why probiotics are good for you

What are probiotics, and what are their benefits?

Probiotics are “good bugs” that work with your body to promote immune function, mood, gut health, and good nutrition. We get them from various sources – namely food and supplements – and are crucial for optimal health.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms like yeast and bacteria that we can consume. Why on earth would we want to eat bacteria? Because it turns out they are pretty important to our health. There are actually more of these tiny organisms than there are cells of us! Trillions of microorganisms live in and on us. According to the human microbiome project, “Bacteria in an average human body number ten times more than human cells…” Because they are so small, the microbiome only weighs about 2-6 pounds for an average adult.

To understand why probiotics are beneficial, we need to understand what the microbiome does for us. The microbiome has recently been considered an organ system and has garnered much scientific study and media attention. Health-food store walls teeming with new probiotic products attest to their recent time in the spotlight. But why all the hype? 

The human microbiome

Most of our microbial friends live in our gastrointestinal tract, others live on our skin, and some are found in the vagina. Different species populate different areas like the mouth, stomach, and intestines. There are different types of organisms included in the microbiome, like yeast and bacteria. These trillions of organisms have many functions in the human body. Natural practitioners like to say that “60% of the immune system lives in the gut.” This is because the GI tract is technically considered “outside” the body and directly connects with the outside world. We are basically walking donuts. A large concentration of immune tissue in the gut lining and gut health regulates immune function in the body as a whole. Our microbiome plays a large part in this regulation. 

The collective microbes are often referred to as “flora,” and these little bugs are important for regulating the gut-brain connection. Our GI tract is called “the second brain” because we have as many nerves in the gut as the CNS (central nervous system). This means there is a ton of communication that goes between the gut and the brain. Gut health affects mood and cognitive function, and the microbiome is crucial to gut health. Our flora helps to crowd out pathogenic (or bad) bacteria and yeast. For example, there is a beneficial yeast species called saccharomyces boulardii used to help manage chronic yeast infections. When good bugs take up all the available real estate, bad bugs cannot move in.

The flora in our gut naturally interacts with the food we eat. Certain bacteria digest insoluble fiber and create SCFA (short-chain fatty acids) that we then absorb. Other types of flora provide us with nutrients like vitamin B12. In this way, we are symbiotic with our microbiome. These beneficial bugs also help with digestion and gut motility to help keep us regular. New research links good bacteria with overall gut health and prevents conditions like IBS, IBD, and leaky gut.

Other systems that are affected by good bugs include skin and the genitourinary system. We have a microbiome on the skin that may affect such conditions as acne, rosacea, psoriasis, and eczema. The microbiome of the vagina is crucial for genitourinary health. In fact, vaginal birth is likely a baby’s first big exposure to beneficial bacteria. The human microbiome is now being studied in connection with more and more common health conditions. Gut flora may play a role in weight gain, satiety, and diabetes. There are also possible connections to heart disease and cholesterol regulation. The microbiome may be associated with anxiety and depression as well.

The list goes on and on, and you can clearly see that this organ system deserves its recent increase in attention. For more information, this article has links to many good research articles on the gut microbiome.

Your gut health will impact your overall health.

What is the best way to consume probiotics?

Probiotics can be beneficial in supplement form, but there are certain issues with taking them as pills. First, our flora has incredible diversity – up to 1000 species of bacteria reside in our large intestine. Probiotics are limited because many of those species cannot be cultivated, encapsulated, and sold. Another caveat with probiotics, like many supplements, is that they are not always robustly studied or regulated. Many bacteria die in the stomach’s heat and acidity (which is why many brands need to be refrigerated). Probiotics may also be killed by pasteurization, so commercial food products may not be as probiotic-rich as we are led to believe. 

Remember, diversity is the game’s name, so it is good to get these beneficial bugs in different ways. Eating food straight from the garden is a great way to support your microbiome. Make sure it is grown in good soil (i.e., organic and composted). Americans are chronically deficient in beneficial soil-based organisms. Check out local farmers’ markets or start a backyard garden. Most fresh produce from the grocery store is triple-washed, which decreases the number of good bugs. Try to eat a variety of probiotic-rich foods listed in the handout below. Consult your healthcare provider for a high-quality probiotic recommendation if they feel it would benefit your health. Personally, I do not prescribe probiotics in perpetuity. I aim to re-establish good gut flora in my patients and then encourage them to eat a rich and varied diet to maintain it – fresh food and high fiber foods will feed the good bugs you have. Avoid over-sanitizing your life. Finally, if you have been prescribed antibiotics, ask your healthcare provider about taking probiotics while you are on the antibiotic to protect your beneficial bacteria. 

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Dr. Jessica Keating
Owner & Physician , Willow Clinic of Natural Medicine
Jessica Lodal Keating graduated with her doctorate in chiropractic medicine from National University of Health Sciences (NUHS) in Lombard, IL in December of 2016. She graduated summa cum laude and salutatorian of her class. She completed a primary care internship at the in-house clinic in the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center in downtown Chicago. There she was able to provide natural approaches to health and wellness to an under-served population. She also led efforts to solicit supplement donations from local doctors in order to provide these supplements to patients free of charge. During her time at NUHS, Dr. Keating also studied traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and became certified to perform acupuncture, moxabustion and fire cupping. She uses the wisdom of eastern medicine to complement her holistic approach to assessing each individual patient and treating the whole person. She participated in various other seminars and trainings over the course of her studies including MPI’s full-spine adjusting seminar and Apex’s Fundamentals of Functional Blood Chemistry. Dr. Keating also completed her Doctorate of Naturopathic medicine in 2018, graduating valedictorian and summa cum laude. Dr. Keating has worked in several natural primary care offices in the greater Chicagoland area. She is also a full-time naturopathic clinician at National University of Health Sciences. There she is able to help shape the next generation of naturopathic doctors. She has a home-call practice where she treats patients in the comfort of their own homes all around Chicagoland. Dr. Keating loves balancing private practice with teaching and clinical supervision. Dr. Jessica Keating received her bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon before deciding to attend NUHS. After her undergrad degree, she grew frustrated with the field of political science and sought a new career path. Her own health had been dramatically improved through diet, yoga and herbal medicine. Because of these experiences, she decided to deepen her understanding of natural medicine by pursuing a higher degree. Dr. Keating remains committed to her own health journey on a personal and professional level. She aims to help others thrive and maintain optimal health by guiding them down the same path and educating her patients by empowering them to take their health into their own hands. Dr. Keating practices holistic, natural primary care. She treats GI conditions, autoimmune disorders, women’s health, sleep issues, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, back pain as well as working with patients on weight loss and general wellness promotion. She treats pediatric, adult and geriatric patients using diet, lifestyle modification, herbal medicine, physical medicine and acupuncture. In her free time, Dr. Keating loves reading, biking, cooking and playing with her cats. Dr. Keating also enjoys yoga, tennis, rollerblading, going to the movies and travelling with her husband. She has been to 28 different countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America.
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