Probiotics are beneficial bacteria, the “good” or “friendly” bacteria that populate the entire digestive tract and play an important role in digestion, nutrient assimilation and immune system function. Unfortunately, many people have been lead to believe that all bacteria are harmful, but the reality is that we live in symbiosis with beneficial bacteria throughout our environment, and arguably the most important being our friendly intestinal bacteria. The average animal, depending on size, can have up to four pounds of bacteria in his body with the majority residing in the digestive tract. Your pet would become very ill or die without the right intestinal bacteria, and unfortunately this actually happens more often than most people realize. Many holistic veterinarians believe that imbalances in intestinal bacteria are a major factor in many of the chronic disorders that we see in our animals today. Our experience with animals leads us to believe this is very true!
I. Why are probiotics referred to as “friendly” bacteria?
Probiotics are referred to as “friendly” because they are a benefit to the body in many important ways, as opposed to pathogenic or “unfriendly” bacteria that can cause illness.
II. What are some of the roles probiotics play in the body?
1). Help the digestive tract function properly by producing enzymes that aid digestion and the assimilation of nutrients.
2). Manufacture B vitamins.
3). Help lower cholesterol.
4). Keep levels of pathogenic bacteria (E. coli, Salmonella and Helicobacter pylori) and pathogenic fungi (Candida albicans) in check by competing for available space and nutrients. In addition, beneficial bacteria produce antibiotic like substances and acidify the intestinal tract by producing lactic acid, both of which inhibit harmful bacteria growth and the toxins they produce.
5). Protect against tooth decay and gum inflammation.
6). Help to maintain a healthy mucous lining (mucosa) in the intestinal tract. This assists in the prevention of bacteria, food particles and toxins from entering the blood stream. The results of a damaged mucosa are often referred to as ‘Leaky Gut Syndrome” which contributes to allergy like symptoms, skin conditions, systemic infections, arthritis and other disease processes.
7). Maintain or increase immune system health. Since 70% of the immune system in animals is found in the gastrointestinal tract, a healthy mucosal lining populated by beneficial bacteria is very important to preventing and fighting infection. In addition, beneficial bacteria are also found in the respiratory system where they help guard the body against invasion by harmful germs.
8). Aid in the absorption of magnesium that is used for hundreds of different functions throughout the body. A magnesium deficiency can result in asthma and migraines and have other dramatic impacts on a person's health.
9). Synthesize vitamin K that is needed to clot the blood and keep bones strong.
10). Manufacture the milk digesting enzyme lactase that is needed to digest most dairy products.
III. What are some symptoms of the lack of proper amounts of probiotics?
An imbalance between friendly and unfriendly bacteria in the body plays a role in many of the chronic disorders we see today. Symptoms can include bad breath, diarrhea, constipation, excessive gas, foul smelling stool, allergies, autoimmune disease, skin conditions; poor vitamin K synthesis which can cause blood clotting problems and low bone density; magnesium deficiencies which can lead to asthma, migraines, fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, urinary incontinence and other related disorders; B vitamin deficiencies which can lead to lowered blood pressure, abnormal gait, tingling of nerves, lowered uric acid levels and lowered hydrochloric acid levels which can lead to malabsorption issues; irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, dairy intolerance and the overgrowth of harmful bacteria which can lead to frequent vaginal, yeast, bladder and sinus infections.
IV. What can reduce levels of probiotics in the body? Anything that places stress on the body can reduce levels of friendly bacteria. Common causes include poor diet, antibiotics, steroids, NSAIDs, surgery, medications, acute and chronic diarrhea, chlorinated water, artificial ingredients and preservatives in foods, toxins in food and the environment and stress.
V. Who should supplement with probiotics?
Everyone should supplement with probiotics on a continuous basis to ensure that a healthy, viable population of beneficial bacteria are always present in the intestinal tract. Probiotics would be specifically recommended in situations where there are symptoms of imbalance or in which healthy bacterial populations may be adversely affected making your animal susceptible to disease, such as with antibiotic or steroid use. Supplementing with probiotics is easy and safe and a great insurance policy because not only do friendly bacteria decrease naturally in the body as we age, but we and our animals come in contact with so many things in everyday life that reduce healthy intestinal flora.
VI. Is it okay to supplement with one type of probiotic?
No, supplementing with one type of probiotic can lead to imbalances within the body. Since different bacteria have different actions an overbalance of one type is not desirable. It is best to take a probiotic supplement with a variety of different species of beneficial bacteria.
VII. When during the day should probiotics be provided?
It is thought that certain species of beneficial bacteria flourish in the morning and some at night, so splitting daily supplementation into two equal dosages would seem to make the most sense. Also, some species of beneficial bacteria are susceptible to strong stomach acid, so supplementing after a meal, when stomach acid is weakest, may be helpful as well. For animals, mixing probiotics in with their food is fine.
