what are probiotics?

Dr. Stephen Wangen of the IBS Treatment Center.
Dr. Stephen Wangen of the IBS Treatment Center.

You may have heard that probiotics might help with your IBS symptoms. But do you need them? Which ones? How many?

Probiotics, or supplements containing strains of good bacteria that normally live in the intestinal tract, are frequently taken by individuals suffering from digestive upset in an attempt to improve their symptoms.

In our practice, it is common to hear from patients who have tried probiotics that the supplements offered no improvement or even made them feel worse. The following points should help to explain why a negative reaction to probiotics is not necessarily surprising:

#1 Many brands of probiotics contain low numbers of organisms, which essentially translates to a low dose of good bacteria. Prescription probiotics can have numbers as low as 1 billion organisms per dose (which sounds like an awful lot, but is actually far less than what research finds to be a therapeutic dose). We commonly find that for some patients, doses as high as 25-50 billion organisms per day can effectively address the causes of IBS.

#2 Most probiotics are grown on dairy, which can be very problematic for patients who suffer from a dairy allergy, a common cause of IBS symptoms. In treating IBS, it is essential to identify any underlying food allergies and intolerances prior to starting treatment with probiotics, as taking a supplement that contains foods that your system reacts to negatively can cause more harm than good. Unique and specialized food allergy testing helps our physicians identify negative reactions to specific foods in patients suffering from IBS.

#3 The strains of good bacteria found in the supplements may not match the strains that your intestines need to reach healthy and appropriate levels. By identifying the microbial ratios in the gut via a DNA stool analysis test, specific levels of different strains of good bacteria can be measured and identified as deficient. By replacing specific bacterial strains (instead of guessing), healthy levels of good gut bugs can be replenished to maintain a healthier intestinal environment.

#4 Some strains of probiotics are much more anti-inflammatory than others. These strains help to reduce distress in your intestinal immune system, while others may have a potentially pro-inflammatory effect or no effect at all. Research shows that certain strains of good intestinal bacteria are exceptionally strong regulators of intestinal inflammation. Having high enough levels of these bacteria can help to moderate immune reactions that can cause symptoms of IBS.

Effectively utilizing probiotics is key to properly treating IBS. This is a science. Please contact our clinic if you have questions about probiotics or would like to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians.

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(photo: commons.wikimedia)
(photo: commons.wikimedia)

A recent article from PhysiciansBriefing.com discusses the link between diet and the bacteria in your gut.

“This finding, although exploratory in nature and requiring replication, supports a recently reported link between long-term dietary habits and the structure of gut microbiota and suggests that a permanent change of microbiota may be achieved by appropriate diet,” Cotillard and colleagues write.

This is a very useful study, but it’s marketed backwards to attract more attention. What I mean by that is that they found that weight is correlated to the types of bacteria in your digestive tract, but what they imply is that your bacteria determine your weight. If you actually read the study, what they found was just the opposite, that weight affects the bacteria in your digestive tract.  

It’s not really your weight that determines your bacteria, it’s the type of food that you eat. If you eat a lot of things that would cause you to gain weight, those foods also affect the types of bacteria in your digestive tract. Your digestive tract is a microecosystem. Like any ecosystem, the nutrients in it affect the types of organisms that will thrive in that ecosystem. Therefore obese people have a different ecosystem in their digestive tract than non-obese people.

But of course trying to turn it into a weight loss scheme is much more interesting to more people. Don’t be mislead, you can’t lose weight by taking probiotics.

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(image thanks to probiotics.org)

As many of you know, probiotics are products that contain bacteria.

These bacteria are the “good” bacteria, and they are called probiotics to make it clear that they are designed to produce the opposite effect of antibiotics which kill bacteria. The most familiar of the good bacteria are the genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacter.

The GI tract contains around 100 trillion bacteria. Everyone has good bacteria in their digestive tract, but not everyone has the same kinds of good bacteria, or in the same amounts. For the last few decades we have seen the rise of antibiotics, considered wonder drugs because of the lives that they saved.

