Gastrointestinal Health – Can Probiotics Make A Difference?

By Holly WhiteKnight, ND

A cute and very accurate bumper sticker from one of the Naturopathic Medical Schools reads: “The road to health is paved with good intestines”. The overall health of our body is in fact, intimately linked to the health of our intestines.

With an abundance of research connecting chronic health issues to the gastrointestinal tract (gut), we as naturopaths have a lot that we can offer to help heal your gut and get you on the road to healing your life. Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s Disease, Celiac Disease, gluten sensitivity/intolerance, food allergies; these are all situations where there is significant inflammation somewhere in the gut. Such hostile conditions in the gut will eventually affect other parts of the body overtime and further weaken the immune system.

A large portion of our immune system lives in the gut. The body needs a positive balance of healthy bacteria (flora) in order to remain in good health and to prevent inflammatory states. The immune system in the gut must be strong enough to properly identify harmful bacteria and stimulate the body’s immune response to fight off infections and to keep the negative bacteria at bay and from multiplying to numbers that lead to a subsequent infection.

We all know that stress affects our mood. But what researchers are finding out now is that stress also affects our gut. It has been shown that psychological stress has almost immediate impacts upon the bacterial populations in our gut. Some of these affected sub-populations strongly influence the way in which stress impacts our immune system.

It also has been shown that the gut can be viewed as our second brain. When we have chronic inflammation in our gut, we can eventually develop inflammation in the brain, which can lead to unpleasant neurological symptoms. The health of the gut bacteria will also influence the human brain development and behaviour. This is why it is important to start infants and children on the right path for a healthy gut.

How can we help our beneficial bacterial populations flourish? Fortunately there are many ways, many of which you would need to speak to a naturopath to help tailor an individual protocol that meets your specific needs, but a general list follows:
– Try to keep your stress to a minimum.
– Take a good quality probiotic. (See below)
– Maintain a healthy diet rich in vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Avoid additives, preservatives, food colouring and other chemicals. Eat fresh foods. Minimize unhealthy fats and sweets.
– Use alcohol in moderation – it directly alters the bacteria of the gut.
– Other things that alter the health and beneficial bacteria of the gut: antibiotics, steroids, oral contraceptives, vaccines, infections, dental work, radiation, pollution, and aging. Although you cannot control or prevent all of these things, it is a good idea to talk to your naturopath about what you can do to help minimize health effects of the aforementioned.

What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics according to the WHO are “Live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host”. There are approximately 50-100 species that live in the gut. Since there are so many different strains of bacteria it is best to speak with a naturopath who can help you select a type and strength that is appropriate for your current situation.

What are the Benefits of Probiotic Use?
Using of a variety of strains of probiotics have been investigated and shown to have benefits for a range of conditions. Some of the most common conditions known to benefit from probiotic therapy are: diarrhea, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea, traveler’s diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, pouchitis), constipation, allergies, GERD, infant colic, pancreatitis, necrotizing enterocolitis, colon cancer, allergic diseases including atopic dermatitis (eczema), urogential infections, H.pylori gastric infections, prevention of common cold, winter infections, lactose intolerance, oral health and intestinal inflammation.

Which Probiotic Is For Me?
If you are looking for a general health maintenance probiotic, make sure there is at least one strain specific to the small intestine and one strain specific to the large intestine. Be wary about getting your probiotics exclusively from yogurt. Even though a few companies have put their product through clinical trials, the yogurt is typically packed with sugars and fillers and it is virtually impossible to know how many colonies of the probiotic are viable and how much you are getting (if any) per serving. A high quality probiotic supplement will have gone through rigorous testing, have several human studies backing up the research, and will disclose the type of strains of probiotic in addition to the number of colony forming units that are present (how many bacteria are in the supplement).

Supplementing with probiotics is just one of the many ways of positively influencing the health of your gut. If just starting now, it is best to clear out the gut’s current damage with a detox and then getting on a strict probiotic and healing regime afterwords. Naturopaths can offer specific diets and lifestyle changes to help minimize inflammation and progression of chronic disease. A combination of botanical herbs, acupuncture and clinical nutrition may also be an option to help you on your way to a healthy gut and a healthy life.