By Kris Gunnars
Did you know that the bacteria in your body outnumber your body's cells 10 to 1?
It's true, and most of them reside in your gut.
But there really is no need to panic, most bacteria are quite harmless.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
This leads us to the topic at hand, probiotics.
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain these friendly bacteria, and are supposed to help colonize our guts with health-boosting microorganisms.
The importance of this can not be overstated.
Taking care of your gut, and the friendly bacteria that reside there, may be one of the single most important things you can do for your health.
What Are Probiotics?
According to the official definition, probiotics are “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host" (3).
You can get probiotics from supplements, as well as foods that are prepared by bacterial fermentation.
Probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi and others.
There are actually dozens of different probiotic bacteria that have been shown to have health benefits.
The most common groups include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Then there are many different species within each group, and each species has many strains.
Interestingly, different probiotics seem to work for different health conditions. Therefore, choosing the right type (or types) of probiotic is essential.
Many probiotic supplements combine different species together in the same supplement. These are known as broad-spectrum probiotics, or multi-probiotics.
Keep in mind that this is a new but rapidly expanding area of research.
Although the evidence is promising, it is not conclusively proven that probiotics help with all the health conditions mentioned in this article (5).
Bottom Line: Probiotics are live microorganisms that cause health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. There are many different types, and you can get them from foods or supplements.
The Importance of Microorganisms in the Gut
Your gut actually contains hundreds of different types of microorganisms, with some numbers going as high as 1000.
This includes bacteria, yeasts and viruses. The great majority is bacteria.
Most of the gut flora is found in the colon, or large intestine, the last part of the digestive tract.
The metabolic activities of the gut flora actually resemble those of an organ. For this reason, some scientists refer to the gut flora as the “forgotten organ" (7).
The gut flora actually performs many functions that are important for health. It manufactures vitamins, including vitamin K and some of the B vitamins (8).
However, not all organisms in the gut are friendly. Some are good, others are bad.
Probiotics (and prebiotic fibers) can help correct this balance, making sure that our “forgotten organ" is functioning optimally (24).
Bottom Line: Your gut flora consists of hundreds of different types of microorganisms. Probiotics help your gut flora perform optimally.
Probiotics and Digestive Health
Probiotics have been studied most in regard to digestive health (25).
The strongest evidence has to do with antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
When people take antibiotics, especially for long periods of time, they often suffer from diarrhea for a long time after the infection has been eradicated.
This is because the antibiotics kill many of the natural bacteria in the gut, which shifts the balance and allows the “bad" bacteria to thrive.
Probiotics have also been shown to be beneficial against irritable bowel syndrome, a very common digestive disorder. They can help reduce gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and other symptoms (29, 30, 31).
Some studies also show that probiotics may be beneficial against inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis (32).
If you currently have digestive problems that you can't seem to get rid of, then perhaps a probiotic supplement is something you should consider.
Bottom Line: Probiotics have been shown to be effective against various digestive problems. This includes antibiotic-associated diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome.
Probiotics and Weight Loss
The most impressive study on this was published in 2013. It was a study of 210 individuals with central obesity (lots of belly fat).
In this study, taking the probiotic Lactobacillus gasseri caused people to lose 8.5 percent of their belly fat mass over a period of 12 weeks (44).
When they stopped taking the probiotic, they gained the belly fat back within 4 weeks.
There is also some evidence that Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium lactiscan help with weight loss and obesity prevention (45).
However, this needs to be studied more before any recommendations can be made.
There are also some animal studies showing that other probiotic strains could even lead to weight gain, not loss (46).
Bottom Line: There is some evidence that the probiotic Lactobacillus gasserican help people lose belly fat. This needs to be studied a lot more.
Other Health Benefits of Probiotics
Getting into all the incredible benefits of probiotics is beyond the scope of this article.
However, there are a few that are definitely worth highlighting here:
- Inflammation: Probiotics have been shown to reduce systemic inflammation, a leading driver of many diseases (47).
- Depression and anxiety: The probiotic strains Lactobacillus helveticusand Bifidobacterium longum have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with clinical depression (48, 49).
- Blood cholesterol: Several probiotics have been shown to lower total and LDL cholesterol levels (50, 51).
- Blood pressure: Probiotics have also been shown to cause modest reductions in blood pressure (52, 53).
- Immune function: Several different probiotic strains can enhance immune function and lead to reduced risk of infections, including the common cold (54, 55).
- Skin health: There is some evidence that probiotics can be useful for acne, rosacea and eczema, as well as other skin disorders (56, 57, 58, 59).
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Probiotics have been studied, and shown to be beneficial, for a wide range of other health problems.
Bottom Line: Probiotics have been shown to have numerous health benefits. They may reduce depression and anxiety, improve heart health and enhance immune function, to name a few.
Are There Any Side Effects?
Probiotics are generally well tolerated and considered safe for most people.
