By now, we have all heard about the beneficial effects probiotics bring to one’s gastrointestinal health. After all, they are present in almost every yogurt commercial and nutritional blog post, right?
But you might be surprised to hear why probiotics aren’t just for digestive health and that this positive influence is just the tip of the health iceberg for these small intestinal microorganisms.
Probiotics – what are they and how do they work?
Probiotics or ‘pro-life’ bacteria are good or friendly microorganisms that can be found all throughout the gastrointestinal tract, as well as within the urinary and vaginal systems.
Their main function is to promote correct digestive patterns, nutrient assimilation, and bowel motility. Food processing begins at the level of the mouth, where probiotics like Lactobacillus salivarius and Lactobacillus reuteri actively contribute to nutrient decomposition.
Nevertheless, the most substantial part of digestion occurs within the stomach, small intestine, and colon: once food reaches these environments, permanent colonies of the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus type start boosting the production of gastric acids, hence breaking down complex substances into simpler and easier to assimilate ones through complex fermentation activities.
Unfortunately, illnesses, bad eating habits, and stress can negatively impact the wellbeing of your internal microflora and generate episodes of indigestion or even more severe gastrointestinal issues such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease.
Symptoms of an incomplete or faulty intestinal microbiota include anything from bloating, gas, and nausea to irregular bowel movement (diarrhea or constipation), abdominal cramps, and general discomfort.
If prolonged in duration and intensity, this sensation of gastrointestinal uneasiness can translate into decreased energy levels, affected productivity, and even mood swings and mental disorders.
The upside is that, nowadays, probiotics can be supplemented through a vast array of foods and dietary enhancers so that you can regain your internal balance fairly easily.
For example, ‘natural’ sources of good bacteria are dairy products (soft cheeses, buttermilk, kefir, plain yogurt, etc.) and fermented vegetables (sauerkraut, olives, brine pickles or other combinations of veggies and legumes, etc.).
Probiotics are an organic part of the fermentation process in both these cases, so their transition within the gut can be simply done by including such products into your day-to-day meals.
If your eating regime, health condition or allergy sensitiveness do not allow you to consume these foods, then there is always the option of good quality supplements that contain live cultures of probiotics.
From pills and liquid drops to powders and tablets, these dietary enhancers can be acquired in various strain combinations and potencies (colony-forming units or CFUs count) for an improved abdominal comfort.
The benefits of probiotics
The benefits of probiotics definitely extend past the gastrointestinal system inside the entire organism, as follows:
It’s safe to say that nobody likes being sick under any circumstance, whether it’s a minor inconvenience or a downright debilitating issue. So how do probiotics come into play in this case?
As previously mentioned, the etymology for the word ‘probiotic’ roughly translates to ‘for-life’ – as opposed to ‘antibiotic’, which designates the antimicrobial drugs most often employed in treating serious infections within the body.
Even so, probiotics can act towards inhibiting the formation of pathogen and yeast overgrowths through their antiseptic and germicidal action.
Most pathogens enter the human organism via the oral cavity (airborne or ingested), with probiotics from the mouth (saliva), throat, and nose becoming the first line of protection against these ‘bad’ bacteria.
Lactobacillus salivarius, Lactobacillus reuteri, and Streptococcus salivarius exhibit increased bactericidal properties that maintain dental health, eliminate halitosis (bad breath), and boost immunity at the same time.
Although not many people are aware of this, approximately 60%-70% of an individual’s immune screening can be found at the level of the gut.
This makes perfect sense because the gastrointestinal tract is where a high concentration of probiotic colonies can be found on a regular basis, with any microbes or viruses that have ‘escaped’ previous screenings being stopped at this point from expanding into more serious health threats.
‘Friendly’ bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum increase the production of lactic and acetic acids within the stomach, which doubles the antimicrobial effects of the probiotics themselves.
As studies have confirmed, people exhibiting normal microflora levels experienced far fewer instances of Escherichia coli (E. coli) infections, gut inflammation, and diarrhea episodes.
