“All diseases begin in the gut.” –Hippocrates
It’s incredible to realize that nearly 2,500 years ago Hippocrates knew what is becoming common knowledge today: That the gut plays a pivotal role in defining our health and well being.
Unfortunately, many factors in the modern lifestyle contribute to an unhealthy gut, which is one reason that obesity and diseases are so prevalent today.
In simple terms, the gut is populated by a wide variety of bacteria, which have either a beneficial or harmful effect on our health. High antibiotic use is the most obvious factor to negatively affect our gut health, but even the typical diet that is high in refined carbohydrates, junk foods, and processed meats will lead to the proliferation of unhealthy gut bacteria (1). Excessive stress and lack of exercise also appear to have a negative effect on the bacteria in the gut.
These harmful bacteria are pro-inflammatory, leading to the release of compounds that harm a range of factors in the body, including brain function, mood, metabolic health, immunity, physical performance, and energy balance. Beneficial bacteria, on the other hand, have powerful anti-inflammatory effects that are associated with better overall health.
One way to shift the composition of your gut bacteria is by increasing your consumption of probiotics—healthy strains of live bacteria. Probiotics are naturally occurring in fermented foods and can be consumed in supplement form. One thing you need to know is that although fermented foods like yogurt, kim chi, sauerkraut, and miso all contain active live cultures, the bacteria used for fermentation doesn’t necessarily have any health benefit. Rather, the bacteria used in fermentation are chosen expressly for the purpose of fermenting foods, not for improving human health.
Therefore, if you’re hoping to get your probiotics through food, you need to consume foods that contain probiotic strains that have a research-demonstrated benefit. For example, a 2010 study found that when overweight subjects consumed 7 oz. of fermented milk containing additional live bacteria for 12 weeks, they decreased belly fat by 4.6 percent and reduced body weight by 1.1 kg. A control group had no changes (2).
Scientists identify the following key points to success in this trial:
1) A specific bacterial strain called Lactobacillus Gasseri SBT2055 was used that survived digestion and reached the GI tract,
2) The bacterial strain had a positive impact on the colony of bacteria living in the gut, and
3) The bacteria positively affected energy balance and inflammatory status for a measurable reduction in body fat.
Alternatively, you can supplement with a probiotic that has research demonstrating its beneficial effects. This may be a good choice if you are targeting a specific health condition because top-quality probiotics contain a large dose of healthy bacteria (at least 1 billion live bacteria) that are formulated in way that allows them to establish themselves in the gut and thereby shift your bacterial makeup for the better.
Which brings us to the health benefits you can get from probiotic supplementation. What follows is a list of ten of the most compelling benefits you can get from probiotics, including specific details about strains to look for when sourcing healthy bacteria to add to your diet.
#1: Greater Immunity
Probiotics can give your immune system a lift while also inhibiting the growth of harmful gut bacteria. For instance, probiotic supplementation increases levels of immune cells such as IgA and natural killer cells (3). A recently published randomized trial found that well trained athletes who took a probiotic called Lactobacillus helveticus Lafti L10 had elevated levels of bacterial fighting anti-bodies (4). In simple terms this means the athletes first line of defense against different pathogens was enhanced, which should help prevent colds and other respiratory infections that are common in hardcharging athletes.
#2: Fewer Allergies
A robust immune response isn’t always appropriate in the body. Sometimes when the body is exposed to benign particles from our environment like pollen or dust, the immune system will overreact with an excessive immune response, which can be harmful. Beneficial bacteria can help the body manage this response and strike a balance between overreacting with an allergic reaction that is unnecessary (3).
#3: Counter Digestive Disorders
One of the most well researched benefits of probiotic use is to reduce the symptoms of digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and constipation. Probiotics are also indicated when taking antibiotics because these drugs are designed to wipe out all bacteria in the body including your protective gut bugs. When choosing a probiotic to reduce digestive problems, bifidobacterium, saccharomyces boulardii, and lactobacillus strains have been shown to be effective in studies (3).
#4: Increase Protein & Nutrient Absorption
The bacteria in your gut can communicate with the cells that line the intestinal wall and “tell” your intestine what to absorb into your bloodstream and what to prevent from passing into your body. The inflammatory bacteria in your gut can result in harmful pathogens getting through (which is called malabsorption), while nutrients from amino acids and other foodstuffs will be kept out.