After this initial adaptation period is over, your digestion should be better than it was before.
Probiotics can be dangerous, and even lead to infections, in people with compromised immune systems. This includes people with HIV, AIDS and several other health conditions (61).
If you have a medical condition, definitely consult with your doctor before taking a probiotic supplement.
Bottom Line: Probiotic supplements may cause digestive symptoms, but this should subside within a few days. They may be dangerous for people with certain medical conditions.
What Are The Best Probiotic Supplements?
There are hundreds of different probiotic supplements available.
If you have a health problem and you want to try a probiotic for that purpose, then it is very important that you choose the right strain.
I recommend looking around on Amazon at the different options available. There you can see which strains the supplements contain.
Make sure to buy probiotics from a reputable manufacturer. Dietary supplements are not regulated, so many of these products may not contain what the labels say they do.
According to one study, it is best to take probiotics either right before, or with, a meal that contains some fat (62).
Beyond that, make sure to follow the instructions on the packaging. Keep in mind that some products need to be refrigerated.
Take Home Message
Maintaining a healthy gut goes way beyond just taking a probiotic supplement.
What you do from day to day is just as important.
Living a healthy lifestyle, getting good sleep, and eating real food with lots of fiber is the key.
In many cases, probiotic foods and supplement can be helpful as well.
I recently started taking a probiotic supplement myself (this one here).
It has significantly improved my digestion, and I feel that my energy levels and thinking have improved as well.
I now consider probiotics to be an essential component of my own personal health strategy.
This article was reposted from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
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By Brian Bienkowski
Fish exposed to endocrine-disrupting compounds pass on health problems to future generations, including deformities, reduced survival, and reproductive problems, according to a new study.
Low Levels Lead to Generational Impacts<p>Researchers exposed inland silverside fish to bifenthrin, levonorgestrel, ethinylestradiol, and trenbolone to levels currently found in waterways.</p><p>"Our concentrations were actually on the low end" of what is found in the wild, DeCourten said, adding that it was low amounts of chemicals in parts per trillion.</p><p>Bifenthrin is a pesticide; levonorgestrel and ethinylestradiol are synthetic hormones used in birth controls; and trenbolone is a synthetic steroid often given to cattle to bulk them up.</p><p>Such endocrine-disruptors have already been linked to a variety of health problems in directly exposed fish including altered growth, reduced survival, lowered egg production, skewed sex ratios, and negative impacts to immune systems. But what remains less clear is how the exposure may impact future generations.</p><p>For their study, DeCourten and colleagues started the exposure when the fish were embryos and continued it for 21 days.</p><p>They then tracked effects on the exposed fish, and the next two generations.</p>
Inherited Problems<p>DeCourten said the altered DNA methylation is one of the plausible ways that future generations would experience health impacts from previous generations' exposure. Hormone-disrupting compounds have been shown to impact DNA methylation, which is an important marker of how an organism will develop.</p><p>"Methyl groups are added to specific sites on the genome, [the exposure] is not changing the genome itself, but rather how the genome is expressed," she said. "And that can be inherited throughout generations."</p><p>In addition, Brander said there are essentially different "tags" that exist on DNA molecules, which tell genes how to turn on and off. She said the exposure to different compounds may be "influencing which methyl tags get taken on or off as you proceed through generations."</p><p>The researchers said the study should prompt future toxics testing to consider impacts on future generations.</p><p>"The results … throw a wrench in the current approach to regulating chemicals, where it's often short-term testing looking at simple things like growth, survival, and maybe gene expression," Brander said.</p><p>"These findings are telling us we really at least need to consider" the next two generations, she added.</p>
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Poor eating habits, lack of exercise, genetics, and a bunch of other things are known to be behind excessive weight gain. But, did you know that how much sleep you get each night can also determine how much weight you gain or lose?
By Laura Beil
Consumers have long turned to vitamins and herbs to try to protect themselves from disease. This pandemic is no different — especially with headlines that scream "This supplement could save you from coronavirus."
