More and more, we are hearing about the benefits of probiotics for immune and digestive health. What we don’t hear about as much though, are the many other ways a healthy microbiome supports us. When choosing a probiotic, it’s really important to be aware of what you are buying and why. It is important to know which bacterial strains are helpful for certain conditions, and which brands are formulating their products for maximum therapeutic results. Research on specific strains of bacteria, has shown the multitude of benefits to different body systems they can have. Balanced flora contributes to better nutrition, improved mood and energy, balanced hormones, and prevention of systemic inflammation, to name a few!
Our bodies contain hundreds of different strains of bacteria, which populate specific areas of the body based on their functions. Some strains are more concentrated in the skin, versus the stomach, small intestine, large intestine, or urinary tract. In our gut alone, there are 400-500 different species of bacteria in varying amounts. Certain types of bacteria have been studied for their therapeutic effects in specific areas of the body, and they are not all created equal. For this reason, it is important to consider both the genus (such as Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium) as well as the species (L. reuteri, B. acidophilus, etc), when selecting a probiotic. Luckily most professional companies have made this an easier process to navigate, by formulating probiotics with specific intentions such as immune support, prevention for travelling, female wellness, inflammatory bowel disease, or for the distinct flora that populates a healthy developing gut in children. It’s not just a way to market and sell more product!
There are a few ways that probiotics help to support the immune system; optimizing nutrition, decreasing inflammation in the gut, minimizing food sensitivities through improved gut barrier function… but these healthy bacteria also function to kill pathogenic bacteria directly. Desirable bacteria secrete antimicrobial chemical mediators such as hydrogen peroxide, which decrease the growth of bugs that wreak havoc. Another way our immune system is supported is through proper elimination of wastes, by optimizing the breakdown and elimination of toxins passing through the gut. The gut is one of our main organs of elimination, and a healthy flora is the key to optimal function.
Gut bacteria work to break down and properly digest the foods we eat, in order to maximize absorption of nutrients. Probiotics or healthy flora also help to synthesize vitamins which are produced in the gut such as vitamin B2, B9, B12, vitamin K, and short chain fatty acids. A healthy flora is also associated with optimal levels of vitamin D, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. These are all essential nutrients for energy, brain function, muscle/heart function and our immune system. The production of the fatty acid butyrate, which is now talked about often as a healthy nutrient in ghee, is great for the brain and nerve cells, as well as for healing gut lining.
Mood and mental health
This is a big one! Our microbiome plays a huge part in modulating brain function. Many neurotransmitters that affect mood and energy, such as serotonin, and dopamine, are actually synthesized in the gut. Beneficial bacteria increase receptors for GABA in the brain, which when activated inhibit a sympathetic (fight or flight) response. Levels of oxytocin, our love and connection hormone, is also increased in a healthy microbiome. A healthy gut means optimized production and activation of these neurotransmitters, and therefore decreased levels of anxiety, stress, and depression. In children, research has shown that supplementation with specific bacteria (ie. Bacteroides fragililis), believed to be deficient in children with autism, leads to decreased anxiousness and repetitive behaviours, as well as improved communication. Healthy gut flora also helps to reduce our stress hormone, cortisol, calming the nervous system, and allowing for more restful sleeps. Tryptophan levels are optimized in a healthy gut, which is needed to convert serotonin into melatonin, and allows for regular circadian rhythms and improved sleep. There are profound connections between our gut and brain health; our cognitive function, our mental clarity, our experience of joy and happiness.
Lactobacillus reuteri have been shown to promote optimum insulin levels, which supports blood sugar balance and utilization of our energy sources for fuel. Sensitivity to leptin is also improved, which is a hormone produced by our fat cells to signal to our brain that we are satiated and can/should stop eating. Deficiencies in leptin or our cell’s sensitivity to it, is linked to obesity and metabolic disorders. By reducing cortisol levels, and optimizing insulin and leptin sensitivity, our flora supports weight management goals. Estrogen levels are also balanced in a healthy microbiome, via proper elimination of excess hormones; both endogenous, and exogenous sources such as xenoestrogens. Balanced sex hormones also plays a part in weight management. A healthy flora also stimulates testosterone production in both men and women, which is crucial for building lean muscle mass, and boosting energy, and libido!
When the balance of healthy and pathogenic bacteria is disrupted, it leads to inflammation which can promote the development of chronic inflammatory diseases. Chronic inflammation is involved in heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, and many others. Probiotics help to crowd out pathogenic bacteria, and heal the gut lining to minimize inflammatory processes.
Evidence shows that supplementation with some species of bacteria have more of a therapeutic effect than others. Unfortunately, not all companies prioritize this over shelf stability, or ease of encapsulation. This is where the difference lies in professional brands; and like many other supplements, it is well worth the investment to get a good quality probiotic. Probiotics are an incredible way to support our health, and can be used very effectively when you chose the right product for your specific health concerns.
Love your bugs!
Dr. Brett Simpson, ND
To book an appointment with Dr. Brett Simpson call 604-974-8999