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Probiotics Provide Vital Protection Against Chronic Disease

May 2014

By Michael Downey

Probiotics Provide Vital Protection against Chronic Disease  

Probiotics, the beneficial bacteria commonly found in yogurt cultures, are popularly thought of as an aid to good digestion. But scientists are discovering that probiotics and the resulting healthy balance of gut bacteria confer a broad spectrum of previously unrecognized health benefits.1

As we age, take antibiotics, or eat an unhealthy diet, the delicate balance between beneficial and bad gut bacteria becomes disrupted.2-4 Not having the proper balance of good-to-bad bacteria can wreak havoc throughout the body as well.5-9

For instance, scientists have discovered that an imbalance of healthy gut bacteria plays an important role in the development of chronic conditions such as autoimmune disorders, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue syndrome, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).5-11

So while supplementing with good bacteria has been seen as providing defense primarily against intestinal conditions—such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and colon cancer—scientists now believe that they help prevent many of the diseases of aging as well.6,7,9,11-13

Fortunately, evidence demonstrates that supplementing with the right mix of probiotic bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species can powerfully ward off many of the factors leading to chronic disease.12 Probiotics can restore your body’s natural, intestine-based protection against a host of non-intestinal diseases and shield you from the diseases of aging.5-11

Total Body Benefits Of Balanced Gut Bacteria

It has long been known that certain types of beneficial gut bacteria:

  • Help break down dietary residues (such as indigestible fibers) and synthesize vitamins;
  • Limit pathogenic colonization within the gut, protecting our bodies from infections; and
  • Play a crucial role in the immune system, an estimated 70-80% of which is located in and around the gut.14,15

But compelling new evidence indicates that good bacteria also play a beneficial role outside the digestive tract, delivering broad-spectrum protection throughout the body.5-11

For example, two of the most studied and proven groups of bacteria—Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium —have been found to protect against diseases not normally associated with intestinal origins.16-18

Scientific studies have found associations between different species of Lactobacillus ( Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus paracasei, and Lactobacillus rhamnosus) and increased HDL cholesterol, balanced immune response, and reduced markers of inflammation, respectively.16

Similarly, associations have been found between different Bifidobacterium species (Bifidobacterium lactis, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Bifidobacterium longum) and improved blood sugar control, decreased liver inflammation, and reduced DNA damage that could trigger malignant cell development, respectively.16-18

How Intestinal Imbalance Affects The Entire Body

How Intestinal Imbalance Affects The Entire Body  

So why is it that an imbalance in gut bacteria affects areas of the body outside of the intestines?

The answer lies in the fact that the intestinal tract contains one of the highest concentrations of chemical detection and signaling molecules—molecules that affect cells throughout your entire body.15

Your intestinal bacteria produce proteins that have a powerful influence on these chemical detectors—and as with any influence, this one can be positive or negative.19 Over time, an imbalance in the ratio of good-to-bad bacteria activates many of these detectors in negative ways that can trigger the development of a host of diseases in many body areas—not just those associated with the gut.5-11

Fortunately, using probiotic supplements to restore a healthy balance to your gut bacteria can reverse these disruptions to intestine-based signaling mechanisms. This, in turn, reverses the negative influence that triggers the development of chronic disease.20

The Powerful Role Of Probiotics In Cancer

As an example, take just one deadly disease: cancer. Scientists have demonstrated that probiotic organisms switch on protective signaling mechanisms that:

  • Suppress bacteria that convert pro-carcinogen molecules into carcinogens.21,22
  • Bind to potential carcinogens, promoting their excretion.21
  • Decrease enzymes implicated in the development of carcinogens.21
  • Boost populations of immune cells that play a role in tumor inhibition.22,23
  • Up-regulate immune cytokines to battle the early stage of cancer or other threats.22
  • Suppress the inflammatory response as the cancer or infection threat fades.22,24
What You Need To Know
Probiotics And Chronic Disease

