Probiotics Are the Go-To Guys for Gut Health

Last week, as you may recall, I wrote about prebiotics, those behind-the-scenes digestive health assistants that serve to nurture probiotics, their more widely celebrated colleagues. Known to help increase bowel regularity while decreasing gas and bloating, probiotics are making their way onto more and more top-10 health lists so it’s not so surprising to find them tucked into all manner of foods and beverages, with labels slapped on touting their health benefits.

However, the formula for using probiotics to optimize your health is somewhat more nuanced than merely spooning up a daily serving of yogurt! That’s okay — giving you the “story behind the story” is exactly what Daily Health News is here to do. So read on to learn the real secret to putting probiotics to work for you.

Probiotics Go Mainstream

Probiotics are definitely getting more respect. A friend told me that her doctor gave her the name of a probiotic supplement when he handed her an antibiotic prescription, telling her to take them to replenish the valuable intestinal bacteria that the antibiotics would suppress. Probiotics have made their way into the hospital world, too — they’re given to patients to help prevent deadly intestinal diseases that have resulted from antibiotic-resistant superbugs… researchers are studying their use for premature babies… and a few doctors even are urging consideration of a new hand-hygiene protocol that involves dipping caregivers’ hands into probiotic solutions after scrubbing in order to recolonize the skin with good bacteria.

Maybe those doctors are also telling patients to buy probiotic-fortified foods at the supermarket — and there’s nothing wrong with doing so. But Leo Galland, MD, director of the Foundation for Integrated Medicine in New York City, wants us to understand that we won’t achieve any meaningful benefits by relying on these probiotic-fortified food sources alone.

Why We Need Supplements

Dr. Galland explained that acid naturally present in most probiotic-containing foods suppresses these helpful bacteria, at least partially — so it’s impossible to know how many cultures survive and are of benefit. He believes that supplements are a better route since they reliably deliver a beneficial number of probiotic organisms.

However, he pointed out that specific types of probiotics can be used to address specific health concerns. This is another argument for supplements instead of probiotic-fortified foods and another reason why it’s important to work with a doctor (a naturopathic physician or a gastroenterologist experienced in working with prebiotics and probiotics) who can ascertain what’s best for you, how much you should take and at what times of day.

Dr. Galland told me that he tends to prescribe specific types of probiotics in certain situations. For example…

  • For people with no particular health concerns, Dr. Galland might suggest 20 billion Colony Forming Units (CFUs) of combined lactobacillus and bifidobacterium “as a good general preventative for intestinal and respiratory tract infections.”
  • For people taking antibiotics, Saccharomyces boulardii (S. boulardii, brand name Florastor) usually is the best choice (though actually this particular probiotic is not a bacteria but a yeast). It’s also helpful in boosting effectiveness of Flagyl (metronidazole) and is used to treat Clostridium difficile colitis and antibiotic-associated colitis, as well as other bacterial and nonbacterial intestinal infections. Note: Dr. Galland said that S. boulardii should be taken only for the duration of antibiotic or Flagyl treatment, after which he switches his patients to a bacteria-based probiotic.
  • For patients having abdominal surgery, Dr. Galland prescribes Lactobacillus plantarum for a few weeks before and after surgery, since research shows that it helps reduce postoperative infections. Other studies demonstrate that lactobacillus probiotics can help to reduce frequency of diarrhea and abdominal pain in cancer patients as well.
  • For gas and bloating, Dr. Galland said that certain soil-based organisms (called “SBOs” — for instance, one kind is Bacillus laterosporus) can be helpful. These probiotics aren’t normally found in the human digestive system and they won’t take up permanent residence, so patients who find them beneficial may want to continue taking them daily even after their symptoms have subsided, he added.

What’s Best for You?

As with prebiotics, Dr. Galland said that it may take some trial and error to identify which probiotics are helpful in achieving the desired results without upsetting your system. He has found Lactobacillus plantarum beneficial for many of his patients, but it isn’t always the right choice. Dr. Galland told me that experienced doctors often use sophisticated stool test results to identify the types of bacteria already in a patient’s system, since this information can help determine the best course of pre- and probiotic therapy, along with other natural supplements that will yield good results.

If you want to try adding probiotics to your personal health regimen, talk to a doctor with expertise in this area and expect to start slowly and watch closely to see what works best. (You’ll know it’s working if it helps diminish digestive difficulties, such as gas, indigestion and irregular bowel movements.) This may mean that you end up trying several different types of probiotics before you find what helps your system function best. Stick with it though, since these beneficial bacteria have the potential to transform your health for the better.