In our germ-obsessed world, we often perceive bacteria as the enemy—and we have the antibacterial soaps, hand wipes and cleaning products to prove it. Although some bacteria may be harmful or even deadly, we couldn’t live without the good bacteria that hitchhike their way through the world in our bodies. These hitchhikers, known as probiotics, are the beneficial bacteria found in fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut. Most well-known for promoting good digestion, probiotics are proving beneficial to our health in more ways than one. From reducing allergy-related symptoms to decreasing the precursors of brain diseases, exciting new research shows that probiotics may help a lot more than just bowel health.
The Pros of Probiotics
Of the many strains of probiotic bacteria, those showing the most promise include Lactobacillus strains such as acidophilus, brevis, casei, plantarum, reuteri and rhamnosus, along with Bifidobacteria lactis and bifiform. These names may sound like a foreign language, but most can be found easily in fermented foods and supplements. (See “Shopping Tips” later in this article.) Here are 13 ways probiotics may help boost health.
1. Assist with weight loss. Many strains of probiotics may be beneficial to weight-loss efforts, but the Lactobacillus strains are particularly valuable. They have been found to stabilize blood sugar levels, which may result in reduced cravings and less fat-storage hormones. Probiotics even show promise in the prevention and treatment of obesity and metabolic disorders, according to the journal Internal and Emergency Medicine.
2. Treat infections. Probiotics can be used to prevent or treat upper respiratory tract and ear infections, according to research published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology. The research discovered that probiotics compete with harmful disease-causing microbes for nutrients, space and even attachment to their human hosts. As a result, the probiotics can thrive at the expense of the infectious microbes.
3. Treat ulcers and gastritis. The bacterium Helicobacter pylori has been linked with ulcers and gastritis, which is an inflammation, irritation or erosion of the stomach lining. Russian researchers found that adding the probiotic bifiform improved the efficacy of a standard anti-Helicobacter therapy and is therefore a promising treatment for these illnesses. In their research, probiotics also demonstrated antibacterial action and enhanced the body’s own immune response against H. pylori.
4. Improve symptoms of depression. Researchers in Hungary noted that recent studies have shown a frequent association between depression and gastrointestinal inflammation (and other diseases related to inflammation). Studies have shown that treating gastrointestinal inflammation with probiotics, along with vitamins B and D and omega-3 fatty acids, may help reduce depressive symptoms.
5. Improve energy and sugar metabolism. Exciting new research published in the journal Gut Microbes found that probiotics may help improve the energy balance of the body while also improving its ability to use glucose (sugar) for energy. Because the use of glucose for energy is impaired in patients with diabetes, this research shows probiotics may have promise as a possible treatment for the disease.
6. Reduce sinusitis and nasal congestion linked to allergies. The probiotic L. casei may exert an anti-allergic effect by delaying the onset of allergic symptoms, according to scientists at the Osaka University School of Medicine.
7. Fight the herpes virus. Scientists at Sapienza University in Rome found the probiotic L. brevis shows significant antiviral activity against the herpes simplex type 2 virus. They published their findings in the journal Anaerobe.
8. Reduce inflammation. The Gut Microbes study also found that probiotics can help reduce inflammation. Because many diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and arthritis have been linked to chronic inflammation, probiotics may offer protection against these serious conditions.
9. Treat celiac disease. Celiac disease is a misdirected immune response triggered by gluten. The probiotic L. casei can be helpful in restoring normal microbe balance and intestinal lining structure in mice, according to Scandinavian studies. Their preliminary research may offer hope to celiac sufferers if results are similar in humans.
10. Improve symptoms of colitis. Colitis is inflammation of the large intestine. Scientists at the University of British Columbia, Canada, indicate that probiotics along with antibiotic drugs are an effective treatment of recurrent diarrhea linked to colitis associated with infection by the bacterium Clostridium difficile.
11. Improve joint function. In a study of 30 rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, published in the Medical Science Monitor, scientists at the University of Western Ontario, Canada, noted joint function improvement in those who took L. rhamnosus and L. reuteri compared with those given placebos.
12. Improve breast milk nutrition. Researchers at Finland’s University of Turku found that nursing women who supplemented with L. rhamnosus and B. lactis produced breast milk of higher nutritional quality than women in the control group who received a placebo.
13. Treat neurological disease. Free radical damage has been linked to brain and nerve diseases. L. plantarum was shown to reduce chemicals linked with free radical damage—the same chemicals that are elevated in many brain and nerve disorders—by 37 percent, according to researchers in Europe.
• Choose supplements with labels designating the full probiotic name: genus, species and strain.
• Choose no-sugar-added yogurt that says “live culture” on the label. These yogurts may contain a few strains of probiotics.
• Choose unpasteurized, unheated fermented foods such as miso, sauerkraut and kimchi. Heating can damage or destroy probiotics.
• Visit The Probiotic Miracle to learn more about probiotics.
Michelle Schoffro Cook, Ph.D. is the international best-selling author of 60 Seconds to Slim and Weekend Wonder Detox, as well as the upcoming book on the benefits of probiotics, The Probiotic Miracle.