Moreover, probiotics come in handy after prolonged antibiotic treatments to restore internal colonies and protect the organism against other potential infections.
You see, the problem with ‘traditional’ antibiotics is that they do not differentiate between the bacteria that they are killing, which therefore implies that both the pathogens and your ‘friendly’ gut cultures are eliminated at the same time.
Unless ‘friendly’ microorganism supplementation is created, the body remains more vulnerable to future illnesses in the post-infection timeframe.
- Urinary and vaginal systems
The urinary and vaginal systems each contain a sensitive microflora that is susceptible to all sorts of pathogen infections throughout an individual’s lifetime. Luckily, having a rich local microflora – in particular, of the Lactobacillus genus – can suppress urogenital disorders, as well as maintain local welfare within optimal levels.
The most common ‘culprit’ for renal disorders is Escherichia coli, a bacterium which otherwise cohabits ‘peacefully’ alongside other microbiota components within the GI system, but which becomes dangerous when it develops overgrowths alongside the bladder, kidney and urethral lining. Other harmful pathogens that cause renal dysfunctions are Clostridium difficile and Staphylococcus aureus.
UTIs (urinary tract infections) are the most frequent outcome of these pathogenic infestations and they manifest themselves via symptoms such as painful urination, pelvic pain, nausea, and vomiting.
The generic treatment in these cases is the administration of antibiotics, which we already know affect both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ microorganisms in your body.
Similarly, harmful yeasts and fungi of the Candida albicans type have the tendency to overdevelop within the vaginal tract and lead to itching, soreness, irregular discharge, and discomfort in that particular area; natural remedies and over-the-counter medicines are most often used to eliminate this issue.
Even so, as both drugs and pathogen resistance continues to grow among the world’s population, the use of probiotics in order to both prevent and treat UTIs/vaginal infections is becoming a more and more common practice.
Studies have shown that Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus plantarum, and Lactobacillus reuteri have the dual advantage of suppressing ‘bad’ microorganisms without damaging other probiotic colonies (like antibiotics do).
This is done by producing ‘mucin’, a substance that actually prevents the pathogens from adhering to the vaginal or urinary lining in the first place.
- Anxiety and depression
Lots of people suffer from anxiety and/or depression. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older every year. Nearly half of those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder also suffer from depression. Many people use treatments like therapy, medications or CBD oil to try and alleviate symptoms of both.
Did you ever experience a mood swing so severe that it made your stomach churn? Conversely, have you ever experienced intestinal problems so discomforting that you couldn’t even concentrate on easy tasks?
If so, then you have experienced firsthand the close connection shared by your brain and digestive tract – although not in the most pleasant form it can take.
Technically, the link between probiotics and mental health is most clearly showcased by the ‘gut-brain axis’, namely the direct connection between intestinal microflora and psychological wellbeing.
The vagus nerve (which automatically controls the lungs, heart, and digestive tract) is the most sensitive to gastrointestinal changes such as inflammation and bacterial imbalances.
As a consequence, chronic gastrointestinal issues like IBS and Crohn’s disease often have a negative influence on mood stability and can either lead to or worsen psychological disturbances corresponding to anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), etc.
Because the endocrine system (adrenal glands, ovaries, hypothalamus, etc.) is also a part of the brain-gut axis, probiotic fluctuations also influence a person’s internal chemical balance, their ability to cope with stress, and their predisposition towards developing long-term mental disturbances.
More recent studies have officially acknowledged the delicate, yet crucial relationship between the gastrointestinal tract and neurological system.
For instance, Lactobacillus rhamnosus supplementation has been shown to regulate behaviour responses in terms of anxiety and depression, while stable colonies of Bifidobacterium probiotics improved learning, memory, and anxious responses to different stimuli.
Other mood variations like bipolarity disorder also benefit from the action of probiotics, since the latter have been known to regulate cortisol readings (the ‘stress’ hormone).
Additionally, women who struggle with PMS (Premenstrual Syndrome) or PMDD (Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder) are equally encouraged to use probiotic administration in order to alleviate their symptoms and try to regulate hormonal variations normally associated with these conditions.
