The Biggest Myth Regarding Probiotics

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You’re on your couch, enjoying the Bachelor in your PJ’s, until another advertisement comes on.  You’re barely paying attention, but you notice there’s a woman on there that seems quite happy about her newfound digestive health.

This ad is for probiotics and is touting all the digestive and immune benefits of them.  The happy woman on the commercial explains that the probiotics have increased the number of beneficial bacteria and that she feels amazing because of it.

There’s a problem with that… it’s only a half truth.

Studies show that probiotics do not increase the number of good bacteria in the gut.  They provide lots of really awesome benefits, but not any kind of quantitative change.

Here’s what your probiotics can do and why they should be a part of your supplement regimen.

Decrease Systemic Inflammation

Chronic stress and poor diet have been implicated in the development of tight junction dysregulation in the gut.  This is also known as “leaky gut” or “leaky gut syndrome.”

The function of these tight junctions is to regulate the passage of molecules across the gut barrier.  The problem occurs when they are not doing their job; large particles make their way across the gut barrier and incite an immune response that results in local and systemic inflammation.

It is thought that probiotics help resolve this tight junction dysfunction by negating the source of pro-inflammatory stimuli and increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids, which sooth and heal the gut lining.

Probiotics and their secreted metabolites directly regulate some key pro-inflammatory pathways.

They also stimulate the differentiation of immune cells, effectively increasing the number of anti-inflammatory cytokines like interleukin-10 (IL-10) and transforming growth factor – beta (TGF-β).

Through these various mechanisms, significant improvements to the tight junctions and decreases in local inflammation of the gut can be seen in those taking probiotics.

Set the Stage for Beneficial Bacteria

This is where the myth that probiotics increase the number of good bacteria in your gut stems from.

Probiotics excrete anti-bacterial peptides that seem to selectively kill and inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria in the gut.

Getting rid of these bad bacteria effectively makes room for the good bacteria to flourish.

Now, you might be saying, “You just said it didn’t increase the number of good bacteria!”

You’re right, I did.

The probiotics in and of themselves do not increase the number of beneficial bacteria, the probiotics work transiently, providing an environment in which the beneficial bacteria can grow.

It is imperative that the beneficial bacteria have plenty of fermentable fiber in order to flourish.

Give Your Immune System a Tune Up

Over 70% of your immune system is found in the gut, with lymph nodes found throughout the small intestine.

Probiotics have been shown in mice, to decrease infections by viruses and improved survival rates for those that did get sick.

Human models have shown similar results.  A study out of New Zealand showed that healthy individuals that took probiotics for four weeks were less likely to contract the common cold.  The ones that took the probiotics even demonstrated a shortened duration of their cold when they did contract it.

These benefits seem to be derived from the decrease inflammation of the gut lining and the killing off of harmful bacteria.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

If you’ve been told that you’re deficient in beneficial bacteria and that you need to increase the number of these beneficial bacteria, a combination of probiotics and a variety of prebiotics (like those discussed here, here, and here) is likely to produce the best results.

Prebiotics increase what’s already there and probiotics improve and regulate what’s already there.

A review of the different types of probiotics is beyond the scope of this article, but soil-based organisms, like those found in Prescript Assist probiotics, provide great benefit and are usually well tolerated.  Start with 1 capsule by mouth daily for 2 weeks, then increase to 1 capsule by mouth twice daily for therapeutic use or stay at once a day for maintenance use.

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