Unfortunately, we have also seen that too much of a good thing can be harmful.

The overuse of antibiotics has directly contributed to the development of antibiotic resistant bad bacteria, such as MRSA. We are only beginning to appreciate that there is another downside to taking antibiotics – they kill good bacteria. In response to this we are now seeing a rise in the popularity of probiotics.

Probiotics are a wonderful tool when used properly, but they are not a cure all, and they are still largely misunderstood. Some processed foods, such as yogurt and acidophilus milk, contain good bacteria. It is now becoming fashionable to put probiotics into all sorts of processed food products in an effort to come up with new and creative ways to give people these good bacteria.
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A recent article on probiotics from the Wall Street Journal discusses the increasing popularity of the supplements in treating a wide range of medical conditions and the wide variety and quality of those available. 



The main issue with the current approach to probiotics is that many are treating them like a drug. Take these probiotics and they will work magic. Not true.

It makes more sense to determine who has a deficiency in these bacteria and see if using probiotics can reduce or eliminate that deficiency and observe how that changes and improves health.



Probiotics are not the next great medical discovery that are going to solve everyone’s problems. They are a useful tool. However, the fact is that only a tiny fraction of the number of species of good bacteria found in the digestive tract are even available in supplement form. We need to understand the consequences of our actions on this amazing ecosystem. Not just think that we can toss down a few bacteria and solve our problems.  That is a gross oversimplification of this issue.

Excerpt from WSJ.com:

Experts say taking a probiotic supplement with many bacterial strains isn’t necessarily better. The key is ensuring each strain in a product is active and has been clinically proven to work at a certain dosage, they say. Tests done by ConsumerLab.com have shown that the number of living organisms in probiotics doesn’t always reflect the label. Of 12 products tested this year, two delivered fewer organisms than listed.

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Bacteria We Need: Four Points to Consider When Choosing Probiotics (Part 3 of 3)

Choosing a quality probiotic is essential.

Probiotics are supplements that contain beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus or Bifidobacterium. One of the biggest challenges in using probiotics is selecting a quality product. The quality of the product has a dramatic impact on whether or not it will solve your digestive problem. There are four major issues that determine the effectiveness of probiotics: bacterial viability, quantity, strain, and contaminants.

#1 – Viability

The first issue is the viability of the bacteria. Basically, are they still alive? Unfortunately, in many cases there are little if any viable bacteria in many products on the market. If they aren’t alive, then they aren’t going to do you any good. To try to avoid this problem, at the very minimum select a product that is refrigerated. Hopefully it was refrigerated in transit and in storage as well. Even if it is freeze-dried, which helps, it should also be refrigerated to help maintain viability.

#2 – Quantity

A good probiotic product will guarantee that you get at least 4 million live bacteria, and hopefully 8 million, which is even better. Many products only have 1 billion or so organisms, or don’t even tell you how many they have. These probably aren’t worth taking, even if they are viable.

The digestive tract contains trillions of bacteria. So a billion may sound like a lot, but it may not have much impact if you are particularly deficient in good bacteria. In fact, even a high quality product with 8 billion bacteria may not have much impact on improving your situation. You may need to supplement with hundreds of billions of bacteria over a period of one to two weeks. There are very few supplements capable of providing you this much good bacteria.

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(Image thanks to detoxplanet.webs.com)

In the last few years there has been a lot of media interest in probiotics. Probiotics are good bacteria, the most recognizable being acidophilus. There are many misconceptions about how probiotics work and what they do and don’t do. Hopefully this series of articles can help clear things up.

One of the most interesting areas of biology is the study of how interdependent all life is. The bacteria and other microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts are an example of symbiotic relationships – different organisms living together for mutual benefit. Our digestion depends on the presence of a complex soup of trillions of individual microorganisms that help us digest the food we eat. Without them, we would die. Modern medical science still has much to learn about this ‘soup’ of microorganisms that live inside us. But we do know some of the problems that can develop and interfere with good digestion.