Even something as simple as intense exercise can cause malabsorption. Improving the bacterial diversity and quantity is especially important for athletes who have higher nutrient needs for muscle and tissue repair following muscle damaging workouts (5).
#5: Greater Muscular Power
Research on how probiotics influence athletic performance is in the infant stages, but one study found that trained athletes who consumed the probiotic Bacillus coagulans GBI-30 (known commercially as Ganeden BC30) as part of a protein shake over 8 weeks of training showed a trend for increased vertical jump power (6). Researchers concluded that probiotic use may have a beneficial effect on power output and the development of lean muscle mass.
#6: Accelerate Recovery From Intense Training
Scientists speculated that the mechanism by which an improved bacterial population in the gut enhanced athleticism in the previous study is through better recovery. This was demonstrated in a second study that found that following a brutal leg workout, a group that supplemented with the Ganeden BC30 probiotic reported less soreness and reduced markers of muscle damage (7). Probiotic supplementation also allowed the athletes to maintain strength despite the hard training.
#7: Improve Metabolic Health
A 2015 meta analysis concluded that probiotic supplementation may improve glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, making it a useful treatment for the prevention of diabetes (8). For example, in a recent study of healthy subjects who were fed an unhealthy high-fat diet, the consumption of a fermented milk with added Lactobacillus Casi Shirota probiotics preserved metabolic health compared to a control group (9).
#8: Better Mood & Less Depression
The majority of the neurotransmitters that control mood and regulate cognition are produced in the gut. For example, serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in happiness, satisfaction, and relaxation, is produced almost entirely in the GI tract. This makes a healthy gut imperative in order to maintain a positive mood and avoid getting run down by the stress of daily life or intense training.
In a study of 40 patients with clinically diagnosed depression, those who took a combination of lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus casei, and bifidobacterium bifidum found significant reduction in depression as well as improvements in insulin health and glutathione, which is key marker of overall health (13). A second study found that petrochemical workers, who are likely to be exposed to high levels of inflammation-causing chemicals, demonstrated better mood and overall improved mental health after eating yogurt with probiotics added to it for 6 weeks (14).
#9: Lower Blood Pressure & Protect The Heart
A review of studies showed that probiotic supplementation can lower blood pressure, especially in people with hypertension (15). In order to experience benefits related to blood pressure, supplementation had to last at least 8 weeks and contain 10 million colony –forming units daily (15). Other studies show modest beneficial effects of probiotic supplementation on LDL cholesterol levels, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
#10: Avoid Cavities & Protect Your Teeth
Probiotics applied through toothpaste have been shown to inhibit plaque formation and lower the pH of saliva so that bad bacteria cannot act on your teeth. Probiotics also have an antioxidant effect in the mouth whereby they neutralize free electrons, which helps prevent bad breath (11, 12).
How Can You Get A Healthy Gut?
The first step is to eat a healthy, whole foods diet that contains plenty of vegetables, nuts, and fruits because these foods provide the fiber that feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. One study found that adults who ate almonds daily for 6 weeks had significant improvements in the intestinal bacteria profile because the “good” bacteria were able to use the prebiotic fiber in the almonds as food.
Second, reduce or eliminate intake of processed meat and refined foods. These foods lead to the proliferation of inflammatory “bad” bacteria that are harmful to health.
Third, consume foods that contain probiotic strains that have a research-demonstrated benefit. Just because a food is fermented with bacteria doesn’t mean that bacteria will survive the food production process or have measurable health benefits.
Fourth, supplement with a probiotic that is guaranteed through the date of expiration and has research demonstrating its beneficial effects. Additionally, you need a brand that includes a bare minimum 1 billion count of live bacteria. Many people will benefit from starting with a higher dose in the 25 to 50 billion-count range.
Finally, be consistent with supplementation and your pro-gut diet. It takes time for healthy gut flora to establish themselves and consistency is key for allowing you to see results.
For a more detailed list of things you can do for a healthy gut, including tips for choosing the right probiotic, check out this list of Ten Steps to A Healthy Microbiome.