Probiotics and Gut Health

May 1, 2008

By johnmac

In the natural health field, the phrase “death begins in the colon” is often heard. The health of the gut is critical to overall health and well being. This is due to the fact that a significant amount of the body’s immune cells are in the intestine; therefore a healthy intestine is key to a healthy immune system.

An important part of intestinal health is ensuring an adequate population of “good” bacteria or “probiotics” The word “probiotic” comes from the Greek work meaning “for life”. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”.

“Good” bacteria provide numerous health benefits, including:

promoting immune system health/function
supporting production of Vitamin K and certain B vitamins
supporting digestion and healthy bowel movements
supporting overall health of the gastro-intestinal tract
prevention and treatment of candida overgrowth and other yeast infections
“Bad” bacteria are pathogenic (e.g. disease causing) and have a negative effect on health. Most of these are transitory and may only cause problems when the balance of good versus bad bacteria is tipped in the bad direction. Maintaining the proper balance of good bacteria is one of the most important ways the body can protect itself from numerous pathogens.

The ideal ratio of good to bad bacteria is 85% to 15%. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the majority of the population – in fact, it is almost the exact opposite. Dysbiosis is the term used to describe the condition of microbial imbalances of the body.

Some common symptoms of dysbiosis include (1):

bloating, belching, burning, flatulence after meals
a sense of fullness after eating
diarrhea, constipation
rectal itching and/or chronic vaginal irritation
skin irritations such as post-adolescent acne and rosacea
chronic intestinal infections (e.g. parasites, yeast, bacteria)
undigested food in the stool or greasy stools
iron deficiency
While most of the above symptoms relate to digestive issues, there are a wide variety of symptoms, too numerous to mention, that may also be caused by an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. This is due to the fact that the toxic waste products of bad bacteria do not just stay in the gut. They get absorbed into the bloodstream and are then circulated throughout the body, placing a constant burden on the immune system.

While we typically develop a population of probiotics in our gut after birth (especially if we are breastfed), there are many ways that this population is destroyed. The most obvious is via antibiotics (the Greek word for “against life”). Antibiotics kill bacteria – and unfortunately, they do not distinguish between the good and the bad guys. This is why it is important to take probiotics for at least a month following a course of antibiotics.

In addition to antibiotics, other factors that can destroy probiotics include: a poor diet loaded with refined carbohydrates, excess acid, excess heat, excess stress, medications, pasteurization, antibiotics in animal-based foods and chemicals/additives in our food and water supply (including chlorine, which is added to most municipal water supplies to kill bacteria).

The good news is that there are ways to keep the balance of good to bad bacteria in check. This can be done through regular consumption of foods and/or supplements that provide live probiotic cultures.

Food sources of live probiotics include: yogurt containing live bacterial cultures (organic, plain, unsweetened yogurt is best), kefir, miso and lacto-fermented fruits and vegetables, such as raw sauerkraut and kimchi. It is easy to make many of your own lacto-fermented foods and beverages. A great source of recipes is the book “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig.

When choosing a probiotic supplement, keep in mind that certain strains of probiotics are more susceptible to damage than others. First they have to survive the manufacturing process and then the time and travel between being bottled in the manufacturing plant, being stocked in the store and then finally making it into the consumer’s hands. Once in the consumer’s hands, the potency of the product is decreased every time the bottle is opened and exposed to light and air. Next, the bacteria encounters the challenge of surviving stomach acid. Considering all of these factors, much of the bacterial count listed on the label doesn’t make it to the gut.

Another term often associated with probiotics is “prebiotics”. Prebiotics are substances which feed probiotics, thus promoting their survival and growth in the gut. A common prebiotic is fructo-oligosaccharide (FOS). FOS is a complex sugar derived from plants, that is added to some probiotic supplements. While most sugars are broken down by digestive juices, FOS is not. It travels on to the gut, where it is digested by probiotics, providing food for their proliferation.

Note that gas or bloating may be experienced with the introduction of probiotics as the gastrointestinal system adjusts to the change in its environment. It should not persist for more than a week or two (consult a nutritional practitioner otherwise).

A strain of bacteria which is currently receiving increased attention is Bacillus coagulans (sometimes referred to as Lactobacillus sporogenes). It is unique as it is in the form of a spore. Spore-forming bacteria are like seeds. They will remain dormant until they meet “ideal” conditions required for germination. For Bacillus coagulans, these ideal conditions are met in the gut. The spore’s protective outer coat allows the bacteria to survive the acidic environment of the stomach and travel on to the ideal environment of the intestines.

Another unique quality of Bacillus coagulans is that it produces a very specific type of non-dairy lactic acid. Not only is this of interest to those individuals looking for dairy- free products, but this type of lactic acid is considered to have the highest bioavailability and therefore health benefits for the body.

Other advantages of Bacillus coaguluns compared with other common probiotics include:

heat stable up to 50 degrees Celsius; therefore no refrigeration required. It is more likely to survive shipping and travel – making it portable and convenient – you can keep a bottle in your purse or briefcase
has very high lactic acid producing capabilities, which inhibits pathogen growth
the lactic acid produced is “right spinning lactic acid”, which eliminates the risk of metabolic acidosis – this is not the case for L. acidophilus (2)
has a high proliferation rate once it reaches the intestines
There are many good Bacillus coaguluns supplements on the market. A brand with the added benefit of FOS is available at the Vibrant Health Centre (3 Claremont Drive).

I hope this month’s tip has highlighted the importance of nurturing the population of beneficial bacteria in the gut. It is one of the basic foundations of promoting good health.

Nutregram, Summer 2007, IONC
Health and Nutrition Secrets that Can Save Your Life, Russell L. Blaylock, M.D., Health Press, Albuquerque NM, 2002
The Great Physician’s Rx: Seven Keys to Unlock your Health Potential, Jordan Rubin and David Remedios, M.D., Nelson Books, Nashville Tennessee, 2005
The All-In-One-Guide to Natural Remedies and Supplements, D. Marshall et al, Adi, Gaia, Esalen Publications Inc, Niagara Falls, NY, 2000
Alternatives, Volume 9, No.20, Dr. David Williams, 2003