Probiotics and Prebiotics
Dr. med. Heinz Lüscher
The bacteria in our intestines have an enormous impact on our health. If the intestinal flora is out of balance, it is important to regenerate this balance. To achieve this one can consume good bacteria (probiotics) and the good bacteria’s food (prebiotics).
Probiotics are living micro-organisms, which after we consume them, settle and multiply in our intestine. These are mostly made up of bacteria, but fungi also play a subordinate role. The word probiotic comes from the Greek, “Pro” = “for” and “Bios” = “life”. Probiotics therefore support life, regenerate our gut flora and to keep it in balance and healthy. This balance in our gut is especially important for general digestive health. An imbalance can lead to problems like gastrointestinal tract disorders, immune system stimulation, allergies and diarrhoea. An antibiotic therapy is known to bring this balance out of kilter. Taking these Probiotics has no known side effects. Lactobacilli, bifido bacteria, enterococci and yeast fungi are examples of well-known Probiotics.
Prebiotics are non-digestible food ingredients which we humans cannot digest. In our intestine, the gut flora digest these Prebiotics and thus grow and thrive. In short, Prebiotics are the food for Probiotics so that the ‘good’ gut flora can settle and multiply in our intestine.
It is important to know that probiotics can often only be advertised as lactic acid bacteria cultures. Though it is technically correct, the statements fails to convey the huge importance the bacteria have on our health: probiotics have a major influence on intestinal health and these in turn affect the entire body.
Again, and again one reads about multi-stage fermented plant mixtures, which are taken together with probiotics or alone as an intestinal remedy. Such ferments contain numerous micronutrients such as antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, bioflavonoids and secondary substances.
Fermentation is an enzymatic conversion of food. Micro-organisms are used to trigger a fermentation process in foodstuffs. Herbs and plants are broken down into their basic constituents through a multi-stage fermentation process. In this way, the ingredients are dissolved, concentrated and broken down into smaller molecules that can be more readily absorbed by the body. Furthermore, the herbal and plant mixture is enriched with enzymes during the fermentation process, which in turn makes these substances useful for the entire body.
The Intestine and Gut Flora
A healthy intestine contains up to 100 trillion bacteria of more than 500 different species. We live in a symbiotic relationship with our gut flora. They colonize our intestines, split up the food we eat and make it digestible for us, whilst at the same time feeding on our gut content. The bacteria produce not only certain vitamins (vitamin K and B vitamins, such as vitamin B12), but also digestive enzymes and hormones. If the balance of the intestinal flora is disturbed, we may experience a deficiency of these vitamins, enzymes and hormones. It is widely thought that our intestinal flora positively influences diseases such as mental illnesses.
The intestinal flora is a sensitive ecosystem, which can easily be brought out of its natural balance by external influences. Risk factors include: infections, dietary imbalance, antibiotics and other drugs, stress, environmental toxins, hormonal influences and age. Symptoms of a disturbed intestinal flora are diarrhoea, irregularities during bowel movements, abdominal pain, abdominal tension or abdominal swelling
How do Probiotics work?
Probiotics regenerate the intestinal flora and keep them healthy. They displace, neutralise and destroy pathogenic micro-organisms in the intestine and continually stimulate the immune system.
An interesting effect can be observed. Space in our intestine is limited and therefore if ‘good’ bacteria are absent, the ‘bad’ pathogenic germs can spread unhindered. Conversely, therefore if the ‘good’ bacteria are strengthened using probiotics, and these are fed with prebiotics, these ‘good’ bacteria can displace the unwanted micro-organisms and take their place. It is believed that probiotics form certain substances with which they can specifically destroy harmful bacteria.
Probiotics also strengthen the immune system. This mechanism in our gut is something like a central military training camp. Here, our defence cells learn to distinguish between good organisms and evil intruders. 70% of all immune cells are found in the intestine and almost 80% of all immune responses are found here. The good gut bacteria not only stimulate the immune system, but also inform the immune cells in the intestine that intruders are present, so that the immune system can immediately respond.
When should Probiotics be taken?
Indications and possible applications include:
- prevention and treatment of diarrheal diseases, e.g. after an antibiotic therapy or after a bout of diarrhoea contracted whilst travelling
- irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory diseases and further digestive problems such as flatulence etc.
- to strengthen the immune system
- auto-immune diseases
- vaginal yeast infections
- respiratory tract infections
- allergic diseases, atopic dermatitis
- lactose intolerance
Probiotics after Antibiotics
Antibiotics work directly against bacteria. However, they not only kill pathogens, but can also significantly destroy the good bacteria in the intestinal flora. This can result in the intestine being uninhabited and unwanted germs can spread resulting in diarrhoea. The use of probiotics helps to rebuild the intestinal flora. This can be done during the antibiotic therapy, if a 2-3-hour interval between antibiotics and probiotics is maintained. After the antibiotic treatment is complete, probiotics are best taken for a few weeks. Without the help of probiotics, the intestine will need several months to rebuild a healthy intestinal flora.
The more so-called colony-forming units, KbE or individual bacteria contained within a daily dose of probiotics, the better the product works. There are products that contain up to 20 billion bacteria per daily dose. This sounds like a lot, but in reality, is actually not, because at cellular level everything is incredibly small. The more probiotic micro-organisms there are, the faster free niches (or areas) in the intestine are filled with good bacteria and the lower the risk that unwanted or even disease-causing germs can multiply uncontrollably.
It is also important that the product contains several different bacterial strains. There are well known products on the market today, that contain only one or two bacterial strains. This does not do justice at all to the complex structure of the intestinal flora and the differences between different individuals. Products with at least ten different strains are recommended.
Finally, it makes sense to use products containing not only probiotics but also prebiotics or ferments. You can also combine two different products very well: For example, one containing probiotics and prebiotics, and a second containing probiotics and ferments. That would be the Rolls Royce, so to speak, for building the perfect intestinal microbiome.