Probiotics – All Natural Friend Or Scam?
Probotics are praised as the easily accessible cure for many affections, and in some measure they do hold the qualities attributed to them by their proponents. Science offers more and more evidence for their amazing properties, but this is not the only factor that contributes to their popularity. Probiotics sales increase each year and it seems like this one type of health supplements is here to stay, most likely because while they seem to be very effective, these organisms are also completely natural, and not only through their origin. Unlike plant extracts and other compounds commonly found in nature, probiotics are naturally found inside our bodies.
Their environmental requirements make probiotics look much safer than other complementary aids, because while “natural” is always considered a great trait when it comes to many products, nature is not always friendly. Some of the most deadly compounds are produced by nature without any extra help from our part, with some of them actually become beneficial once we modify their structure, and health supplement consumers are very aware of this fact. And since we host probiotics right from birth, they’re one type of completely natural product that we can trust. But unfortunately, many probiotic products are far from natural, and not in our advantage. Some artificial substances are able to speed the growth process but damage the qualities of the organisms, and this is a common problem with many of the foods available on the market today. Low quality modified foods are the reason why we look for the “natural” on labels and are willing to pay more for them, but while the probiotics themselves might lose their natural quality in the near future, interfering with nature might not be a wrong decision in this case. Because as much as we’re trying to avoid artificial products, changing the natural traits of organisms at a genetic level often times provides us with great benefits. But when it comes to probiotics in the form that they’re available to the public today, while the organisms themselves start out natural from a genetic point of view, combining them with artificial compounds ends up making many of the supplements useless. Probiotics are available in their natural state, but before discussing exactly what it can go wrong, let’s see what these organisms really are and why they are so important.
What Are Probiotics?
A probiotic is a strain of bacteria or yeast that thrives in the human body while providing it with various benefits. While simply thinking about bacteria makes most of us want to take a shower, we need it to safely adjust to our environment, which is naturally covered with these organisms. Bacteria can be found basically anywhere, and both animals and plants host it in high amounts. Humans hold an average of 3-5 pounds or bacteria, and because the individual organisms are extremely small, they outnumber the cells of the body by 10 fold. They’re impossible to avoid and that’s a great thing, because as we’ve evolved surrounded by these organisms they’ve become indispensable for our health. The human body has learned to use both friendly and harmful bacteria in it’s advantage, and a balance of the two types of organisms is what keeps our immune and digestive systems in good condition. But this balance is easily disrupted, if it was ever truly optimal in the first place.
Because while we make great hosts for many strains of bacteria (apparently between 500 and 1,000 individual species), these organisms are still foreign. We evolved surrounded by bacteria but are not born readily hosting it, and each individual needs to acquire and become used to them immediately after coming into the world. Bacteria is found mostly in the digestive system but also in the genital tract, and the first encounter with it takes place right at birth, by passing through the vagina. And because this area holds some of the most beneficial species of bacteria, it seems that being born through C-section comes with serious consequences. Some studies show that children who are not born naturally have a more difficult time adapting to bacteria later in life, a situation which might cause some very dangerous health problems, as they play an extremely important role in the immune system. But bacteria is acquired from many other sources, with some beneficial strains being found in soil. Apparently, keeping children away from dirt by trying to protect them might actually harm them in the long run, as our bodies get less and less used to these specific strains of bacteria and become unable to tolerate them although they would provide great benefits. Many probiotic supplements cause side effects in a large number of people, and some believe that this is caused by the nature of the bacteria. Many of the strains included in these products (with the intent of making them more efficient) are soil-based, and as we find it more difficult to host them, we can’t take advantage of their qualities.
This calls for in important distinction between different strains of probiotics. Some species (mostly in the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera) are found in our bodies in very large amounts because we are perfectly adapted to them as they are easily acquired right from the start of our lives. But the term “probiotic” also refers to beneficial strains that are more difficult to come by, even if we can safely host them. At the same time, some strains of probiotics are impossible to acquire without ingesting them from very specific sources, and of course, we can host them with no issues. And many strains of bacteria and yeast are considered probiotics simply because they don’t seem to cause negative effects, so trying to establish exactly what qualities make a probiotic becomes somewhat confusing. This is a problem especially when it comes to supplements and other products (as we’ll see later), but for the moment let’s see what bacteria can actually do for us.
How Do Probiotics Help Us?