Probiotics And Chronic Disease

  • Evidence shows that prolonged imbalance in intestinal bacteria can do more than induce intestinal diseases—it can trigger lethal diseases throughout the body!
  • Properly balanced gut bacteria produce biologically active proteins that cross into the blood. In this way, “good bacteria” inhibit pathways of numerous chronic diseases—including obesity, diabetes, the metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory infections.
  • Today’s diet, lifestyle, medical practices, and other factors tend to disrupt gut bacterial balance.
  • Evidence shows that supplementing with key species restores the proper balance of beneficial bacteria—in turn restoring your body’s natural, intestine-based protection against a host of non-intestinal diseases!

Probiotics Protect Against Numerous Diseases

Experimental models and randomized, controlled human intervention studies have confirmed that taking a probiotic supplement to restore the balance of gut bacteria also restores natural protection against multiple diseases.25 Take a look:

Intestinal health. A popular use of probiotics is to improve intestinal health by increasing levels of beneficial bacteria.26,27 Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, two of the most studied types of beneficial bacteria, have been shown to support intestinal function and improve both diarrhea and constipation.28-30 Probiotic supplements have helped improve both the quality of life and symptoms of patients with functional bowel disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis, as well as those of generally healthy people.29,31-33

Diabetes and the metabolic syndrome. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria probiotics demonstrated improvement in insulin resistance and significant reductions in blood sugar concentrations in animal studies and human diabetes clinical trials.17,34-36 In a 6-week study of patients with type II diabetes, fasting glucose and hemoglobin A1c (a measure of long-term blood sugar control) were significantly improved through consumption of a probiotic yogurt containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis; total antioxidant status also increased.17

Obesity. An association between antibiotic overuse and obesity has been demonstrated.37 Studies of probiotic supplementation in animal models and humans showed a reduction in body weight and fat accumulation.38-40 Studies show that probiotic supplements given to mothers prenatally (meaning from at least one month before birth and continuing up to 6 months after birth), subsequently reduced excessive weight gain in the mothers—and their children!41,42

Six Factors Behind Gut Imbalance
Six Factors Behind Gut Imbalance

The lethal implications for the link between gut imbalance and increased disease risks are clear. But what factors are behind this dangerous imbalance? The answer is that accompanying the rise in a number of diseases in Western societies is the increased influence of a host of factors that continually disrupt our natural gut bacteria balance.

  1. Antibiotics . One cause of an imbalance between good-to-bad bacteria is the unnecessary use of antibiotics.65 Antibiotic use, even at low sub-therapeutic doses, can disrupt the number and relative proportions of gut bacteria.37
  2. Infant formula . Common use of infant formula instead of breast milk has interfered with mankind’s long history of transferring bacterial diversity from mother to baby.65,66 Similarly, Caesarian delivery prevents babies from inheriting diverse bacteria from their mothers.65
  3. Excessive hygiene . An exploding obsession with hygiene has drastically reduced our ability to naturally acquire certain key bacteria from our environment.65
  4. Western Diet. The Western diet—high in animal proteins and fats, sugars, and refined carbohydrates—causes a rise in undesirable bacteria, not counterbalanced by those that hold them at ideal levels. An example would be a rise in Firmicutes bacteria associated with obesity.37,67 In animals whose digestive tracts were colonized with human bacterial lines, switching from a low-fat, plant polysaccharide-rich diet to a high-fat/high-sugar Western diet adversely shifted the balance of the gut bacteria within a single day.67 Additionally, this dietary shift resulted in changes to metabolic pathways within the gut bacterial ecosystem and altered bacterial gene expression.67 Much of the food in the Western diet is made up of refined carbohydrates, which are absorbed in the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract.68 What eventually reaches the large intestine is of limited value to microbiota in this area because it contains only small amounts of the minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients necessary to maintain them.68 As a result, the numbers and diversity of beneficial intestinal bacteria of modern humans is greatly reduced, compared to the diets of Paleolithic man.68
  5. Modern Medical Treatments. A number of modern medical treatments are known to severely impair the proper balance of gut bacteria.68 These include artificial ventilation, hygienic measures, use of skin-penetrating devices, tubes and catheters, frequent pharmaceutical use, and more.68
  6. Age. Recent findings suggest that aging disrupts the bacterial makeup of the gut. This imbalance may contribute to the age-related increase in inflammation known as “inflammaging.”69-71

