How Can Probiotics Improve Gut Health

How Can Probiotics Improve Gut Health

Probiotics have gained increasing attention over the years as a popular tool to restore and improve gut health. Through supplementation or the consumption of probiotic-rich foods, individuals can ingest these beneficial bacteria to help balance the gut microbiome, which has been linked as the cause of many chronic health conditions. 

But what exactly are probiotics, and how do they improve gut health?

This article will explore the world of probiotics, their mechanism of action, potential side effects, who can benefit from their supplementation, and who should avoid them. 

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, provide health benefits to the host. They are beneficial bacteria or yeast that can help to restore the balance of the good and bad bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract that influence our immunity, digestion, and many other bodily functions. 

You can find probiotics in fermented foods like yogurt or kefir, which have been shown to contain beneficial bacteria such as Lactobacillus spp. and Bifidobacterium spp.. They can also be taken in supplement form. When these beneficial microorganisms are consumed, they interact with existing gut flora and positively affect overall gut health. 

How Do Probiotics Work?

Probiotics have six main mechanisms of action that allow them to confer benefits to gut health. This includes maintaining a healthy microbial balance, competing with harmful bacteria, producing bioactive substances, enhancing immune function, improving nutrient absorption, and regulating inflammation. We will explore each of these mechanisms in more detail below.

Maintaining Microbial Balance

The human digestive tract houses trillions of beneficial and harmful microorganisms. This delicate balance of bacteria is vital in proper digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune system function. Supplementing with probiotics can help restore the beneficial gut bacteria, promoting a balanced microbiome. 

Research has demonstrated that gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance of the microbiomes in the digestive tract, can cause intestinal inflammation that may lead to gastrointestinal conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). 

Competing With Harmful Bacteria 

Probiotics can compete with pathogenic, or harmful, bacteria in the digestive system for resources and attachment sites. This competition can prevent the attachment and proliferation of harmful bacteria in the digestive tract, reducing the risk of certain infections and other digestive issues. 

For example, Lactobacillus spp. and Bifidobacterium spp. strains have been shown to reduce Escherichia coli infections in individuals with ulcerative colitis by modulating the immune system, reducing inflammation, and activating cells responsible for clearing gastrointestinal infections. 

Producing Bioactive Substances

Probiotics produce certain bioactive substances that alter the microenvironment in the digestive tract. This includes short-chain fatty acids, bacteriocins, and organic acids. 

Short-chain fatty acids have many health benefits, such as reducing inflammation, regulating the immune system, reducing obesity, preventing diabetes, reducing cancer risks, and protecting the cardiovascular system, liver, and brain. 

Enhancing Immune Function

Research has demonstrated that most of the immune system resides in the gut. Therefore, one of the main mechanisms of action of probiotics is modulating the immune system. Certain strains of probiotics stimulate cells in the immune system that are present in the digestive tract, which can reduce inflammation and increase mucus production. This can enhance the body’s defense against infections. 

Improving Nutrient Absorption

Some probiotics can support the digestion, absorption, and production of certain micronutrients. If you are struggling with getting proper nutrients in your diet, supplementing with probiotics may benefit you.

Lactobacillus spp. and Bifidobacterium spp. can produce B vitamins and vitamin K, and supplementation with these strains can help restore their levels. Other research has shown that Bacillus coagulans can improve protein absorption and utilization by the body.

Regulating Inflammation

Probiotics have a plethora of anti-inflammatory effects, which can assist in modulating the body’s inflammatory response. Research has demonstrated that the regulation of T cells and the balance between pro-and anti-inflammatory cytokines, or specialized immune messengers, is altered by probiotics and can assist with returning these inflammatory mechanisms down. Overall, this can result in reduced inflammation and an improvement in gastrointestinal symptoms. 

In patients with IBS, probiotics can help reduce inflammation and resolve common symptoms of gas, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. 

What Probiotic Is Right For Me?

It is important to note that different strains of bacteria confer varying benefits for gut health. For example, the probiotic strain Bacillus coagulans has been demonstrated to effectively relieve IBS symptoms, including bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, and nausea. While research has shown that other strains like Lactobacillus reuterii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Saccharomyces boulardi may be better at improving symptoms of dyspepsia, or acid reflux. 

It is essential to discuss what probiotics might be right for you with your healthcare professional before starting supplementation so they can tailor your probiotic choice to your unique medical history and symptomatology.

Potential Side Effects

While probiotics are generally considered safe in healthy individuals, they may cause side effects, primarily upon initiation of supplementation. These side effects are usually mild and self-limited. Common side effects include digestive complaints like bloating, gas, and diarrhea. 