While probiotics are commonly used for improving digestion, their most important role is actually played in the immune system. While both friendly and harmful bacteria strains are essential for the proper development of the immune system, probiotics should make for around 85% of the total amount. This trains the body to accept the helpful strains while not overreacting to the harmful ones, but once the balance is disrupted, the human organism will become vulnerable to infections. This is because while the probiotics help the body adjust to bacteria, they also fight germs on their own. Most of the bacteria that enters the body will end up in the intestine, which is also home the vast majority of probiotics. If their number is high enough, they’ll make the environment unsuitable for harmful bacteria, not only by not offering them enough space, but by secreting substances that are toxic to them. Many strains will be killed off, while other will simply not be allowed to multiply. At the same time, instead of being repelled by probiotics, some germs attach to them, being forced to stay in the intestine and becoming unable to spread to the rest of the body.
Many scientific studies (although some of them are disputed), have shown that certain strains of probiotics (mostly found in the Lactobacillus genus) are able to fight harmful bacteria and viruses and relieve the symptoms in those already affected. They seem to be more efficient in treating the disorders of the digestive system (most likely because the vast majority of studies have been performed in the purpose of proving their qualities in this area), but they’re able to keep away many different affections simply by maintaining the immune system in optimal condition. And it’s only natural for research to be focused on their effects over the intestinal tract, since here is where they caught attention in the first place. They’re essential for healthy digestion, as not only do they help in breaking down foods, which in turn provides the body with nutrients, but produce some vitamins that are essential for health while in the process of doing so. But while probiotics are great at treating intestinal issues like cramps, bloating, diarrhea, constipation and many other unpleasant conditions, and are very helpful in preventing dangerous infections of other areas of the body, they are never a good treatment for critical illnesses or for minor issues in those who are also affected by immune disorders.
In these cases, the immune system is so low that the probiotics can no longer help it, but only cause further damage to the body. This is one of the disadvantages of them being completely natural, as they’ll act like any other type of bacteria, multiplying and possibly spreading where they shouldn’t. They’re not actually able to cause diseases themselves, but the body will react to them like in the case of pathogenic bacteria, which means that they’ll still cause infections. In very ill individuals this could even lead to extreme complications, and death cases caused by the otherwise harmless Lactobacillus have been reported in people of all ages. Of course, the patients were already in critical condition, and the infection only hurried the unfortunate process. Healthy individuals have nothing to worry about, but these situations are proof that altering these organisms in our benefit might not be such a bad idea.
Genetic engineering performed on bacteria is nothing new, and while some specialists oppose it, scientists might be able to create strains that are not only more helpful, but less dangerous in critical situations. Given that the study of probiotics is still an emerging field, it’s understandable why many would be concerned about the potential effects of modified organisms. But studies performed on engineered strains are already starting to provide great results, and it seems like this would be the next step in turning probiotics into a real form of medical treatment. And it wouldn’t be extremely difficult either, given that microorganisms naturally exchange genetic material on their own. This is why we have to confront with new pathogenic strains of bacteria and viruses on a constant basis, and using this amazing trait against them might offer us more protection than ever before. Right now, while the natural probiotics look very promising, many of the studies performed on them are still under discussion and they don’t seem potent enough for the FDA to evaluate them. Friendly bacteria is classified as a health supplement/food and doesn’t have to officially meet any requirements to be available for sale, no matter if it’s in supplement form or added to foods and drinks. But this might not only be caused by it’s qualities, but also by the fact that it’s naturally found in many foods, many of them easy to make at home.
Where To Find Probiotics?
The most natural method of increasing the amount of probiotics is simply eating more fermented foods. They’ve always been a part of our diet, and many of us are not even aware of their qualities. Foods like sour pickles and sourkraut are great sources of probiotics, like all fermented vegetables.
Dairy products are the most appreciated source of friendly bacteria, but many of them won’t help if they’ve been pasteurized without receiving an extra amount of probiotics. This process will kill the beneficial bacteria, and although yogurt in particular is regarded as the best probiotic food, it will provide no benefits from this point of view if it’s not formulated like a probiotic product. Another product that is assumed to be probiotic is kefir, a dairy beverage fermented with some very specific types of bacteria and yeasts. It seems able to help in lactose intolerance, but not much proof for the qualities of the particular strains used in manufacturing it is available at this time.
On the other hand, soy milk with added bacteria is good source of real probiotics, especially for those who don’t like or choose not to consume dairy. But the disadvantage of these products, although they’re completely natural, is the CFU (colony forming unit) count. The number of organisms contained at any given time is almost impossible to estimate, and might not be enough to help with health disorders or work as a preventive measure. But supplements are able to do just that, and would be the best choice for someone that’s looking for a real and fast improvement of their digestive process.
