Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that your digestive system needs to function properly. Many people take probiotic supplements or foods when they have digestive problems, or to prevent problems from occurring. However, if you do not address these lifestyle or medical choices, you may be handicapping the gut bacteria that is so important to your health.
Here are 5 things to take note of while taking probiotics, if you want them to work well.
The Western diet, with its refined carbohydrates, highly processed foods, and dearth of fresh vegetables, preserves foods by killing bacteria and then deprives our gut bacteria of much of what it needs to ferment and grow. According to Dr. Stephen O'Keefe, a gastroenterologist at the University of Pittsburgh, “The big problem with the Western diet is that it doesn't feed the gut, only the upper GI (gastrointestinal tract). All the food has been processed to be readily absorbed, leaving nothing for the lower GI.”
The lack of fiber in our diet is, in effect, starving our gut and its microbial residents. O'Keefe and many others are convinced the myriad intestinal disorders that have become common among people eating a Western diet can be traced to this imbalance.
We have changed the human diet in such a way that it no longer feeds our gut bacteria, only our human selves. We are eating for one, when we need to be eating for a few trillion. But intestinal problems may be the least of it.
Populations that eat a Western diet consistently develop high rates of diseases such as heart disease and stroke, obesity, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Research is beginning to suspect the problem is to do with inflammation, something our gut bacteria can control very well.
Studies comparing a westernized diet of high fat and low fiber have shown that fried foods can have a profound effect on our gut bacteria and our health. Dr. Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London, conducted a study in 2014 where his group swapped out the low-fat, high-fiber diet of 20 rural Africans in South Africa for meats and fried foods. Then researchers switched the high-fat low-fiber diet of 20 African Americans in Pittsburgh for a typical African diet, including cornmeal porridge and root vegetables.
The study observed that after two weeks of a Westernized diet, the microbiomes of Africans were producing about half the levels of a short chain fatty acid called butyrate. Butyrate is made by our gut bacteria, and probiotics and has been linked to lowering inflammation and improving gut cell health. In contrast, the microbiomes of Americans on the rural African diet began producing twice as much butyrate. The Africans also acquired more bacteroidetes, a species of gut bacteria that has been associated with the development of obesity.
Dr. Spector said, "The exciting part of this is that it suggests it is never too late to make a change and reduce fat in your diet, and that you don't have to have lived on a healthy diet all your life,"
Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharin, or sorbitol help reduce calories, but they are not good for you in terms of gut health and your gut bacteria. Since the development of artificial sweeteners, it has been thought that they were the perfect free lunch, but that ignores other physiological impacts of artificial sweeteners.
Suez, J. et al at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel conducted a study where they asked a group of 170 volunteers to describe their diet over the past year. The researchers found a link between the consumption of artificial sweeteners and greater abundance of groups of bacteria associated with type 2 diabetes, as well as higher levels of some members of the bacteroidetes group.
Excessive use of artificial sweeteners can also cause gut bacterial overgrowth. Basically, artificial sweeteners are calorie neutral because humans are not capable of digesting them. However, our gut bacteria can readily use them as an energy source. Therefore, when we use artificial sweeteners we are actually feeding our gut bacteria a high energy source of food. Considering the importance of probiotics and “good” gut bacteria, this may not seem like a bad idea. However, artificial sweeteners are such a good source of probiotic food that the gut bacteria tends to grow rapidly and induces a condition called bacterial overgrowth, which can cause excessive gas, bloating, and extreme discomfort.
A better source of probiotic food, or prebiotics, are prebiotic fiber rich foods such as Spirulina, kale, asparagus, artichokes, and other fruits and vegetables. These sources of prebiotic fiber are better as they require more time to breakdown by the gut bacteria which controls the growth of gut bacteria.
Some people think pesticides may contribute to some gluten intolerance and food allergies, which may stem from gut imbalances, according to Living Green Magazine.
Agricultural antibiotics, pesticides, and herbicides may also play a role in the depletion of our gut bacteria. Antibiotics are commonly used in agricultural production which can move through the process and still have an effect when humans consume the food. In humans, these small amounts of antibiotics work to deplete our gut bacteria and contribute to an unhealthy imbalance in our “good” and “bad” gut bacteria ratio, and so compromising digestion and health.
Small amounts of pesticides and herbicides – residual in groundwater, soil, and produce – can also upset microbiome balance, allowing some microbes to flourish to excess, resulting in toxicity, cell death, inflammation, and impaired immune response. It is not clear how this occurs, but even the federally accepted amounts of pesticide may be sufficient to alter our gut bacteria balance.
Many common medications can have good and bad effects on our physiology. One of the more common side effects are related to gastrointestinal effects. For example, antibiotics are an excellent tool to fight off serious infection; however, they are indiscriminate in which microbes they kill. Consequently, gastrointestinal ailments are common after completing a course of antibiotics.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen and aspirin, and steroids such as prednisone, to a lesser degree, can also reduce the population of the gut microbiome. This is particularly true with chronic, long term use.
Although NSAIDS are efficacious in controlling pain, their chronic long term use can lead to inflammation of the gut wall and can result in loss of the gut microbiome population. When the gut wall becomes inflamed and irritated it is unable to control the absorption of nutrients or the retention of metabolic or microbial toxins. This results in the leakage of toxins out of the gut and entrance to the blood stream, which can eventually compromise the liver, the lymphatic system, and the immune response, and lead to the development of allergic disorders such as Celiac disease.
Constipation is a problem that affects patients taking opioid painkillers. Opioids have a sedative effect on the gut, thereby derailing the nervous networks that control proper gut function, slowing the movement of food and stool through the gut leading constipation, and a medical condition known as opioid-induced bowel dysfunction (OBD).
To overcome these many side effects, the primary treatment is often to address the symptoms. For example, using anti-inflammatory drugs to counter NSAID side-effects, or using laxatives to counter the OBD associated with opioid pain killer use. Although these may alleviate the symptoms, they don't help in the long term as they do nothing to replace the gut microbe population that the drugs have destroyed.
To effectively address the GI related side effects of medication, a simple and effective approach is to take a course of probiotics with or soon after treatment and as part of your regular diet.