If these side effects become persistent or severe, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

Who Shouldn’t Take Probiotics?

Although probiotics are generally safe, in individuals with compromised immune systems, probiotics can potentially lead to severe infections. There has been some research linking the use of probiotics to bacteremia and fungemia, potentially life-threatening infections. 

If you have issues with your immune system, take immunosuppressive medications, or suffer from HIV/AIDS, it is crucial to check with your healthcare provider before starting any probiotic. 

Conclusion

Probiotics offer a promising natural modality for restoring optimal gut function and health. These tiny microorganisms maintain appropriate microbial balance in the digestive tract, compete with harmful bacteria, produce bioactive substances, improve nutrient absorption, and regulate inflammation. 

Although probiotics are generally safe, it is possible to experience mild gastrointestinal discomfort upon supplement initiation. Be sure to check with your doctor before starting probiotics, and for some individuals with immunocompromising conditions, probiotics may not be safe and can lead to severe infections. For most healthy individuals, probiotics are a great way to restore gut health and improve digestive complaints!

References:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4566439/

https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Probiotics-HealthProfessional/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8512487/

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https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9450431/

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7464949/

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Dr. Kimberly Langdon

Kimberly Langdon

Dr. Kimberly Langdon has been an MD for 31 years, board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist with 19-years of clinical experience. She graduated from The Ohio State University College of Medicine, earning Honors in many rotations. She then completed her OB/GYN residency program at The Ohio State University Medical Center, earning first-place accolades for her Senior Research Project and Score of 98th percentile on a National Proficiency Test.

During her clinical career, she delivered over 2000 babies and specialized in minimally invasive procedures, menopause, endometriosis, menstrual disorders, and polycystic ovarian syndrome. After retiring from clinical practice, she founded a medical device company to commercialize her two patented and four patent-pending medical devices for both life-threatening and non-life-threatening infections.

Kimberly Langdon M.D.

Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Coologics, 2010-present
https://www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-langdon-m-d-41847610/
The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Doctor of Medicine 1987-1991
The Ohio State University Hospital Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology Residency Program 1991-1995
Private practice 1995-2010

Po-Chang Hsu

Po-Chang Hsu

Po-Chang Hsu, M.D., received his medical doctorate from Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. During his medical school training, Dr. Hsu worked with various patients, including adult and pediatric patients with acute and chronic conditions. Dr. Hsu’s interests include neurology, psychiatry, pediatrics, and sleep medicine.

Before medical school, Dr. Hsu finished a master’s degree at Harvard University and wrote a thesis on neuroimaging in schizophrenia patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated hospital. Dr. Hsu was also a part of the 2008 NASA Phoenix Lander Mission team, which sent a robotic spacecraft to the North polar region of Mars. Dr. Hsu also had research experience on neuroimaging in neonates at Boston Children’s Hospital, another Harvard Medical School-affiliated Hospital.

Since graduating from medical school, Dr. Hsu has worked as a full-time medical writer and consultant. In addition, he has experience writing and ghostwriting books and articles for physicians and health technology start-up companies. Dr. Hsu believes good communication between healthcare providers and patients creates the best results.

Publications

-Peer Reviewed Journal Article:
Kounaves, S.P., Hecht, M.H., West, S.J., Morookian, J.-M., Young, S.M.M., Quinn, R., Grunthaner, P., Wen, X., Weilert, M., Cable, C.A., Fisher, A., Gospodinova, K., Kapit, J., Stroble, S., Hsu, P.-C., Clark, B.C., Ming, D.W. and Smith, P.H. The MECA wet chemistry laboratory on the 2007 phoenix mars scout Lander. Journal of Geophysical Research. 2009, Mar; 114(E3): 10.1029/2008je003084.

-Poster Presentation:
2011 Harvard Psychiatry Mysell Poster Session; Boston, MA
Hsu, P.C., Rathi, Y., Eckbo, R., Nestor, P., Niznikiewicz, M., Thompson, E., Kubicki, M., Shenton, M.E. (March, 2011). Two-Tensor Diffusion Tensor Imaging of Acoustic Radiations in Schizophrenia

Dr. Nicolette Natale

Nicolette Natale

Dr. Nicolette Natale is a physician, with a background in Psychology, General Medicine, and English Literature, combining her expertise to provide readers with the most accurate, easy-to-understand, and comprehensive information regarding healthcare. She received her Doctorate in Osteopathic Medicine from Nova Southeastern University, and her bachelor’s in English Literature and Psychology from the University of Miami. Dr. Natale seeks to empower individuals with knowledge, fostering a greater understanding of holistic health and encouraging a proactive approach to well-being