The human digestive tract contains an ecosystem. The various forms of life compete in the system for space and for resources like water and nutrients. They also help to break down food, create some vitamins, and produce waste materials and other chemicals. The chemicals we ingest (food, drink, and other things that make it into our digestive system) feed the organisms in this ecosystem. Our intestinal wall provides both a place for microorganisms to grow and a barrier to prevent invasion into the rest of our body.

Our immune system is exceptionally active in the digestive system, allowing needed nutrients to pass into our bodies, while working to prevent unwelcome guests. When the ecosystem in our gut gets out of balance, we often develop digestive symptoms and sometimes other health problems. Two of the things that can cause symptoms include infection – the presence of an unwanted microorganism, and absence or a deficiency of needed microorganisms.

Either of these two conditions can cause digestive problems. The only way to know if one or both of these is the source of digestive problems in a particular patient is to measure the microorganisms present in the digestive tract. Such measurement is most commonly done by stool testing, or more specifically, a stool culture.

Image thanks to detoxplanet

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Many fruits and vegetables are naturally covered in good bacteria. That natural wax on your organic apple is a film of Lactobacillus.

As many of you know, probiotics are products that contain bacteria. These bacteria are the “good” bacteria, and they are called probiotics to make it clear that they are designed to produce the opposite effect of antibiotics which kill bacteria. The most familiar of the good bacteria are the genera Lactobacillus and Bifidobacter.

The GI tract contains around 100 trillion bacteria. Everyone has good bacteria in their digestive tract, but not everyone has the same kinds of good bacteria, or in the same amounts. For the last few decades we have seen the rise of antibiotics, considered wonder drugs because of the lives that they saved. Unfortunately, we have also seen that too much of a good thing can be harmful.

The overuse of antibiotics has directly contributed to the development of antibiotic resistant bad bacteria, such as MRSA. We are only beginning to appreciate that there is another downside to taking antibiotics – they kill good bacteria.

In response to this we are now seeing a rise in the popularity of probiotics. Probiotics are a wonderful tool when used properly, but they are not a cure all, and they are still largely misunderstood. Some processed foods, such as yogurt and acidophilus milk, contain good bacteria. It is now becoming fashionable to put probiotics into all sorts of processed food products in an effort to come up with new and creative ways to give people these good bacteria. Good bacteria have been around for a lot longer than we’ve been around, and were available well before the invention of yogurt.

Where did we used to get our good bacteria?

You may be surprised to learn that many fruits and vegetables are naturally covered in good bacteria. For example, that natural wax on your organic apple (which by definition is not coated with man-made wax) is a film of Lactobacillus. Not only that, but plant foods also help to support the good bacteria in your digestive tract. These are two excellent reasons to eat more plants.

Image thanks to mint.com

 

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Probiotics are microorganisms such as bacteria or yeast that are believed to improve health.

Speaking of probiotics, now is a good time to review exactly what they are. Here’s an overview from our friends at WebMD.com.

Probiotics are microorganisms such as bacteria or yeast that are believed to improve health. They are available in supplements and foods. The idea of taking live bacteria or yeast may seem strange at first. After all, we take antibiotics and use antibacterial substances to fight bacteria. But  our bodies naturally teem with such organisms.

The digestive system is home to more than 500 different bacterial species. They help keep intestinal linings healthy and assist in breaking down food. Beneficial organisms are also believed to help regulate healthy immune response.

How Do Probiotics Work?

Researchers believe that some digestive disorders result when the balance of friendly bacteria in the intestines becomes disturbed.  This can happen after an infection or after taking antibiotics. Intestinal problems can also arise when the lining of the intestines is damaged. Introducing new beneficial organisms in the form of probiotics may help.

“Probiotics can improve intestinal function and maintain the integrity of the lining of the intestines,” says Stefano Guandalini, MD, professor of pediatrics and gastroenterology at the University of Chicago Medical Center. These friendly bugs may also help fight off diarrhea-causing organisms.

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