March 22, 2012

All About Probiotics: What They Do & How to Use Them

Branch from evergreen

In my Washington DC acupuncture practice, the subject of probiotics has recently come to the forefront.

Probiotics are the “friendly” bacteria found in the small and large intestine that work to create a healthy digestive system.

When the ratio of “friendly” bacteria and “bad” bacteria tip in favor of the bad guys, this is called intestinal dysbiosis. These symptoms may develop:

  • Frequent bowel movements
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Bloating after meals
  • Negative reactions to sugars
  • Fatigue

Imbalance of the microflora of the intestines may also contribute to:

  • IBS
  • Wheat and dairy sensitivities
  • Candida overgrowth
  • Leaky gut syndrome
  • Bladder infections and cystitis
  • Autoimmune issues such as allergies; eczema and psoriasis, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and IBD; and ankylosing spondylitis
  • Mental and emotional imbalances including anxiety, depression, foggy thinking, and autism

Causes of intestinal bacteria imbalance

Imbalances can be caused by a variety of factors.  The most common cause is probably the use of antibiotics, which kills the good bacteria along with the bad.  If the good bacteria are not sufficiently repopulated, this can lead to a long-term increase in the amount of harmful intestinal bacteria.

Imbalances of intestinal bacteria can also be caused by:

  • Aging
  • Infection or illness
  • Lifestyle
  • Diet
  • Stress
  • Digestive issues
  • Traveling

These factors tend to reduce the beneficial bacteria, allowing the harmful types to overgrow.

Benefits of probiotics

Simply put, probiotics help improve intestinal health, so you experience improved digestion, absorption and microflora balance. Probiotics also regulate the immune system, helping improve immune and autoimmune conditions.

Sources of probiotics

Humans have possibly been using probiotic supplements for hundreds of thousands of years.  Time-honored examples include:

These are great dietary sources of probiotics, and, in my mind, they might be the best sources for daily health maintenance if you’re a healthy person.

However, there are times when the body is faced with more serious health challenges involving the intestinal bacteria balance, and in these situations, a stronger form of probiotic therapy may be more appropriate.

This is where lab-produced probiotics come in.  With concentrations of 1 billion to up to 100 billion beneficial bacteria per serving, these supplements have the ability to make fast and significant changes to the microflora balance. You can find these probiotics at health food stores or through health care practitioners.

The best strains of probiotic bacteria

Dr. Nigel Plummer, head researcher at the Seroyal company, a probiotic manufacturer, led an excellent webinar on his approach to probiotic therapy a couple weeks ago, so I’ll be quoting some of his opinions here.

Dr. Plummer and his team have isolated more than 300 strains of beneficial bacteria over the last 15 years, but only 4 strains have withstood the test of both clinical efficacy and double blind controlled studies:

  • Lactobacillus acidophilus – strain 1 and 2
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum
  • Bifidobacterium animalis

The lactobacillus bacteria are more specific to upper GI issues, and the bifidobacteria are more specific to lower GI issues.  Thus, taking both strains treats the whole GI tract.

These strains were selected due to their benefits:

  • Resistance to stomach acid
  • Resistance to bile acids
  • Ability to colonize the GI tract by attaching to epithelial cells

The ability to colonize the GI tract is very important for the long-term effects of the probiotic supplement.  For example, Dr. Plummer cited data that showed a non-colonizing probiotic creates higher levels of beneficial bacteria in the system for only 2 weeks after stopping supplementation, while a colonizing probiotic will last for 8 weeks.

How to take probiotics

Always take with food, never on an empty stomach.  The ph of an empty stomach will kill the probiotic bacteria.  The presence of food creates the correct ph levels for the probiotics to survive intact as they pass into the small intestine.

When taking with antibiotics, separate the doses.. For example, take the antibiotics in the morning and evening, and the probiotics in the middle of the day.

Dosages of probiotics

According to Dr. Plummer, there is no danger of overdosing on probiotics. The maintenance dosage is 2-10 billion bacteria per day. 25 billion per day is the minimum therapeutic dosage, for issues such as antibiotic usage and allergies.

100 billion per day is the high-range dosage for issues such as long-term antibiotic usage or chronic GI issues including IBD, Crohn’s, and ulcerative colitis, or acute issues such as bladder infections and cystitis

Taking probiotics with antibiotics

A common question is how to take probiotics to prevent the negative side effects of antibiotics.  For short-term antibiotic usage, Dr. Plummer suggets you start taking the probiotics at the same time as the antibiotics (spaced at different times in the day).  He suggests a level of 25 billion bacteria per day for 30 days

Probiotic guidelines for other conditions

If you have a question about guidelines for your specific condition, including long-term antibiotic use, IBS, IBD, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, wheat and dairy sensitivities, bladder infections and cystitis, candida overgrowth, gas, bloating and other GI issues, please contact me directly.

A patient heals her GI issues with help of probiotics

Over the last several years, I had not put much effort into researching probiotics or recommending them to my patients.

However, this changed a few months ago when one of my patients insisted I order her some pharmaceutical grade probiotics from the Seroyal company.  She said this brand of probiotics was the only brand that had made a difference for her.  So I set up an account and ordered a bottle for her.

I then ordered another bottle for a patient with a 3-year history of very frequent bowel movements, chronic diarrhea, gas and bloating, and abdominal pain.  With dietary changes, acupuncture, and 2 weeks of probiotic therapy, her symptoms almost completely cleared up.

Encouraged by this outcome, I took Dr. Plummer’s webinar, and I am looking forward to helping my patients work with probiotics in the future.

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