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Probiotics: Not Just For Digestive Disorders

by Leanne J. Sotir, PhD, RNCP

 

Today many idividuals suffer from digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, candida, ulcers and acid reflux. Currently, our country is facing an epidemic of digestive illness related to the foods we eat and our lifestyle (Lipsky, 2005). When we think of autoimmune diseases, we think of conditions such as allergies, asthma, chronic fatigue, and rheumatoid arthritis. We do not always recognize that these diseases can also be triggered by faulty digestion. According to the National Institutes of Health (2002), physicians and scientists have identified more than eighty clinically distinct autoimmune diseases to date. Approximately anywhere from 14 to 22 million people in the U. S. population are affected and most are women. Most people believe that the digestive tract and the immune system are two separate things. According to Lipsky (2005), “Seventy percent of the immune system is located in or around our digestive tract” (p.27). Restoring and maintaining digestive health is vitally important to someone who has a digestive disorder, but should also be considered for a person who may be suffering with an autoimmune condition.

WHY ARE MANY PEOPLE SUFFERING FROM DIGESTIVE AND IMMUNE DISORDERS AT ALARMING RATES?
Most people are familiar with bacteria but it is usually associated with something negative. Many individuals are not aware that our digestive tract contains large amounts of something called good bacteria. This beneficial bacteria keeps the bad bacteria, viruses, fungi and other foreign pathogenic microbes from causing problems with our health. This healthy bacterium is also used to manufacture B and K vitamins, increase absorption of nutrients from our foods, as well as manufacture neurotransmitters that are needed for healthy brain function. If we cannot process nutrients from our food, our health can suffer greatly, causing problems with digestion, mental health, and immunity. When this healthy flora is not abundant or imbalanced in the digestive tract, it is referred to as dysbiosis.
 
WHAT CAUSES DYSBIOSIS?
Although there may be multiple factors to developing dysbiosis, two major contributors are a processed food diet and the overuse of antibiotics. Most processed foods are denatured and do not contain the vital nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, enzymes, essential fatty acids, amino acids, and beneficial bacteria that are needed for healthy digestion and immunity. Nutrition is a key player in maintaining a healthy digestive tract and many Americans have gotten away from consuming a diet that consists of whole foods, and have adopted a diet that is abundant in processed foods. Isolauri (2001)  states" In the past, methods of food preservation involved either the natural fermentation or drying of foods; thus, the human diet once contained several times more bacteria than it does today" (p.1142). This loss of healthy bacteria that is needed for proper functioning of the digestive tract can cause the digestive system to breakdown slowly overtime. Although antibiotics may be necessary at times, their overuse can kill off good bacteria in the digestive tract, causing faulty digestion and immune system malfunction. Dr. Dash (2005) states, “Almost any antibiotic will change the bacterial balance in the intestines” (p. 25).
 
WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS AND WHY SHOULD I SUPPLEMENT WITH THEM?
Probiotics are a form of good bacteria that can be purchased in supplement form. The two most researched forms of beneficial bacteria are lactobacilli, found mainly in the small intestine, and bifidobacteria, found mainly in the large intestine (colon). These strains are the most abundant forms found in the intestines. Supplementing with probiotics will help the body replenish the good bacteria that is lost when we consume a poor diet or when we take certain medications. Today even mainstream medicine is open to the concept of probiotic therapy for many gastrointestinal problems. Most people would never think that symptoms and conditions such as allergies, skin conditions, arthritis, depression, or even a more serious condition such as cancer could be helped by replenishing the good bacteria in the gut.
 
PROBIOTICS ARE NOT JUST FOR DIGESTIVE DISORDERS
Extensive research has been done using probiotics showing beneficial results with gastrointestinal issues that include various diarrheal illnesses such as rotavirus diarrhea, traveler’s diarrhea, antibiotic-associated diarrhea, and Clostridium difficile diarrhea. However, new research is emerging showing that the integrity of the digestive tract can improve conditions that affect the immune system as well. Vanderhoof (2001) states, ”New data suggests that probiotics might be useful in controlling inflammatory diseases, treating and preventing allergic diseases, preventing cancer, and stimulating the immune system, which may reduce the incidence of respiratory disease” (p. 1152). One of the ways this healthy gut bacteria enhances immune function is by increasing the body’s number of immune system cells.

Not all probiotics contain enough good bacteria to replenish the healthy flora in the gut. Be sure to choose a high quality one that contains at least 50 billion microorganisms. Whether someone suffers from mild digestive issues or a more serious medical condition, adhering to a whole food diet and adding a high quality probiotic to their daily regimen is a great start. This is a positive step forward to improving digestion as well as immunity.

This article has been published in the Fall/Winter (2013/2014) edition of Healthy Living Magazine

REFERENCES:

Dash, S. K. (2005). The consumer’s guide to probiotics. Canada: Freedom Press.

Isolauri, E. (2001). Probiotics in human disease (electronic version). American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73, 1142-1146.

Lipsky, E. (2005). Digestive wellness. New York: McGraw-Hill.

National Institutes of Health. (2002). Autoimmune diseases coordinating committee: Autoimmune research plan. Retrieved May 17, 2011 from http://niaid.nih.gov/topics/autoimmune/Documents/adcoreports.pdf

Vanderhoof, J. (2001). Probiotics: Future directions. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 73, 1152-1155.