Cardiovascular disease. In studies conducted on both animals and humans, the use of probiotics decreased total and LDL cholesterol, and increased HDL cholesterol.35,43-45 In addition, recent studies suggest that supplements of beneficial bacteria can reduce cholesterol absorption and the inflammation of fat stores.46,47 These changes contribute to a significant decrease in the formation of inflammatory, cholesterol-laden plaques observed in early atherosclerosis.46,48,49

Cancer. The risk of cancer, particularly of the colon, can be reduced through the use of probiotics.50 Scientists have shown that supplementation with Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium longum significantly decreases the DNA damage that can trigger malignant cell development—confirmed by a reduction in DNA strand-breaking compounds in human feces.18 Replenishing beneficial bacteria with supplements has been found to boost natural antioxidant and detoxification enzymes that prevent the activation of potential dietary carcinogens.50,51

Also, patients with colon cancer and those with pre-cancerous polyps had sharply reduced proliferation of abnormal colon cells and a significant decline in harmful Clostridium bacteria when supplemented with synbiotics (probiotic bacteria combined with prebiotics, which are substances that feed or promote the accompanying bacteria).52

Respiratory infections. Probiotics can significantly suppress respiratory infections such as the common cold and the flu—especially if you begin supplementing prior to cold and flu season.53-56 Studies show that people who supplemented for 3-6 months with different strains of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus reduced the duration of symptoms by an average of one to two or even more days, with a similarly impressive reduction in symptom severity.53,54 Two studies in children who were given both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium twice daily for 3 to 6 months found a significant decrease in school absenteeism and in the use of antibiotics, as well as reduced symptoms and duration.54,55

Colonization of the nose by potentially pathogenic bacteria, a common complication of colds, was shown to be reduced by 19% with regular probiotic use while the control group showed no change.56 This effect could save the lives of those who are older, or who have a compromised immune system due to chronic disease such as diabetes, or who have recently undergone a major operation—all of whom have a higher risk of being overwhelmed by bacterial infection, particularly those infections affecting the lungs.57-59

The Dangers Of Gut Imbalance
The Dangers Of Gut Imbalance

Illness and severe infections are closely associated with significantly reduced and malfunctioning gut bacteria.68 Compared with healthy individuals, critically ill patients often have 10,000 times fewer Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus, and other bacteria. They also have 100 times more pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria, such as Staphylococcus.72 Also, organ failure and ICU (intensive care unit) mortality is more common in patients with substantially reduced microbiota populations and diversity combined with the presence of large numbers of enterococci.73

Imbalance and disruption of intestinal flora has been found to impair the body’s ability to maintain the integrity of its mucosal membranes, the protective layers that inhibit pathogens from penetrating the organs and body cavities. As a result, mucosal membranes can no longer prevent the leakage of toxins.68

However, researchers have shown that an imbalance in gut bacteria can be inhibited and even reversed through supplementation with probiotics.74,75

The Importance Of Multiple Species

Although good bacteria can be found in small amounts in food, changing the entire ratio of gut bacteria requires substantial and consistent dosing with supplements providing potent levels of beneficial bacteria to enable their survival.60,61

Two types of probiotic bacteria commonly used include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. There are many specific types of bacteria within each of these two broad groups, and health benefits associated with one type may be unique to that specific species and not hold true for others.62 This means that using multiple different species delivers better odds of reversing the negative effects of dysbacteriosis, a condition where there is an imbalance between good and bad bacteria.63,64