- Oral hygiene
We mentioned before that probiotics can be encountered not only within the lower GI tract, but also within the oral cavity, esophagus, and nasal passage.
Their presence in these environments is owed in equal parts to their digestive properties (they enable facilitated food decomposition) and antiseptic action against all sorts of pathogens. The result is generally better oral health, reduced occurrences of cavities, and fewer episodes of halitosis (bad breath). You can keep on top of your oral health by booking in regular check-ups with Dentist Land O’ Lakes or your closest dentist.
Because minute remnants of food tend to stick in between teeth crevices, the potential of fermentation and active tooth decay is increasingly higher in the absence of correct oral hygiene (brushing your teeth at least two times a day, flossing, etc.). Visiting the dentist, for whatever your issue is could be beneficial when it comes to improving your oral hygiene. It is always best to visit your dentist regularly, as they could help you prevent tooth decay for example. Saying this though, if you’re looking to speak to them about getting dentures, it may be worth doing some research to learn about a dentures near me, just so you have a better understanding of what this will involve even before you visit the dentist. Soon enough, you’ll have a smile that you can be proud of!
The fact that modern products are filled to the brim with preservatives, additives, and refined sugars does not help either, since these substances cause the most damage to both teeth and gums when they remain within the buccal cavity for extended periods of time. Gum disease is more common than you think and you should seek gum disease treatment immediately if you have any signs of disease of decay.
Even our efforts towards meliorated oral health can prove to be detrimental: take, for instance, mouth washes that contain alcohol, which tend to destroy local probiotic colonies and therefore enable pathogen passage and dental problems to emerge.
Striving towards probiotic supplementation in this area of the organism can yield positive effects in the entire organism.
Research argues that probiotics normally found in human saliva like Lactobacillus salivarius and Bifidobacterium longum can inhibit Streptococcus mutans infections, reduce plaque formation, and diminish the number of cavity formations in time.
Other benefits of a wholesome oral microbiota include fewer instances of mouth ulcers, increased protection against periodontal disorders, decreased episodes of throat and sinus illnesses, etc.
A proper buccal microflora is fairly simple to achieve nowadays with the help of sprays, lozenges, and oral supplements containing probiotics, as well as through ‘natural’ sources of beneficial bacteria in the shape of fermented vegetables and dairy products.
- Allergies and eczemas
More often than not, allergies and dermatitis (or eczemas) are immune responses at the level of the respiratory system or skin caused by various factors (dust, wheat, pollen, environmental factors, food poisoning, etc.).
They are usually accompanied by overall discomfort and can even affect the quality of life for an individual through their intensity (in the case of allergies) or extended manifestation (dermatitis).
Proponents of probiotic therapies maintain that these ‘friendly’ bacteria boost immune protection and can effectively ‘change the course’ of how your body reacts to allergic threats. For example, one 2013 paper discusses the employments of Lactobacillus probiotics in combating episodes of rhinitis (swelling within the nasal passage).
In a similar fashion, a study conducted in 2000 argues that inflammation caused by atopic eczemas can be reduced via regular administration of Bifidobacterium lactis and Lactobacillus bacteria.
These and other scientific inquires are valuable in the sense that they provide the more natural solutions of beneficial bacteria in the context of health issues that are both debilitating and hard to avoid in the modern world as a result of pollution and highly contaminated food products.
Having seen how diverse and important the contributions of probiotics are to human wellbeing, it becomes hard to understand why their mainstream publicity is owed predominantly to their gastrointestinal attributions.
Nevertheless, the increase in scientific interest regarding ‘good’ bacteria is bound to expand their ‘fame’ into the aforementioned areas of immunity, urogenital functionality, mental balance, oral hygiene, and allergenic control.
After all, it’s in our best interest to improve upon these multipurpose microorganisms instead of turning towards drugs with each and every health ‘bump’ we encounter.
So, next time you are unsure whether to buy a natural yogurt or a probiotic dietary supplement, keep in mind that it is more than your tummy you are helping. Who knows? You might even become pro-probiotics before you know it!