 18% less likely chance of delivering preterm
• Loss of baby weight sooner after delivery
• Less likely to develop central obesity, or belly fat
• 20% lower chance of developing gestational diabetes
Benefits for Baby:
• Lower risk of developing necrotizing enterocolitis,
or death of intestinal tissue
• 50% less likely to develop eczema
• Less likely to develop asthma
• A decreased chance of developing childhood obesity and diabetes
In addition, a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that infants who took probiotic-supplemented formula had a lower rate of colic and needed fewer antibiotics.
Did You Know?
Babies in the womb have no bacteria in their intestines. As they go through the birth canal, they swallow the mom’s bacteria and within days, those bacteria colonize the baby’s gut. Babies born via C-section have delayed colonization and may acquire more bacteria from the environment than from their mothers.
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Shekhar Challa, M.D., is a board-certified gastroenterologist, co-producer of the probiotic video game “Microwarriors: The Battle Within” and author of the new book Probiotics for Dummies. For more information, visit DrChalla.com.