A Gut Feeling

The term “gut feeling” probably comes from the fact that most of us experience some of our emotions in our stomachs. I remember as a boy getting “butterflies in my stomach” before a baseball game. Many people develop loose stools or abdominal cramping when confronted with a stressful event. I knew of one surgeon who suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome. When the situation in the operation room became stressful, he would have to fight back diarrhea. There is such a large network of neurons around our intestines that some researchers have called it our second brain. 

When we look up treatments for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, we see a long list of potential remedies. That usually means that nothing in particular has been found to be exceptionally helpful. It also indicates that researchers are continuing to look for alternative treatments, and that is where probiotics come in. 

The small and large intestines contain significant amounts of naturally-occurring bacteria which aid digestion, metabolize some medications and produce necessary vitamins. 

These good bacteria are with us from the beginning. While descending the birth canal, a baby picks up some of the mother’s healthy bacteria. This may explain why infants born by Caesarian section are more prone to allergies and may have less developed immune systems. 

Probiotics, a word that literally means “for life," became popular in the mid-1990s. What exactly are they? They are environment-borne bacteria and yeast found in foods such as yogurt and fermented vegetables such as cabbage. 

They are actually alive. Most people view bacteria as harmful and something we combat using antibiotics. So why would we want to ingest them?

Probiotics may help us in multiple ways, and the most commonly discussed area is improving digestive health. There is a balance of good and bad bacteria in our digestive tracts and negative stressors or triggers can shift that balance toward bad bacteria. Triggers may include emotional events, the ingestion of antibiotics, poor food choices, or lack of sleep. Although bad and good bacteria each have a role in promoting digestive health, a shift toward bad bacteria can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections, or skin conditions. Ingestion of large amounts of probiotics may bring about a healthy bacteria re-balance and relief from these conditions.

There are two main groups of probiotics. Lactobacillus is the most common and is found in most yogurt products. Studies have shown that it protects us against urinary tract infections, infectious diarrhea, antibiotic-induced diarrhea, C. Diff diarrhea (a potentially severe form of antibiotic diarrhea), lactose intolerance, skin conditions such as eczema, and respiratory infections. Some studies have shown that lactobacillus lowers bad cholesterol by 12 percent.

Bifidobacterium is the other main group. There are more than 30 species of bifidobacterium in our colons, and they make up most of the healthy bacteria in our gut. Their main benefits to us are helping with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome such as pain, bloating, gas and diarrhea. 

What are some other possible benefits of bifidobacterium? They seem to prevent dental cavities by killing decay-causing bacteria in our mouths. They reduce eczema and crying in infants. A Finnish study showed that kids who drank milk fortified with these probiotics were less likely to catch colds. 

What foods contain healthy probiotics? Look for yogurt labels that contain the phrase “healthy cultures” or “beneficial cultures.” Some manufacturers of granola, cereal, and juice claim to contain probiotics, but we aren’t sure if they contain high enough concentrations to have any beneficial effect. 

So how should we take probiotics if not through yogurt? Probiotic pills are regulated like foods, rather than like medications. So manufacturers of this form of probiotics don’t have to show that their pills are safe in the same manner that drug companies do. There is one voluntary certificate program called ConsumerLab.com, or CL. Products with this designation have undergone stricter testing. 

The Sunflower Shoppe on Camp Bowie in Fort Worth offers a nice selection.  Look for Lactobacillus NAS or Lactobacillus GG. For Bifidobacterium to help with IBS, look for Adult’s Probiotic which contains 17 billion cells per capsule. Ask about purity, which reflects how much non-helpful versus helpful probiotics are contained in each capsule, and about quantity, which includes how many live cells are present. Be sure each capsule contains at least 8 billion cells.

You will need to determine how many capsules a day are effective for treating your body. Start out with one capsule twice daily and reassess after two weeks.  You might need to increase up to three capsules before each meal.

Since we all might have to live without Blue Bell this summer, we should try eating frozen yogurt so as to increase our probiotic intake. Then we can see if we overall feel better. But I’ll leave that to you. It’s really a gut call.