The term probiotic was coined fairly recently (in 1965) and is derived from the Latin “pro-” which means “for” and the Greek “-biotic” which means “life.”
Many people have heard of probiotics and even prebiotics, and may have a vague notion of 'good' bacteria and that it's helpful after a course of antibiotics? The market is flooded with products from yoghurt drinks to expensive supplements, but do you really know what they are and if you could benefit from taking them?
Scientific research into the microbiome otherwise known at the bacteria that live in and on us, is a huge and ever-growing area, while there is lots we do know, there is still masses that is not understood and is still developing. However, what we're starting to see is that the ecology of these microbes is vitally important to our health and wellbeing. We have around 100’000 billion microbes in our intestines, weighing approximately 1.5kg, some people like to refer to this ‘mirobiome’ as an organ in its own right.
When a baby is born their skin and gut are considered pretty much sterile but rapidly become colonised by microbes. If they are born vaginally these will be from the mother's own micro flora, if they are c-section the microbes that set up residency are mainly from the hospital environment, which can set up an imbalance between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria from birth. If this is something that concerns you, you can look into vaginal swabbing. Breast feeding plays a vital role in ensuring a diverse population of 'beneficial' bacteria. When we say breastfeeding is 'good' for the developing immune system, it is actually providing the new born's immune system!
So why are these bugs beneficial and so vital for the immune system, and what really even is the immune system?
In simple terms the immune system protects us from foreign attack and invasion, from pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and other microbes. It can do this in very obvious ways through barriers like the skin, but also through an incredibly complex and sophisticated system involving a delicate dance between specialized immune cells which communicate to each other and signal appropriate responses when required.
What do we mean by appropriate response? As the immune system grows and develops it’s a bit like immature immune cells going to school, not all of them graduate! But through a complex relay system some cells will present pieces of foreign particles and the immune system learns to remember them for swift response in future encounters or learns that they are safe and no response is required.
Research is showing that the communication between the beneficial species of bacteria that live everywhere our bodies come in contact with the outside worlds (the mouth, the lungs, the gastrointestinal system, the urinary/genito and skin) play a vital role in modulating and coordinating this immune response. They play two vital roles, one is simply crowding out, if you have enough good guys in residence the bad guys can’t set up camp, and the second is communicating and signaling to your immune cells and coordinating a first response.
Put simply a good diverse balance of beneficial bugs equals a competent immune system, and when the balance is off we start to see inappropriate responses, such as allergies and recurrent infections and even autoimmune conditions. In the US there is promising research looking a specific bacteria species that may be able to ‘re-train’ regulatory immune cells and prevent autoimmune attack.
So where does it all go wrong? Why are we seeing increases in allergies in children and immune and digestive issues in adults? The ‘Hygeine Hypothesis’ suggests that increasingly clean environments, extensive use of disinfectants, and antibiotics and children less exposed to the microbial world, all result in less exposure to ‘beneficial’ bugs. Levels of beneficial bacteria also decline as we age, and can be altered in states of chronic stress, some research has also shown beneficial changes after exercise.
So what can we do? It’s not always possible to deliver vaginally, and not all mothers are able to breast feed, and often antibiotics and other drugs are lifesaving. But information is power, and if you may have a compromised microbiome, you can look to support it through pre-biotics in the diet, foods that contain fuel for the beneficial bugs, bananas, aspapragus, garlic, leeks, onions, chicory contain high levels. However, people with comprised digestive systems may find these foods aggravate symptoms, so some gut healing is required first. And instead of getting stressed about eating specific foods, I would advise aiming to get a great variety of fruits and vegetables into your daily diet, which will all help promote or maintain the ecology of your microbiome. Fermented foods are very fashionable and often found in traditional diets of many cultures, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, live yoghurt, all contain beneficial bacteria that help support the gut population.
And finally probiotic supplements, the strains, numbers of bacteria, and how long to take them really depends on your particular needs. We all have individual ‘gardens’ of gut flora, our own unique populations and so there is no one ideal balance to aim for. Recent studies has shown however this diversity is set pretty young, which is why the first few years of life are so critical, and after this the balance will always try to revert back to the set point, which is why I would advise mothers with allergy or immune issues in the family to take probiotics in the last trimester of pregnancy. People with long term ‘dysbiosis’ (unbalanced bacteria) may benefit from long term support, however some people only need a short dose to get back to their normal state, e.g after a course of antibiotics.
In summary, the bugs that live in and on us, and are greater in number than our own cells, have been to shown to play vital roles in; Intestinal and skin barriers, providing non-immunological protection against infection, stimulating and modulating the immune development at birth, regulating the immune system throughout life, facilitating a wide variety of metabolic functions. More recent research also shows links with reducing depression and aiding serotonin production, modulating pain, improving cognitive function, and preventing obesity.
If you think you might benefit from probiotic supplementation speak to a health care practitioner or book a consultation to find out more.