The Link Between Probiotics and Digestive System Health

by Robert Carver
woman wearing Probiotics shirt to promote digestive health

Probiotics are defined as bacteria that help many of the organs in your body carry out many of their major functions.

In the digestive system, they can help your body to absorb and digest many important nutrients like protein and dairy products.  Numerous studies show that many medical conditions associated with the digestive system can also be treated with probiotics.  However, research is largely inconsistent and many unproven rumors exist about how probiotics can treat the common cold and the constant abuse that various digestive organs take as a result of unhealthy lifestyles associated with obesity and alcoholism.

An increasing amount of healthcare providers are using probiotics to help treat certain conditions because there is actually a lot of evidence to support how beneficial they are.  Dozens of diseases are associated with the bacterial environment in your digestive system, so manipulating that environment can help treat those diseases.  Research suggests that probiotics can help with obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, lactose intolerance, constipation, crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and many conditions associated with diarrhea.  Some research also suggests that probiotics can reverse the negative effects on the liver often caused alcohol, fatty foods, and certain non-prescriptions drugs (such as Tylenol).

digestive health with probioticsYour gastrointestinal tract has many effects on aspects of your health unrelated to digestion, which is why probiotics might also be helpful in treating medical conditions that are not directly related to the digestion.  These medical conditions include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and allergies.

Other studies show that the bacteria in your gut may play an important role in your brain chemistry.

Therefore, antibiotics, probiotics, and certain lifestyle choices have effects on your gut, but they also can impact your psychological health, especially when it comes to conditions such as anxiety and depression.  One recent study even found that probiotics can be used to help treat bipolar disorder.

An added benefit of using probiotics for psychological disorders is that probiotics do not have the adverse effects associated with SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which are drugs normally used to treat many conditions such as depression and anxiety.  Probiotics cannot replace antidepressants, but it is possible that, by taking them alongside antidepressants, you can decrease the concentration of antidepressants that you might need.  The mounting evidence that probiotics can help with your mental health has led to the emergence of the concept of psychobiotics, which is using microbes as an intervention for mood disorders.

Scientists do not know all of the specific mechanisms that cause probiotics to help with your digestive system and, by extension, other important organ systems in your body that are closely tied to your digestive tract. The theory is that probiotics increase the diversity of microorganisms in your intestinal tract, which can decrease your chances of having more harmful colonies of bacteria going to live in your gut.

However, more bacteria in your gut does not necessarily mean increased digestive health.

Researchers face many problems when trying to figure out the exact effects of different probiotics because there are still a lot of factors to take into consideration.  For example, different strains of the same probiotic can have very different impacts.  E. coli, for instance, can sometimes cause hemorrhagic diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain or tenderness, nausea, vomiting, kidney failure, and death.  However, sometimes, it can also improve symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other gastrointestinal disorders.  Additionally, scientists do not fully understand how different probiotics interact with each other.  They might know how some bacteria can be beneficial in isolation, but very little is known about how combinations of probiotics and prebiotics (certain foods and ingredients that can promote the growth of key bacteria found in your gut) can help or harm your body.

probiotic bacteriaUnfortunately, many studies on the link between probiotics digestion system health show varying results often because clinical trials do not use uniform probiotic types, strains, doses, treatment durations, manufacturing processes, and storage conditions.  Furthermore, it is unclear if it is better to administer probiotics to patients who fit within a certain age range.  Studies are actually relatively consistent when it comes to using probiotics to treat conditions related to diarrhea in patients of all ages.  This is especially true of diarrhea in those who were taking antibiotics, so it seems that probiotics can unsurprisingly reverse some of the negative side effects of antibiotics.  However, studies on other conditions – such as crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – are less reliable or untested.  When it comes to using probiotics to reverse the negative effects on the liver to due to alcohol, studies show that probiotics have worked on mice, but human testing has not yet begun.

Another obstacle is the lack of a systematic labeling standard when it comes to probiotic supplements, so when you go out to buy probiotic supplements, it is very difficult to know the exact nature of the probiotics or prebiotics that you are putting into your body.  Additionally, there is currently no way of ensuring that probiotics are shipped and stored in cold environments.  However, if probiotics are not kept cold, then they are more likely to be ineffective.

There is no question that the right types of probiotics can provide you with healthy advantages.

Probiotics also probably do help to treat certain medical conditions and to reverse many of the adverse side effects of antibiotics.  However, there is not enough research to show that probiotics are capable of replacing any other popular method of treating medical conditions.  Additionally, they are not a simple solution to the dealing with the adverse impact that unhealthy lifestyle choices may have on your digestive tract.

It still is important to eat dairy products such as yogurt to make sure you are taking enough probiotics.  If you do not eat enough food groups that contain probiotics, you should definitely consider talking to your health care provider about trying probiotic supplements.  However, do not expect your probiotic supplements to help you manage other medical conditions.  It might provide some benefit, but there is no solid research that that they can make a significant difference.

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