Probiotics, Bacteria, and Our Health

March 11, 2017 Updated: March 11, 2017

By Tyler

The human body is home to over 500 different strains of bacteria that serve specific functions. Bacteria of the same name may even function in different ways. We have yet to discover all the effects that probiotics—live bacteria and yeasts that are good for health—have on the body. However, we do know that the right strains, cultured and processed in the right way, offer the following six proven health benefits.

1. Probiotics Provide Energy

According to gastroenterologist Matthew Ciorba, up to 10 percent of our daily energy needs are provided through the process of fermentation by our gut flora. By breaking down the components of food that we are unable to digest (like fiber), bacteria in our gut allow us to assimilate fatty acids, sugars, and amino acids that we would not have access to otherwise.

2. Probiotics Are Anti-Inflammatory

An excess of oxygen radicals in the gastrointestinal tract is a potential cause of chronic disease. As these oxygen radicals accumulate in the intestinal tract, they can damage the intestinal lining and create a state of chronic inflammation. Some strains of bacteria have been found to limit the accumulation of free radicals in the intestinal tracts of rats by acting as antioxidants. The end products that gut bacteria produce, like the short-chain fatty acid butyrate, also have antioxidant properties that help to reduce inflammation and heal the intestinal wall.

3. Probiotics Resist Infection

The fermentation end product butyrate also supports regulatory T-cell functions in the gut and contributes to the integrity of the intestinal wall. This prevents infectious pathogens from getting in while our immune system eliminates them from the body. Probiotics also prevent pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli from being able to colonize our intestinal tract. They do this by out-competing bad bacteria for food, using acids to change the environment and creating anti-microbial substances that prevent the bad guys from thriving.

4. Probiotics Prevent Digestive Issues

We need bacteria to digest food. Probiotics help prevent digestive issues in many ways. They keep our intestinal wall from being oxidized by free radicals, by acting as antioxidants and triggering production of protective mucous. Probiotics also produce substances that give the intestinal wall what it needs to heal itself. Butyrate, for example, provides the components that the intestinal wall needs to form new cells, while providing energy for existing cells. Butyrate has also been found to increase intestinal motility, which helps prevent constipation.

(Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images)
Kimchi and sauerkraut are fermented vegetables that contain various probiotics. (Kim Jae-Hwan/AFP/Getty Images)

5. Probiotics Produce Vitamins

In addition to producing butyrate, probiotics have the capacity to synthesize seven different vitamins:

  • Vitamin B12, which is required for proper red blood cell formation, neurological function, and DNA synthesis
  • Vitamin B6, which is involved in more than 100 enzyme reactions, most to do with protein metabolism
  • Vitamin B5, which is needed to produce red blood cells, manufacture sex and stress-related hormones, synthesize cholesterol, and maintain a healthy digestive tract
  • Vitamin B3, which helps the body make various sex- and stress-related hormones, improve circulation, and suppress inflammation
  • Biotin, which metabolizes carbohydrates, fats, and amino acids and plays a role in preventing insulin resistance
  • Folate, which is essential for proper cell division
  • Vitamin K, which is required for the synthesis of proteins involved in blood clotting and bone formation

6. Probiotics Help with Fat Loss

A few studies suggest that specific Lactobacillus strains have an impact on body fat, weight, and metabolic disorders. For example, the regular ingestion of one Lactobacillus strain reduced fat mass gain, body weight, and waist-to-hip ratio in overweight subjects. This may be due to the link between leptin and probiotics. Leptin is a hormone secreted by fat cells that lets the brain know when we are full. Probiotics indirectly affect our leptin response by promoting a state of low inflammation and allowing us to get more nutrition out of every calorie we eat. This creates the perfect environment for fat loss.

Attack of the Antibiotics

Antibiotics are designed to kill a broad range of bacteria in an effort to fight off infection. Unfortunately, antibiotics also destroy over one-third of the bacteria in our gut. This causes rapid shifts in our intestinal microbiota (population of bacteria) that leaves us vulnerable to harmful bacteria.

Even if the harmful bacteria do not infect our system, our intestinal tract will still be compromised. Without a proper balance of beneficial flora, our intestinal tract will become inflamed and leaky, letting pathogens through. We will also lack vitamins K and B, which are normally produced by probiotics in the large intestine. This can lead to hormonal imbalance, a lack of energy, and an increased risk of disease.