VIII. Is yogurt good enough?
Unfortunately yogurt, especially commercial supermarket brands, is not a good source of beneficial bacteria. Many yogurt products do not contain living organisms and if they do, only in small amounts and a narrow range of beneficial organisms. In addition, they acidify over time killing bacteria so there is very little healthy bacterial content when they get to you. Natural, organic yogurt can be better, but using a probiotic supplement containing billions of viable healthy bacteria is preferable.
IX. What about foods or other products marketed as containing probiotics?
Unfortunately this is more marketing, maybe with good intentions, than benefit for your animal. Pasteurization is a process in which a product is heated to 145 degrees or higher (depending on the pasteurization process) to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria. Pet foods are heated to a much higher degree during their processing effectively killing all bacteria, good and bad. To make up for this loss of friendly bacteria manufacturers add some in after processing, but because of exposure to oxygen and room temperature or higher during storage and delivery of the foods the potency of the probiotics is basically destroyed. This is kind of similar to the addition of fish oils to processed pet foods; heat and oxygen oxidize the healthy oils but even worse, carcinogenic compounds are also formed!
Just for your information – the salmonella poisoning that has occurred from processed pet food is because of recontamination after processing. Remember (see ‘roles probiotics play in the body’ above) that one of the roles of beneficial bacteria is to keep the growth of undesirable bacteria in check. So, when pet food is heated effectively killing all bacteria and is recontaminated afterward with pathogenic bacteria, these potentially harmful bacteria thrive unchecked and can reach populations that can sicken and kill an animal! So much for being concerned with raw food where thriving populations of beneficial bacteria keep pathogenic bacteria levels in check!
X. What are some examples of beneficial bacteria?
Examples of beneficial bacteria include various species of Lactobacillus, Acidophilus, Bacillus, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Bifidobacterium and even beneficial yeast like Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
XI. What is the suggested dosage of probiotics? Because probiotics are not drugs, but living organisms, precise dosages are not so important. A typical daily dosage for a 150lb person (get the percentage of the adult dose by dividing your animal’s weight by 150) is 3-5 billion live organisms. Actual live count varies dramatically so make sure you purchase a reputable brand from a responsible retailer!
XII. Should probiotics be refrigerated?
Yes, when you get the probiotic supplement home place it in the refrigerator to maintain the viability of the beneficial bacteria. Products that contain bacteria in a theoretically stabilized form and are marketed as not having to be refrigerated will have a longer viability if refrigerated when you get them home, especially after they are opened. In addition to heat, bacteria are also sensitive to oxygen and moisture so close the container quickly when you are done and make sure your hands are dry when handling.
XIII. How should a probiotic supplement be provided?
The preferable way to provide a probiotic supplement is in powder form. The reason for this is that if you use a tablet or capsule you are restricting benefits to the bowels (the small and large intestines). By supplementing with a powder you will be benefiting the entire digestive tract from the mouth to the anus. Capsules may of course be opened and the contents emptied onto your animal’s food or placed into a small glass of water for human consumption.
XIV. Why do probiotics sometimes cause nausea or vomiting?
When the health of an animal has been compromised for some time, things can start out worse before they get better. This process is sometimes referred to as “cleansing” or a “healing crisis”. Experiencing digestive upset with probiotic use is most likely caused by the feeding of poor quality commercial pet food that is hard to break down and digest. Consequently, it moves slowly through the intestines allowing some fecal plaque to adhere to your dog’s intestinal walls. Once it gets a toehold, it thickens over time. Even fairly young animals can experience some blockage as a result of this build up. Probiotics will slowly begin to dissolve the fecal matter, and during this clearing/cleansing process, pathogens and microbes that were covered up with layers of fecal matter will be exposed and can cause episodes of diarrhea or vomiting. Depending on the buildup, it may take a few months before it is completely removed. To help restore your animal’s health and happiness we suggest a healthier, more digestible diet and reducing the dosage of probiotics to a level tolerated by your animal, building back up gradually as your animal begins to feel better. Also, a good fiber supplement with psyllium seed will help clear away the debris in your animal’s intestinal tract.
XV. Should a probiotic supplement be provided when using antibiotics?
Of course! Antibiotics kill friendly bacteria along with pathogenic bacteria. The colonies of beneficial bacteria must be maintained or populations of undesirable bacteria will flourish once the antibiotics are discontinued. This can result in the epidemic symptoms we see today ranging from itchy skin conditions to frequent infections to digestive problems as well as a population explosion of normally benign candida yeast that live throughout the body. When using antibiotics, supplement with probiotics at least two hours after the treatment and when the antibiotic treatment is complete double or triple the probiotic dosage for 7-10 days.