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Probiotics: The Positives Are More Than Just A Gut Feeling

girl eating yogurtThe use of probiotics in various applications has become quite prevalent over the past two decades, as some physicians have become convinced that a microbial imbalance in the gut may be responsible for a host of maladies.  This is especially true for gastrointestinal disorders, but it may be implicated in a host of other conditions as well.  Here we examine the possible connection between autoimmune conditions and intestinal bacterial imbalance, with a focus on the potential benefit of probiotics in treating autoimmune disease.

What are probiotics and why are they recommended for people with autoimmune conditions?

Probiotics are living organisms (bacteria) that are sometimes added to one’s diet (the usual route of administration) in an attempt to restore or maintain a healthy balance of gut microbes (“gut flora”), which some research suggests can have prominent and varied health effects.  Such bugs are more commonly known as “good bacteria”, because of their potential to achieve these objectives.  Some well-known examples are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which can be found naturally in yogurt cultures, as well as in supplements designed for this purpose.

Though they haven’t been approved by the FDA for the treatment of autoimmune disease, many patients and clinicians believe that probiotic supplements may be helpful in mitigating the signs and symptoms of disease, by restoring the balance and function of microbes in the gut (where an imbalance is believed to cause or contribute to the disorder).  This is because research and clinical experience has shown that some patients with autoimmune disease have significantly altered intestinal environments (particularly those with autoimmune conditions involving the gut, such as inflammatory bowel disease), and that the addition of probiotics may indeed help reduce or eliminate disease indicators.  Still, there remains some uncertainty about whether this gut flora imbalance is the cause or effect of autoimmune conditions, though the preceding assertion argues for the former.  In addition, the evidence for this connection is encouraging but still somewhat lacking in terms of rigorous science.

Are there any studies about what types of probiotic supplements (or foods?) help autoimmune patients the most?

As noted above, the two major strains of bacteria frequently used are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which can often be found in yogurt or in oral supplements.  It appears that the former strain is the most studied of the various probiotics in terms of autoimmune disease, for which it has had some success.  This is again particularly true for autoimmune-related gastrointestinal diseases.  Encouragingly, research seems to be ongoing in the investigation of the autoimmune-probiotic connection.

In terms of the best probiotics for autoimmune patients specifically, the two mentioned above are relatively safe bets, and have shown hopeful findings, though their efficacy is not entirely proven.  Other than that, there is not much evidence pointing to any specific supplement or food being particularly effective against autoimmune diseases.  Interestingly though, a recent study using an unspecified combination of five probiotics seems to have shown that administration of this combination may have potential for not just treating myasthenia gravis, but perhaps even preventing it.  An internet search, especially of forums and message boards, may prove useful in getting patient advice on which strains of these bacteria (since there are several offered) are most helpful against an individual disease.

Are there any studies that show how probiotics help those with autoimmune – i.e., do they slow down progression of a disease, ease symptoms, or just help avoid other outside illness from striking?

While the definitive mechanisms are unknown, there are several theories regarding how exactly probiotics help reduce the impact of autoimmune conditions.  Most of these involve the transformation of the gut flora from dysfunctional to normal, which then promotes more healthy living, including a reduction in immunological disturbances.  Altered gene expression driven by such an imbalance may play a role in disease, as might the changes that occur locally within the gut.  And the gut flora balance is also thought to affect certain aspects of neurological functioning.  Also, the hygiene hypothesis is one promising avenue, albeit a broad one, which suggests that human beings may have become too sanitized for their own good over the centuries, removing many natural targets of the immune system, which then redirects its attacks.

In terms of the specific examples in the question, it is unclear how these substances achieve their effects, but it is likely that it involves a combination of disease progression slowing and effective defense against outside invaders, in addition to other possibilities.  Regardless of the mechanisms though, it appears that probiotics do often have utility in combatting disease symptoms, which is of course, from the patient’s perspective, the most important part.

Questions for your doctor:

  • Do you recommend using probiotics in general?  What about specifically for autoimmune disease?  Are they safe to consume?
  • Which supplements are best to use in general, and specifically for my condition(s)?
  • Where can I find more information about probiotics and current research being done?
  • Can you explain the possible mechanisms involved in the use of probiotics for resolution of autoimmune and other disorders?
  • Are there other foods besides yogurt that are especially beneficial in terms of probiotic organisms?

About the Author
Dr. Rothbard is a professional medical writer and consultant based in New York City, specializing in medical education articles targeted at a variety of audiences, from children through clinicians.  After leaving medicine, he worked as a biology and medical science educator for several years, before deciding to pursue writing full-time.  He may be reached at [email protected].

This post contains opinions of the author.  AutoimmuneMom.com is not a medical practice and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  It is your responsibility to seek diagnosis, treatment, and advice from qualified providers based on your condition and particular circumstances.  Camino Real Ventures, Inc., the company that makes AutoimmuneMom.com available to you, does not endorse nor recommend any products, practices, treatment methods, tests, physicians, service providers, procedures, clinical trials, opinions or information available on this website.  Your use of the website is subject to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy

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