We’re all walking around with a bunch of bacteria in our guts. But, before you get grossed out and click away to the latest Miley antics know this: Some of this bacteria is good for us and may be fighting the good fight to fend off sickness.
Research shows that these beneficial microbes can help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) — something that affects about twice as many women as men and is most often found in people younger than 45, according to studies cited by the National Institute of Health’s National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. They can also help subdue some of the side effects of taking antibiotics (like diarrhea, for example) and even help fight symptoms associated with the common cold, as shown in a 2012 study of college students by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Health Related Professions (now part of Rutgers University).
So, how does this friendly bacteria get in our system, and how can we maximize its beneficial power? After we’re born, we begin to host and grow a colony of microbes in our guts. Of course, as we age and succomb to the temptations of less-than-healthy diets (like foregoing adequate fiber, veggies and other nutritional intake for, say, cronuts and the like), then our healthy microbial flora begins to wane, decreasing our ability to preemptively strike against colds, IBS, and more.
While a lot of the research in this area is still emerging, there are things we can do to benefit these living microbes, strengthen our constitution, and keep our guts in fighting shape — like giving our beneficial microflora something to nosh on (prebiotics) or find ways to bolster their community (probiotics).
One way to stabilize our beneficial bacteria is to literally feed them. In short, for the microbial ecosystem to keep growing, the microorganisms have to grow. And, they do this by eating carbs that we don’t digest and turning those carbs into the clean fatty acids that Mary Ellen Sanders, executive director of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics, says are good for the gut environment. By eating fiber or taking a prebiotic supplement, we are able to encourage these more positive members of the community, since, “Typically, the microbes that eat these prebiotics are the more beneficial components of your microbiota,” Sanders says.
Another way to encourage our friendly microbe population is by eating foods (like yogurt and kefir) or taking supplements rich in probiotics. Probiotics are strains of live microorganisms (that’s right, the bacteria must be alive when we consume it) that positively interact with microbes, host cells, and the immune system as they traverse through the gut. While on this journey through the gut, research has shown that these beneficial microbes replicate and hang around awhile, supporting a healthier overall ecosystem.
While these concepts seem simple and straightforward, there are some caveats to consider before making probiotics and prebiotics the new stars of your not-gonna-get-sick-this-winter health plan. One is that there are different strains of bacteria that we can consume as probiotics and feed with prebiotics, but because the science is still new, we don’t know what strains best benefit which people.
Sanders explains: “We know that when you look at the probiotic species, we talk about them as being good because we’ve documented these health effects. And, we know these microbes well enough to know that don’t cause disease. If they have a metabolism that isn’t problematic, we call them good — the impact they have on our flora is a positive one for the most part. But, we can’t say bacteria A is better than bacteria B.”
In addition to not knowing which of the beneficial bacteria may be better than others, it’s also hard to pinpoint which specific bacterial strains absolutely protect against specific symptoms. “We are dealing with certain holes in the research and in our understanding of what’s going on with probiotics,” Sanders says. “We’ve got these studies that give some indication of what they can do but, but there’s lots of gaps in the knowledge. We’re not able to absolutely say for the general population...that you need strain A for this [symptom] or strain B for that [symptom].”
“Part of the challenge now is understanding who responds to certain strains and who doesn’t. This can have to do with how you’re colonized. There aren't enough studies to really know those subtleties yet,” she says, adding, “What we are able to say is when you look at the published studies, there are some strains that have been tested and have shown some benefits.”
Despite all that is still to be discovered about these healthy bacteria, scientific consensus also shows that there is little known risk to consuming probiotics to optimize microflora. While she notes that everyone is different and people should consult their doctors when making health decisions, Sanders also says that taking probiotics and prebiotics is, “not like taking a drug with a big side effect. Basic probiotics have been around for a long time and there’s generally not a big safety problem. So, your biggest risk is the $30 bucks or so you’d spend to try it for a month,” she says.
Bob Hutkins, professor of food sciences at the University of Nebraska, whose namesake Hutkins lab studies the bacteria in fermented foods important for human health, agrees, saying, “For a normal healthy person, there is little risk in consuming probiotics or prebiotics. It might be possible to over-consume prebiotics to the point where intestinal discomfort could occur. But, in general, the effective dose (around five grams) is far less than that which would cause symptoms.”
Consult with a doctor to find whether probiotics and prebiotics may be right for you, and look to some published guidelines, like these recommendations from leading probiotics researcher Martin H. Floch, MD, and others. They point to consuming strains for certain conditions, like B Biﬁdobacterium infantis, C Biﬁdobacterium animalis, and Lactobacillus plantarum, for IBS, for example.
Many of us can get the probiotic boost we need simply by eating a healthy diet. Hutkins recommends consuming, “fermented vegetables, like sauerkraut, pickles and olives, that have not been heat-processed; otherwise the bacteria will not be alive. Unfortunately, most commercial products have been heat-processed (though natural food stores might have the non-heated versions).” He also notes that unheated kimchi or miso might make for good choices, though miso also contains a lot of sodium.
Foods that contain prebiotic fiber don’t have to be fermented, per se, and Hutkins suggests consuming leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, onions, garlic, root vegetables, oats, soybeans, wheat, seaweed, pulpy fruits, or fruit with peel or skin for prebiotic fiber.
While she tries to consume a diet rich in probiotics and prebiotics herself, Sanders points out that supplements can be a convenient way to continue probiotic and prebiotic intake when taking antibiotics or traveling abroad, since research shows that these beneficial bacteria can help with traveler’s diarrhea.
And, while nothing is guaranteed, making a conscious choice to include a little more beneficial bacteria in our diet this winter may just be the boost we need to help combat colds that plague our offices this time of year.