The wonderful world of bacteria: probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics

Probiotics are one of the biggest hot topics right now as they are becoming linked to more and more with health benefits everyday. It’s exciting to watch the new discoveries unfold! You’ve probably heard of them, but what exactly are probiotics though? They are living microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) found in foods, dietary supplements, medicines, and medical foods. Many of these good bacteria specialize in fermenting dietary fiber that we cannot digest and produce byproducts or metabolites that appear important for our gut (gastrointestinal) health. Probiotics also help us turn essential multivitamins and nutrients into absorbable forms for our bodies to use. So what you eat can affect your gut microbiome, as well as many other variables will be discussed, which can affect you positively or negatively.

We are only at the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know on this subject, but we do know that we need good bacteria to support a healthy immune function. Good bacteria are found in our small and large intestines which is where approximately 80% of our immune function is located. Because of this probiotics may help reduce your risk for several cancers such as colon, postmenopausal breast cancer, and endometrial cancer by helping your immune system function at its best so it can detect and kill cells that can become cancer.

Most probiotic research is focused on colon cancer since microorganisms live in your intestinal tract. Some of these studies found a correlation that people with colon cancer had an unhealthy population of gut bacteria before their colon cancer developed. To add to this research, scientists found that being overweight or obese can increase the risk for many types of cancers, including colon cancer, and people who are leaner tend of have more diversity of microorganisms and less incidence of these certain types of cancers.

So what else do these good bacteria do for us?

  • Maintain proper digestion
  • Maintain immunity by creating antibodies and stopping unhealthy bacteria from growing
  • Maintain overall gastrointestinal health, which includes colon and bowel function
  • Produce Vitamin’s B and K that support the skin, nervous system, blood, bone, and cardiac health
  • Increase lactose tolerance
  • Preventing dental cavities
  • Breaking down and destroying toxins in the body
  • Possible impact on brain function
  • Possible impact on conditions such as asthma and eczema
  • Possibly decrease the risk of some cancers (i.e. colon cancer)
  • Possibly decrease kidney stones caused by increase in urine oxalate
  • Maintains healthy vaginal microbiota
  • Inhibits the growth of H. Pylori
  • Improves calcium absorption
  • Treating recurrent C. Diff

If we are in good health we have approximately 85% good and 15% bad bacteria in our small and large intestines. If this is not maintained then it can interfere with the balance our bodies need to be in good health.

What upsets this balance?

  • Antibiotics (Anti means against and biotics means living. Antibiotics kill off all the good and bad bacteria). Of note: antibiotics can be potentially life saving so if you want to avoid taking them make sure you have a discussion with your medical care team.
  • NSAID’s (i.e. Naproxen and Ibuprofen)
  • Gastrointestinal infections (i.e. food poisoning or E. Coli)
  • Gastrointestinal surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy (this is not to say that you should avoid these therapies because of this)
  • Colonoscopies (due to the procedure and preparation – again not to say that you should avoid this procedure due to this)
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Pollutants and heavy metals
  • Some over the counter drugs (Aspirin and Antacids)
  • Possibly other prescription drugs such as anti-depressants, sleeping pills, and SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)
  • Some pesticides, herbicides, artificial food coloring, and antibacterial products

Many of my patients ask mostly about probiotics and less often ask about prebiotics. This is a term that you may not hear as frequently since it’s not talked about in the media as much. We are discovering that prebiotics are just as important if not more. Prebiotics are essentially indigestible carbohydrates (specialized plant fiber) that feed our healthy bacteria and are found in the gastrointestinal tract. Without them our probiotics would not survive, as they are good bacteria promoters.

If we eat food or a product that contains both prebiotics and probiotics that work together synergistically then we call this a synbiotic. An example of this is when we eat yogurt and bananas together or stir fry with tempeh and asparagus at the same meal. I like to try to pair these types of food together to get the biggest potential benefit.

What affects your body’s gut microbiome? 

  • Diet (i.e. high sugar or high fat diets negatively impact and fiber positively impacts)
  • Exercise (positively impacts)
  • Transit time
  • Genetics
  • If you were breast fed or not
  • If your mother had a C-section or had you vaginally
  • If you took antibiotics as a young child

As you can see, some your body’s balance of good and bad bacteria are in your control and some of it is out of your control. In my posts to follow, I’ll discuss what you can control by eating food sources for prebiotics, probiotics, and synbiotics, and if it may be beneficial to use a probiotic supplement or not. Cheers to the wonderful world of good bacteria!

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