Probiotics don’t just benefit digestive health. Scientists have also discovered that the “good” bacteria found in fermented foods and supplements can aid weight loss and may help ward off colds, skin rashes, allergies, diabetes, and heart disease.
Most remarkably, the “good” bacteria found in fermented foods and supplements may also be powerful natural antidepressants, with effects akin to those of drugs like Prozac, according to groundbreaking new research.
How can these mighty microbes do so much? As I discuss in my bestselling book, The Omni Diet, probiotics boost the body’s natural defenses against disease, by stimulating the immune system. Many people don’t know that about 70 percent of immune cells live in the gut–and that each of us has a unique mix of GI bacteria as distinctive as a fingerprint.
Here’s a look at some of the latest discoveries about probiotics:
- Improved mental health. There’s growing evidence of a link between gut bacteria and certain psychiatric conditions. For example, people suffering from major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and panic attacks have high rates of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), mental disorders, a 2009 study found.
In an intriguing 2011 study, both animals and people who received probiotics showed significantly fewer symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress during upsetting situations, compared to control groups not given the good bacteria. An earlier animal study by the same researchers found that probiotics actually alter brain chemistry, with beneficial effects on the GABA system. This system, which plays a role in stress-related disorders, is the target for such tranquilizers as Valium and Xanax. Since these drugs can be addictive, a natural alternative would be much safer.
- Weight loss: In a 2012 randomized study published in Journal of Functional Foods, overweight people who ate food containing Lactobacillus amylovorus bacteria daily lost 4 percent of their total body fat–a significantly higher reduction than was seen in a control group who ate the same food without the bacteria.
Other new research suggests that the GI bug H. Pylori plays an important role in weight. In a 2011 study, when participants were treated with antibiotics to kill off H. Pylori, bacteria, their levels of hunger hormones–and their weight–quickly soared. Conversely, researchers are using probiotics to help obese people who have had gastric bypass surgery shed pounds more quickly.
- Lower cholesterol. Two daily doses of probiotics lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol by about 12 percent in a 9-week study presented at the 2012 American Heart Association 2012 Scientific Sessions. Additionally, people taking the probiotic had a 9 percent drop in total cholesterol. The beneficial bacteria also reduced levels of molecules called cholesterol ester saturated fatty acids, which have been linked to dangerous plaque buildup in arteries.
- Fewer colds and allergy symptoms. A recent review of 10 studies involving 3,451 people found that taking probiotics reduced risk for upper respiratory tract infections (URIs)–including colds, laryngitis, and inflammation of the trachea–in both adults and kids.
A 2012 study also found that college students who took daily probiotic supplements missed about half as many school days due to UTIs and also had symptoms that were 34 percent less severe when they did catch colds. The researchers point out that such miseries as a stuffy nose and sore throat result from inflammatory responses that the protective microorganisms help quell.
An even newer study published in January bears this out. Not only did allergy sufferers who took probiotic supplements have lower levels of inflammatory markers, but they also had a significant drop in hay fever symptoms in the second month of the study, compared to people who received a placebo.
Various blends of supplements contain different strains of microorganisms, so you may want to experiment to find the kind that works most successfully for you. It’s not uncommon to experience a week of such side effects as gas, bloating or diarrhea as the good bacteria shift your gut flora to a more balanced–and healthy–state