The Probiotic Supplements
Given how popular prebiotics have become in the past years, it’s no surprise that we now have hundreds of brands to choose from, with new ones being constantly released on the market. But they’re certainly not the same, and some of them shouldn’t even be labeled as probiotics. This issue is caused by the FDA not regulating the production of these supplements, some of which might not contain live probiotics at all. To stay alive, the organisms must be preserved in very specific conditions, and even so, their numbers will start to decrease shortly after production. This is not a problem with the supplements produced and packed in best environment (where the number of live organisms will drop very slowly), but other products will only offer live cultures at the time of the packaging. And even if they do stay alive, the quality of the organisms might be compromised by combining them with substances that might harm both them and the processes in which they’ll be involved once ingested. Most supplements contain not only probiotics but also a compound that will feed and preserve them, and if this substance doesn’t have the qualities needed and is not completely natural (organic), the entire product becomes ineffective. And since FDA doesn’t have label requirements for probiotics, these ingredients don’t even have to be disclosed by the manufacturer, while at the same time nothing stops them from labeling the product as natural since the probiotics themselves are not genetically modified and the other ingredients, usually of dairy or vegetal origin, come from plants or animals. But these organisms can be and are commonly modified, and not to improve their qualities but only to grow faster, with many dangerous substances available for ingestion in their by-products, which are later combined with probiotics. And even if the product stays completely natural, it’s not certain if it’s an actual probiotic if it doesn’t meet all the requirements established by specialists.
Besides being natural and alive at the time of consumption, if it’s truly worthy of it’s name a probiotic supplement must contain the specific strains that have been proven as beneficial. Many manufacturers include countless strains in their products, with their only known quality being their complete safety in the human body. As we’ve mentioned before, the term “probiotic” is used for almost any type of harmless bacteria, and many supplements will include them just to impress through the number of strains. This doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily not helpful, because variety will help the intestinal flora, but consumers shouldn’t have to purchase products that “might” help them. Many strains have been intensively tested and are known to work, and only these (mostly found in the Lactobacillus and Bifidibacterium genera) will guarantee that the customers are getting their money’s worth, especially if they’re looking to fix a bothering digestive disorder and are not interested in experimenting. And it doesn’t help that yeasts are also considered probiotics even if only one strain, S. boulardii, has been proven as helpful in digestion and beneficial for the immune system. One strain was enough for manufacturers to start including a long list of different species in their products, and how much they actually help is anyone’s guess.
Finding A Quality Probiotic Supplement
Probiotic supplements have to meet so many criteria to be considered as possibly effective and are available from so many companies that consumers can choose a product that won’t help at all simply because they don’t have the time to analyze all it’s properties. But the process becomes much more simple by taking into consideration 4 traits that are readily available on the label: the specific strains, the CFU count, the additives and the certification.
In regard to the specific strains, it would be best if the supplement contained a combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, and perhaps S. boulardii. No other strains are needed for the product to work as expected, and some of the species found in these genera are so potent that they will work without any additional help. Some of the best supplements contain a single bacteria strain, so a short list of ingredients doesn’t necessarily reflect on the quality of the product, just like a long list doesn’t make it effective by default. Potential buyers should be very careful when choosing supplements with an extreme number of ingredients, because they might try to compensate quality through quantity. And the same is the case with the CFU count, which can vary between 1 and 200 billion. A higher amount of organisms should be expected to work faster, but not when they’re ineffective from the get go. Besides, a low count is ideal for a person that is new to probiotics and doesn’t yet know how will their body react to the extra organisms. A low amount might be enough to cure some conditions, so there’s no reason to start with the highest CFU count supplements.
When it comes to the extra ingredients, a quality probiotic supplement will only include sources of prebiotics, digestive enzymes, and other compounds that will benefit the probiotics and their host. Prebiotics (soluble and insoluble fiber) are found in fruits and vegetable, so plant extracts are always a great addition to probiotics. Vitamin C will also help, but none of the qualities we mentioned won’t matter if the product is not certified as organic and free of genetically modified organisms. While lacking certification doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is not natural, having it is clear proof that it will provide the expected benefits. Still, if a supplement gets your attention despite not meeting all the criteria, checking what other users have to say would be the way to make your decision. If the company has experience in the field and the customers are satisfied with the results, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it. In the end, the proven effects are what matters most, even if the product doesn’t look perfect.