Probiotics: what they are and why you need more of them

I recently had the opportunity to have a virtual cup of coffee and chat with Dr. Shekhar Challa, board certified gastroenterologist, and a huge advocate for probiotics. Here’s what the good Dr. has to say about why you should be using them, and how they can benefit your health.

Samantha Feuss: Dr Challa, can you explain what probiotics are, and what they are good for?

Dr. Challa: Probiotics – the beneficial bacteria that help keep us healthy – are starting to gain a lot of attention in the United States. From yogurt ads to physician awareness, the understanding of what these good bacteria do to keep our bodies healthy through disease prevention and treating illness is expanding.

The most well-studied aspect of probiotics is gastrointestinal health and the research on Irritable Bowel Syndrome and other digestive illnesses. Another highly studied area of health is urogenital problems, like yeast infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs). Because women get more UTIs and yeast infections, men may assume there’s not a lot of benefit to taking probiotics.

But what’s exciting about probiotics is the increasing evidence that they impact our entire bodies – from oral health to mood control to obesity and allergies. As scientists study the human microbiome – the bacteria that are in and on our bodies – they’re starting to pin down the idea that bacterial changes within the body have far-reaching impacts.

SF: It sounds like they can do some amazing stuff. Any concrete research stats or data at this point to prove it?

DC: Much of this research is in initial stages – some just being done on mice at this point – but no one argues that there is a strong connection between bacteria and many of the health challenges we face. For instance, researchers found that the gut bacteria of an obese person is different than that of a thin person. What’s more – when the obese person loses weight, his or her gut bacteria changes to that of a thin person. Now, so far, there aren’t conclusions to reach from that research. But studies like that are creating an understanding of the true impact of beneficial bacteria, those single-celled organisms that exist by the trillions throughout our bodies.

SF: Who wouldn’t like to change their gut from obese to thin? LOL. How about treating disease, like you mentioned?
How can probiotics do that?

DC: Here are just a few of the areas where beneficial bacteria have been shown to work or have shown tremendous promise in helping prevent or treat disease:

  • Traveler’s diarrhea: Oh yeah, we all know that uncomfortable feeling. Traveling outside the U.S. and spending way too much time in the bathroom. Probiotics are an emerging way to treat diarrhea of many kinds, and studies have shown that travelers who start taking probiotics two weeks before their travel date and throughout the trip can significantly reduce their chances of getting traveler’s diarrhea.
  • Allergies and Asthma: About one in five people in the world suffer from allergies, and childhood asthma has been on a sharp increase in recent decades. Gut flora (the bacterial world in your gut) play a role in allergies because they maintain the lining of the digestive system, preventing foreign substances from entering the bloodstream. Several studies have found differences in the gut flora of people who have allergies and people who don’t. While studies regarding asthma and probiotics aren’t definitive and need more exploration, success has been found with probiotics and treating eczema. A Netherlands study found that daily supplementation with probiotics prevented asthma-like symptoms in children with eczema. (Forty percent of kids with eczema develop asthma later in childhood.)
  • Mood: A Yale study on mice showed that when the gut flora was altered, there was a difference in brain development and anxious behaviors. Another study found that supplements of L. casei Shiroto, a particular strain of bacteria, may ease anxiety symptoms in people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. One Texas professor has proposed that probiotics produce neurochemicals that improve psychological health.
  • Cancer: Studies are indicating treatment possibilities for various kinds of cancer. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that foods fortified with probiotics and prebiotics reduced certain markers of colon cancer in patients who already had colon cancer. A Japanese study found that cancer patients who received robiotics took longer to develop the cancer, and that the cancers were not as severe when they recurred in probiotic-treated patients. While initial research studies show probiotics don’t reduce the incidence of lung cancer, they do show it may slow the cancer’s growth. Cancer cell growth in lung cancer patients who received vitamin K2 was slower than in patients who didn’t take the vitamin.

SF: That is wild. We use probiotics here, my son especially, and it has helped his skin issues and digestive system quite a lot. As a traveler, I know I don’t leave home without them- they really do help keep one out of the bathroom as much. However, I had no idea about cancer or mood benefits.

DC: When you start examining the many studies being done worldwide on the good bacteria in our bodies and how it impacts our health, you feel as if science is on the cusp of understanding something really important. The pieces are there, but the cohesion – seeing how those pieces go together – is still to come. Meanwhile, most people can take probiotics with few ill effects (be sure to check with your doctor before adding anything to your over-the-counter regimen). And the studies are definitive about the impact of probiotics on many gastrointestinal issues (such as traveler’s diarrhea and antibiotic-associated diarrhea).

It will be fascinating and exciting to see what comes next. Vitamins are the next vitamin – are you taking yours?

SF: LOL, yes, I am.

Dr. Shekhar Challa is a board certified Gastroenterologist, Co-producer of probiotic video game Microwarriors: The Battle Within, and author of the new book Probiotics for Dummies.

Armin Brott

View posts by Armin Brott
Armin Brott is the proud father of three, a former U.S. Marine, a best-selling author, radio host, speaker, and one of the country’s leading experts on fatherhood. He writes frequently about fatherhood, families, and men's health. Read more about Armin or visit his website, You can also connect via social media: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest,  and Linkedin.

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