Vitamin D<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Called "the sunshine vitamin" because the body makes it naturally in the presence of ultraviolet light, <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/vitamin-d-supplements-lose-luster" target="_blank">Vitamin D is one of the most heavily studied</a> supplements (<em>SN: 1/27/19</em>). <a href="https://health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/2015-2020-dietary-guidelines/guidelines/appendix-12/" target="_blank">Certain foods</a>, including fish and fortified milk products, are also high in the vitamin.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>Vitamin D is a hormone building block that helps strengthen the immune system.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections:</strong> In 2017, the <em>British Medical Journal</em> published a meta-analysis that suggested a daily vitamin D supplement <a href="https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6583" target="_blank">might help prevent respiratory infections</a>, particularly in people who are deficient in the vitamin.</p><p>But one key word here is <em>deficient. </em>That risk is highest during dark winters at high latitudes and among people with more color in their skin (melanin, a pigment that's higher in darker skin, inhibits the production of vitamin D).</p><p>"If you have enough vitamin D in your body, the evidence doesn't stack up to say that giving you more will make a real difference," says Susan Lanham-New, head of the Nutritional Sciences Department at the University of Surrey in England.</p><p>And taking too much can create new health problems, stressing certain internal organs and leading to a dangerously high calcium buildup in the blood. The recommended daily allowance for adults is 600 to 800 International Units per day, and the upper limit is considered to be 4,000 IUs per day.</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin D and COVID-19:</strong> Few studies have looked directly at whether vitamin D makes a difference in COVID.</p>
Zinc<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Zinc, a mineral found in cells all over the body, is found naturally in certain meats, beans and oysters.</p><p><strong>Why it might help: </strong>It plays several supportive roles in the immune system, which is why zinc lozenges are always hot sellers in cold and flu season. Zinc also helps with cell division and growth.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong><a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6457799/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Studies of using zinc for colds</a> — which are frequently caused by coronaviruses — suggest that using a supplement right after symptoms start might make them go away quicker. That said, a clinical trial from researchers in Finland and the United Kingdom, published in January in <em>BMJ Open</em> <a href="https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/10/1/e031662" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">did not find any value for zinc lozenges</a> for the treatment of colds. Some researchers have theorized that inconsistencies in data for colds may be explained by varying amounts of zinc released in different lozenges.</p><p><strong>What we know about zinc and COVID-19:</strong> The mineral is promising enough that it was added to some early studies of hydroxychloroquine, a drug tested early in the pandemic. (Studies have since shown that <a href="https://www.sciencenews.org/article/covid-19-coronavirus-hydroxychloroquine-no-evidence-treatment" target="_blank">hydroxychloroquine can't prevent or treat COVID-19</a> (<em>SN: 8/2/20</em>).)</p>
Vitamin C<p><strong>What it is: </strong>Also called L-ascorbic acid, vitamin C has a long list of roles in the body. It's found naturally in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus, peppers and tomatoes.</p><p><strong>Why it might help:</strong> It's a potent antioxidant that's important for a healthy immune system and preventing inflammation.</p><p><strong>How it works for other infections: </strong>Thomas cautions that the data on vitamin C are often contradictory. One review from Chinese researchers, published in February in the <em>Journal of Medical Virolog</em>y, looked at <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jmv.25707" target="_blank">what is already known about vitamin C</a> and other supplements that might have a role in COVID-19 treatment. Among other encouraging signs, human studies find a lower incidence of pneumonia among people taking vitamin C, "suggesting that vitamin C might prevent the susceptibility to lower respiratory tract infections under certain conditions."</p><p>But for preventing colds, a 2013 Cochrane review of 29 studies <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">didn't support the idea</a> that vitamin C supplements could help in the general population. However, the authors wrote, given that vitamin C is cheap and safe, "it may be worthwhile for common cold patients to test on an individual basis whether therapeutic vitamin C is beneficial."</p><p><strong>What we know about Vitamin C and COVID-19: </strong>About a dozen studies are under way or planned to examine whether vitamin C added to coronavirus treatment helps with symptoms or survival, including Thomas' study at the Cleveland Clinic.</p><p>In a review published online in July in <em>Nutrition</em>, researchers from KU Leuven in Belgium concluded that the <a href="https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000980.pub4/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vitamin may help prevent infection</a> and tamp down the dangerous inflammatory reaction that can cause severe symptoms, based on what is known about how the nutrient works in the body.</p><p>Melissa Badowski, a pharmacist who specializes in viral infections at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy and colleague Sarah Michienzi published an extensive look at all supplements that might be useful in the coronavirus epidemic. There's <a href="https://www.drugsincontext.com/can-vitamins-and-or-supplements-provide-hope-against-coronavirus/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">still not enough evidence to know whether they are helpful</a>, the pair concluded in July in <em>Drugs in Context</em>. "It's not really clear if it's going to benefit patients," Badowski says.</p><p>And while supplements are generally safe, she adds that nothing is risk free. The best way to avoid infection, she says, is still to follow the advice of epidemiologists and public health experts: "Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay six feet apart."</p>
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By Elliot Douglas
In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."
The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.
“Rather than a Moonshot 🌕, we need Earthshots 🌍 for this decade.” Watch Prince William’s @Tedtalks talk in full:… https://t.co/m5NCj6TQzH— The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (@The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge)1602408749.0
But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.
With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?
'Count Me In'
"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.
Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.
"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.
"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."
Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.
German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.
"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"
"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.
Assessing Success Is Complex
But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.
"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.
Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.
"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."
A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.
"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.
Awareness Is Not Enough
Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.
"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."
But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.
"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."
However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.
Choosing the Right Celebrity
Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.
For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.
"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."
McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.
But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.
But Does It Really Work?
While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.
"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.
This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.
The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.
"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."
Reposted with permission from DW.
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