With all these negative effects, it’s clear why antibiotic use is associated with a large number of health problems and increased susceptibility to infectious diseases. The health of our microbiota is essential for our health and well-being.

Even if you have taken antibiotics recently, you can begin to counteract their negative effects immediately. The bacteria in our gut adapt quickly to what we eat, according to M.P. Francino, a microbiologist at Stanford University. In an article in Frontiers in Microbiology, she explains that our microbiota is “capable of returning to a composition similar to the original one.” This means that food can be our medicine if we eat the right foods.

What Are the ‘Right’ Foods?

The “right” foods are probiotic, meaning they provide your gut with the beneficial bacteria it needs to thrive and therefore all sorts of health benefits previously mentioned.

Many experts agree that one of the best ways to get probiotics in your diet is by eating fermented vegetables. Kimchi, sauerkraut, and pickles are fermented vegetables that contain various probiotics. These probiotics are already working to digest your meal before you eat it, which makes nutrients within the food more available. This is especially beneficial for those with digestive issues. In one test, a serving of a few ounces of homemade sauerkraut was shown to have more probiotics than a full bottle of probiotic capsules.

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Probiotics, Bacteria, and Our HealthDIY: Fermented Foods

To ensure that you are eating the best fermented vegetables, check the label on the container. Look for the words “raw,” “unpasteurized,” and “naturally fermented.” Note that products from large national companies will likely be pasteurized in some way, so it’s worth checking out products from smaller, local businesses. Most of the probiotics are killed when the product is heated or pasteurized. Also, make sure there are no preservatives like sodium benzoate or sodium sulfite in the ingredients.

The best fermented vegetables are made using organic vegetables and unrefined salt. Herbs, spices, and seeds are added for more flavor and nutrition.

Non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, artichokes, kale, collards, spinach, and arugula come with plenty of fiber to feed your probiotics and nutrients to feed your body.

What About Yogurt?

 (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Conventional yogurt often lacks beneficial prebiotics and contains high amounts of sugar. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Dairy products are commonly promoted as an essential part of our diet, so probiotic-rich yogurt should be called a “superfood,” right? Some evidence says no. Many of the widespread health claims from the dairy industry, such as that dairy strengthens bones, have been increasingly challenged in recent years. Consuming dairy products has been linked to various cancers, especially prostate and breast cancer.

Conventional yogurt often lacks beneficial prebiotics and contains high amounts of sugar. Due to the state of the dairy industry and how yogurt is processed, even plain, unsweetened conventional yogurt is more likely to feed pathogens than to be a source of probiotics. Essentially, the research is conflicting, and the benefits of yogurt likely depend on the individual and the product. 

What About Supplements?

Scientific literature is riddled with uncertainty regarding the effectiveness of probiotic supplements. For example, a Canadian study in 2004 measured the viable organisms in 10 brands of probiotic preparations and none matched the amount on their labels. Eight brands had only 10 percent of the stated number of probiotics, and two of the brands had no viable probiotics at all.

“Most probiotic supplements are ineffectual for a multitude of reasons. It’s not just the probiotic count that matters; strain quality varies widely and are more often ineffectual,”said Michael Edwards, editor-in-chief of Organic Living Magazine. “Most probiotic supplements are a waste of money, and many actually feed Candida and other non-beneficial microflora.”

Even if these probiotic supplements contained all of the viable probiotics that they promised, there would still be no guarantee that the probiotics survive the journey to the intestinal tract.

First, probiotics must survive the environment they are exposed to when they are outside of the body. Once the probiotics are ingested, they must survive the extreme acidity of stomach acid and bile acids. One study found survival rates were 20 to 40 percent in selected probiotic strains.

Even when the probiotics make it to the intestinal tract, they have to attach to and colonize the intestinal wall. This is another aspect in consuming probiotics that is difficult to measure. Unfortunately, there is no way to guarantee that the probiotics in your sauerkraut, kimchi, or probiotic supplement will actually colonize your intestinal tract.

How to Make Probiotics Work for You

Even the best probiotic will do little to combat a poor diet. In fact, the best probiotic supplement is food. To improve your digestive health and receive all the benefits of probiotics, all you have to do is eat prebiotics and probiotics in the form of organic non-starchy vegetables and raw, unpasteurized fermented organic vegetables every day. With enough time on this diet without processed and refined foods, almost anyone can improve the health of their digestive system.