By Dr. Scott Colasanti
It is very difficult to walk into a store today, whether it be a health food store or a supermarket, and not see products on the shelves with probiotics in them. Television is now riddled with yogurt commercials boasting that their brand has this many million of that culture.
So what exactly is a probiotic?
If we break down the word into ‘pro’ which essentially means ‘in favour’ and ‘biotic’ which means ‘living organisms’ we come up with ‘favourable organism’ (more or less).
A recent World Health Organization definition simply states that a probiotic is a live microorganism that may confer a health benefit to the host. The fact of the matter is that our bodies contain trillions of microorganisms that co-exist with us (the host) in a delicate balance or ‘ecology’ in our guts.
This beneficial population of microorganisms is sometimes referred to as our ‘normal gut flora’. Astonishingly we have on average about four pounds of these tiny tenants living in our guts!
These guys are not exactly freeloaders though, as they are important to us for many reasons –
Most of the ‘immune’ (lymphatic) tissue in our body is located in the walls of our intestines. The local flora plays a crucial role in the proper functioning of this tissue, and they produce natural antibiotics as well. This puts our flora on the front line of defence for our immune systems.
Digestion of our food doesn’t stop at the small intestine. With the help of our flora, digestion continues as they extract and manufacture vitamins like biotin, Vitamin K, and certain hormones. They prevent the growth or harmful or pathogenic microorganisms.
So what can happen when things go out of balance? When the natural balance of flora is upset, this is referred to as gut dysbiosis which means that the ‘bad bugs’ (disease causing bacteria, for instance) begin to edge out the ‘good bugs’. This will then have a negative effect on our digestion and can lead to any number of physiologic problems throughout the body. Problems like diarrhea, constipation and colitis all the way to irritable bowel syndrome, psoriasis, depression, and asthma to name a few. The ‘bad bugs’ also break down and produce their own toxic bi-products (called xenobiotics), which also wreak havoc on our bodies.
How does this happen to us? With the average diet there may be numerous assaults on the friendly bacteria. They may include antibiotic treatment, birth control pills, radiation therapy, constipation, and a diet that is high in animal fats and processed foods, which contains inadequate fiber. This can create a microbial imbalance, which leads to dysbiosis..
Along with a proper diet, probiotics can help by providing more of ‘the good’ to offset ‘the bad’ therefore helping to restore a normal gut ecology. Not all products are created equal. Choosing a good probiotic depends on its potency. This is usually represented in the number of colony forming units (CFUs). The higher the better.
Yogurt or other fermented products may contain probiotic as long as they still contain live cultures. It may say this on the bottle but may not necessarily be the case. If you buy probiotics in pill or powder form, it is best to go with a reputable manufacturer.
Generally, a good probiotic should have to be refrigerated to maintain its potency. In the end, to be sure you get one that works, make sure you’re getting a probiotic with good quality including potency, purity, and appropriate strains. It’s best to check with your healthcare provider if you have any questions as to which would be best for you.
As the saying goes, “the proof is in the pudding”, or in this case, the yogurt!