By Dr. Natalie Bernicky, Health Columnist, http://thewedge.LIVE
Within the past few years we have seen the grocery market explode with products adding beneficial bacteria, commonly known as probiotics to our food. Yogurt, cereal, kefir, kombucha drinks, and baby food are being marketed at an increased cost, promising increased health benefits compared to their probiotic-free alternatives. People are flocking to the shelves to snap up these trendy natural health products, and one has to wonder what all the hype is about-and more importantly-is it worth the additional cost? To answer these questions, we must first look at the digestive tract, what probiotics are, and how they may benefit our health.
Our bodies are brilliant. We have a Central Nervous System (CNS-your brain and spinal cord), which controls your ability to adapt and function in an ever-changing world, and a “second brain” in your gut known as the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). The ENS operates independently of the CNS, sending messages directly to your brain through a nerve called the Vagus nerve. The ENS shares some important messengers with the brain, called neurotransmitters, such as: serotonin, acetylcholine and dopamine. Neurotransmitters help regulate our mood, brain health and function, and are an important part of balance within the body. The ENS contains some 500 million neurons, and its main function is to control the Gastro-Intestinal (GI) tract. The GI tract runs from your mouth to your anus, and is home to your microbiome, an ecosystem of microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, etc) in the gut which help us digest food, regulate the immune system, produce essential nutrients for life, and maintain balance between helpful and harmful bacteria both inside and outside of our bodies. Let’s examine how probiotics may impact this complex system.
Probiotics are defined as “live microorganisms administered in adequate amounts, which confer a beneficial physiological effect on the host.” People often supplement with probiotics to restore balance in the GI tract after a course of antibiotics, or digestive illness, but recent research suggests the benefits of supplementing with probiotics extends beyond the gut. Probiotics may help optimize our body in four different ways: competing with harmful bacteria for nutrients (leaving less nutrients for harmful bacteria to use), occupying receptor sites (preventing harmful bacteria from attaching to the gut lining and colonizing), promoting immune stimulation (signalling to the immune system that there is an intruder; targeting the harmful bacteria for destruction) and direct antagonism (targeting and killing the harmful bacteria directly).
Currently probiotics come in liquid, powder or capsule form, and are measured in colony-forming units (CFU’s). With so many options it’s easy to become confused about choosing a probiotic, as there are many different species, each having their own strengths and weaknesses. For this reason, the most robust probiotics are a combination of many different strains of probiotics.
Dr. Donald Gerken suggests the following five criteria to use when choosing a probiotic supplement: First, the name of the type of bacteria should be listed on the bottle in its proper Latin genus and species-for example Lactobacillus Acidophilus, or L. Acidophilus. The number of CFUs should be listed in billions, not millions, and the container should not make any far reaching claims of probiotics curing disease or healing symptoms like bloating or indigestion. Products making these claims are generally not based on current scientific evidence, or third party tested for quality assurance. However, claims to “enhance the bodies’ natural healing ability” or “restore intestinal flora balance” are acceptable. Probiotics should always be stored in the refrigerator, even before the package is opened to ensure that their quality has not been compromised by temperature fluctuations and moisture. Finally, the manufacturer should be a reputable, well known company specializing in quality probiotics.
When we look at products in the market claiming health benefits from added probiotics, we can see that a lot of them won’t meet even half of the criteria outlined above. Many companies do not do third party testing, so there is no way of knowing whether the added live cultures are still present in the same amount at the time of purchase. This is important for you as the consumer, because the amount present may be ineffective. The most reputable companies will have a quality guarantee posted on the bottle stating the number of CFUs present, and their expiration based on proper storage.
Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, a neuroscientist and medical doctor who devised the GAPs (Gut and psychology/Physiology) diet suggests that “The microbiota is the housekeeper for the digestive system”. As people we need to eat real food to best support our digestive housekeepers, and unfortunately a lot of us choose processed, synthetic foods which trick our taste buds into craving more of something that isn’t nourishing us, but depletes our system resulting in stress and chronic inflammation over time. Things like artificial dyes, sweeteners, preservatives and other additives in food will stress the immune system, offsetting the benefits of added probiotics.
True health comes from the seemingly small healthy choices that we make for ourselves every day, like eating real food to support a healthy, adaptive well-functioning body. If you are interested in supplementing with probiotics, the best option is to source quality products from a health professional or a natural health food store.
This was Dr. Natalie Bernicky’s first, exclusive story as Health Columnist for thewedge.LIVE . Stay-Tuned for more.
Dr. Natalie Bernicky, Chiropractor, Smiths Falls Family Chiropractic, Smiths Falls