Probiotics 101

Your Gut, Your Brain, Your Microflora

There’s frightening news in the health world. We, as patients, have been subjected to such overuse of antibiotics that our guts have been severely damaged. Researchers and practitioners know that taking an antibiotic can permanently damage your gut’s microflora and cause some harmful bacteria to become resistant to treatment. Think of the many times you have been prescribed antibiotics and then think of how your digestive system is currently working. Even trying to replenish good bacteria with probiotics is very often just slightly helpful. Our gut flora is a grand mixture of different strains from food, air, soil, and heredity. We received our flora from our mothers in a vaginal birth and continue to populate bacteria until the age of two. We each have our own special colonies. If these are destroyed by antibiotics, there’s almost no way to recover the loss.

If your mother had a healthy gut and hadn’t taken many antibiotics, she passed on to you a healthy beginning. Since antibiotics have been available over 80 years, the flora from your grandmother could have been affected as well. The health of her gut and your mother’s started the colonization. If you came into the world through Caesarean section, you started life at a big disadvantage: babies born of C-sections have higher rates of Celiac disease, diabetes, obesity and other auto immune disorders. These babies grow with the weakest gut flora.

Awareness of microflora’s or probiotics importance has blossomed over the last decade. Over 10,000 scientific articles have been published on probiotics since this century began. Our gut flora outnumbers our body cells by 10-1 and the collective microbial genome outnumber the human genome by 100-1. Each of us hosts around 160 microbial species. Partly because of the destruction of flora through medicines, diet and chronic illnesses, new strains are being investigated to replace the older strains.

One current research aim is to investigate and distinguish different strains with their special actions and functions from areas in the world very different from ours. These strains come from people that have never been exposed to westerners, antibiotic and modern food. Their diverse and pristine micro-biomes may be needed for our world if we continue to take antibiotics on such a large scale and eat meat from animals kept in confined food lots. (Eighty percent of manufactured antibiotics are given to these animals.)

There are two most common strains of the Lactobacillus species. One is L. acidophilus, colonizing the small intestine with branch strains of L. brevis, L. casei, L. crispatus, L. fementum, L. gasseri, and L.rhamnosus. These produce a number of compounds to kill off bad bacteria such as staphylococci and can thrive in the urinary tract and aid in inhibiting growth of pathogens there. Bifidobacterium is the other important major type of probiotics colonizing the large intestine, which is mainly responsible for consuming fecal matter, protecting against tumors and producing the B vitamins. Among them the most frequently used are: B. animalis, B. bifidum, B. breve, B. infantis, B. lactis, B. longum and B bulgarium. A strain beginning with an L is related to the acidophilus species; a strain beginning with a B is related to bifidodacteria.

In a healthy colon there are on average anywhere from 100 billion to 1,000 billion beneficial bacteria per milliliter or 1/5 of a teaspoon. In a typical American colon, the beneficial bacteria count may be as low as 4 or 5 per milliliter! How can the body remain healthy? It doesn’t. Many researchers believe that declining levels of friendly bacteria in the intestinal tract can mark the onset of chronic degenerative disease. Antibiotics are the number one culprit, but other therapies contribute to the loss, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, chemotherapy agents, and hormone replacement agents. Chlorine in drinking water also destroys colonies of beneficial bacteria, as well as some herbal medicines, such as goldenseal, if taken in a large quantity.

What Do Lactobacillus Do?

Lactobacillus species possess important features that make them so valuable. They produce enzymes to digest and metabolize proteins and carbohydrates, help make vitamin K and the B vitamins, break down bile salts, enhance innate and acquired immunity and inhibit inflammatory mediators. They also act as medicines against pathogens. A mix of strains must be regularly consumed to maintain the normal balance of microorganisms, yet 25 percent of people eating the standard Western diet have no Lactobacillus in their intestines.

Bifidobacteria populations constitute 95 percent of the gut bacterial population in healthy individuals. They tend to decline with age (research is now postulating that the decline may contribute to aging). The benefits of Bifidobacterium are very extensive: they metabolize lactose, generate lactic acid, synthesize B vitamins, help ferment and digest carbohydrates and make fatty acids. Some species — B. bidicum, B. breve, and B. lactis protect against acute diarrhea. B. longum and B. bifidum reduce the incidence of antibiotic associated diarrhea. They stimulate the immune system, relieve constipation, alleviate irritable bowel disease, lower serum cholesterol, and reduce intestinal permeability. They even prevent DNA changes, which suggests probiotics may prevent or delay the onset of colon cancer.

Healthy gut flora is essential for the normal development and working of the immune system. It’s a powerful fact that gut flora makes up 70-90 percent of our immune system and modulates immune function throughout life. Autoimmune problems have a direct link to lack of or imbalances of gut flora. Celiac disease and leaky gut syndrome are directly linked to gut flora problems.

