How Probiotics Reduce Inflammation & Naturally Improve Health
What do diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, IBS, ulcerative colitis, food and environmental allergies all have in common? Besides being chronic conditions that can be life threatening, or at least greatly reduce your quality of life, researchers are now learning that chronic inflammation plays a large part in both the on-set, and continuation, of these and many other conditions and diseases.
So, the natural question would then be, “what causes inflammation?”
The Immune System and the Inflammatory Response
Many experts now see inflammation as arising from an immune system response that’s out of control. When you catch a cold or sprain your ankle, your immune system switches into gear. Inflammation is a natural part of the immune response to illness or infection. Infection or injury trigger a chain of events called the inflammatory cascade: When your body senses trauma or the presence of irritants, pro-inflammatory hormones in your body call out for your white blood cells to come and clear out infection and damaged tissue, and the affected cells release histamine, a substance that causes your blood vessels to become more permeable. This increased permeability allows fluids and white blood cells to flow out of your blood vessels into the affected tissues where they can begin to repair the damage and kill off pathogens. The familiar signs of normal inflammation — heat, pain, redness, and swelling — are the first signals that your immune system is being called into action.
These agents are matched by equally powerful, closely related anti-inflammatory compounds, which move in once the threat is neutralized to begin the healing process. Acute inflammation that ebbs and flows as needed signifies a well-balanced immune system. But symptoms of inflammation that don’t recede are telling you that the “on” switch to your immune system is stuck. It’s poised on high alert — even when you aren’t in imminent danger. In some cases, what started as a healthy mechanism, like building scar tissue or swelling, just won’t shut off. Currently there is no definitive test for inflammation — the best that conventional medicine can do is measure blood levels of C-reactive protein (a pro-inflammatory marker) and the irritating amino acid called homocysteine. When inflammation is chronic, it can cause health problems of its own.
For many years, probiotics have gotten a lot of attention over their ability to ease digestive woes such as lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and peptic ulcers. Now scientists are beginning to investigate whether these helpful microbes may also aid in fighting inflammation, one of the primary factors behind such chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer and arthritis.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics, also known as “good bacteria”, are microorganisms that are characterized by their ability to interact with commensal micro flora in the gastrointestinal tract to produce beneficial health effects. Believe it or not, your digestive tract is home to trillions of bacteria and over 500 different species of microflora. The two most prevalent probiotics are Lactobacilli, which make up the majority of the probiotics living in your small intestine, and Bifidobacteria, the most prevalent beneficial probiotic living in your large intestine. Most healthy people have 100 times more Bifidobacteria than Lactobacilli. Bifidobacteria are the most prevalent probiotic in a healthy colon. Bifidobacteria ferment dietary fiber and produce by-products such as B vitamins that promote the health of the entire body. They also ward off invasion by less friendly microbes that can cause infection. An imbalance between the good and bad bacteria, which in many cases is caused by the overuse of antibiotics, drinking chlorinated tap water, and/or eating a diet high in processed and refined foods, can lead to a number of uncomfortable gastrointestinal symptoms, and if not corrected, can lead to a number of serious illnesses, ranging from Crohn’s disease to chronic fatigue and food allergies.
The Health Benefits of Maintaining a Healthy Balance of Bacteria
The 100 trillion bacteria in your body, more than 10 times the number of cells you have, need to be in the ratio of 85 percent “good” to 15 percent “bad” for proper health. This ratio is essential for: the proper development and function of your immune system, protection against over-growth of other microorganisms that could cause disease, and the proper digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. The probiotics in your gut also play an important role in helping numerous bodily functions, such as: digesting and absorbing certain carbohydrates, producing vitamins, absorbing minerals and eliminating toxins, keeping bad bacteria under control, and preventing allergies. Friendly bacteria train your immune system to distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens, and to respond appropriately. One Washington University professor has likened the functioning of this gut micro flora in your body to that of an ant farm that works together as an intelligence to perform an array of functions you're unable to manage on your own.
Probiotics and Inflammation
Research into the effects of probiotics is offering more insight into their ability to moderate immune response and aid in decreasing inflammation. Gastrointestinal benefits of probiotics have been documented, but recent research is revealing that probiotic benefits may extend to the entire body. Data from a recent study demonstrate the anti-inflammatory and pathogen protection benefits of Bifidobacterium infantis 35624, a probiotic bacterial strain of human origin. The report was published in Pathogens, a publication of the Public Library of Science (PLoS). The Arthritis Foundation also acknowledges research that revealed the anti-inflammatory properties of Bifidobacterium infantis in reducing arthritis symptoms. "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition" adds that probiotics can relieve intestinal inflammation, and that probiotic bacteria have anti-inflammatory qualities, although qualitative differences do exist between different strains of probiotic bacteria.
“Inflammation is a major factor in a number of chronic diseases affecting millions of people and can cause an unwanted impact on healthy tissue,” said Dr. Liam O’Mahony, lead investigator. “Past research has shown that the probiotic Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 can positively impact the body’s immune defense3, and this most recent data suggests that its benefits are not restricted to the gastrointestinal tract.”
Inflammation is associated with a wide range of conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis, bacterial-induced colitis, type I diabetes and organ transplantation. Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 has previously shown ability to modulate the inflammatory response in a clinical trial of patients with irritable bowel syndrome. The new data suggests additional health benefits of this particular probiotic strain. The published study examined the effect of Bifidobacterium infantis 35624 administration on immunity to Salmonella, a harmful bacteria that can cause intestinal infections and trigger the body’s inflammatory response.
Where Do I Find Probiotics?
Most people know that probiotics can be purchased as supplements, in capsule, tablet and liquid forms, at natural foods stores. They can deliver positive health benefits, but must be consumed “live”, which isn’t easy to tell in supplement form.
That is why the best source of probiotics is found in numerous “live” cultured foods, such as fermented (organic and hormone-free) dairy products like yogurt and kefir, as well as cultured vegetables, such as sauerkraut (from Germany) and kim chee (from Korea). For thousands of years, before the advent of refrigerators, freezers, chemical preservatives, and hydrogenated oils, foods were fermented as a way of preserving them. At some point, our ancestors discovered that their fermented foods also played a very important role in supporting overall health, vitality, and longevity. If you were to eat a diet rich in naturally fermented foods, that have NOT been pasteurized (as pasteurization kills the naturally occurring probiotics), then you too would likely enjoy great health without any additional supplementation.
"American Journal of Clinical Nutrition"; Probiotics: Effects on Immunity; Erika Isolauri, et al.; February 2001
Arthritis Foundation; Probiotic Bacteria Shows Anti-Inflammatory Properties; May 2007
USProbiotics.org; Probiotic Basics
"Time"; Health: The Fires Within; Christine Gormick, et al.; February 2004