Gut microbes are necessary for normal central nervous system maturation and impact neural circuits controlling motor and behavior functions. Recent studies show that gut flora contributes to neurotransmitter pools and helps regulate the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) so important in the handling of stress. Stress itself is known to reduce populations of Lactobacillus in the small intestine, and Bifidobacterium in the large intestine. Chronic stress impairs gut barrier function leading to intestinal bacterial cell wall breakdown. Increased intestinal permeability has now been linked with chronic depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, ADHD, and OCD.

Affective disorders such as these appear to be helped with probiotics, and should be noted in terms of the gut’s influence on the brain. Probiotics were first proposed as an adjunctive therapy for depression in 2005 and have been termed psychobiotics, with multistrain probiotic combinations usually conferring greater benefit than single strain preparations. Both animal and human clinical data confirm the role of probiotics in reducing anxiety-like and depression-like behaviors.

Gut bacteria are also responsible for the production of B vitamins, vitamin K, amino acids and fatty acids. These microorganisms cover virtually every square inch of available surface space in your large and small intestines, crowding out harmful bacteria. A probiotically optimized intestinal tract helps lower cholesterol, inhibit cancer, protect against food poisoning, stomach ulcers, lactose intolerance, candida overgrowth and vaginal yeast infection, prevents and corrects constipation and diarrhea, treats colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, and of course, improves absorption of food nutrients.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control issued data regarding antibiotic resistance. It estimates that about 2 million Americans fall ill to antibiotic resistance infections, and up to 100,000 people die from them yearly. There are now 23 known bacteria that are completely resistant to any medicine. This number will continue rising as long as unnecessary and inappropriate prescriptions are written for antibiotics. They don’t just kill off bad pathogens; some antibiotics permanently wipe out whole strains of beneficial bacteria.

Choosing A Good Probiotic

A good probiotic formula contains super strains, which are the only strains that are highly effective. The strains should be listed on the label or in the company literature. Look for formulas that are full-culture processed, meaning the beneficial bacteria should be together with the supernatant. The supernatant is the medium the probiotic culture is grown in and contains additional benefits such as vitamins, enzymes, antioxidants and immune stimulators. Check the number of live microorganisms in the formulas. The label should read “contains …billions of live organisms per capsule at time of manufacture.” Most formulas will have a die-off of billions within 60 days of manufacture, but there are still enough to colonize. Heat and moisture are deadly to probiotics and accelerate the dying off process. The probiotic formula you buy should have been refrigerated in the store and kept in the refrigerator when at home.

Eating yogurt does not really help. First of all, the strains used to make most yogurt are not key beneficial strains (although they may be helpful). Yogurt is also pasteurized, which extends shelf life but usually destroys many of the benefits of yogurt. Much yogurt is flavored primarily with sugar. The first ingredient is almost always an “….ose,” such as fructose, sucrose, etc. By eating this yogurt you actually add fuel (in the form of alkaline) to a damaged gut and encourage the growth of yeast and fungus.

So can one recolonize her gut? If your system has been flushed out, you can’t actually replace what you’ve lost. But there are ways to help it recover. An herbal colon activator is a formula that provides both cleansing and healing of the entire gastrointestinal system and might contain aloe, senna, cascara sagrada, barberry, ginger root, marshmallow or slippery elm, to name a few. This formula serves as an intestinal detoxifier to loosen and draw out old fecal matter and toxins, and will heal the mucous membrane lining while relieving gas, increasing bile flow and improving digestion. Next, a strain of prebiotics should be taken to encourage the native flora you once had to grow back. Reduce your sugar intake and bad fats. Vegetables and whole grains are an additional source of prebiotics. The final step is probiotics.

Storage and handling of probiotics is important to maintain their maximum activity. The potency of probiotics can be adversely affected by prolonged exposure to high temperature and humidity. Store probiotics in the refrigerator. Avoid handling capsules and putting them back in the bottle. Pour the desired number of capsules in the cap. Use a dry, clean spoon to measure powders. Mixing powders and capsules with hot food or beverages is spelling their death. Probiotics must be regularly consumed to maintain health benefits. When selecting, choose well-documented probiotics. Use multi-formulas but don’t overload the system as using too many beneficial bacteria in one formula may set up a competition, cancelling out their ability to help. Try prebiotics, first, to help restore the original flora.

Marie Cargill, LicAc, is a Boston-based homeopath, licensed herbalist and holistic health expert for people and pets with over thirty years of experience. Her newest book, Cancer and Your Pet: a Guide to Alternative and Integrated Treatment, is a must read for pet owners. Visit

See also:
Fermentation Magic: A Model for Health and Transformation
EarthTalk: The Skinny on Dietary Fat