5 Uncommon Uses for Probiotics | Chris Kresser
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5 Uncommon Uses for Probiotics

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Probiotics are versatile and can be used in many unconventional ways. istock.com/Buba1955

Note: The Prescript-Assist supplements discussed in this article are no longer available. Please click here to learn more about a substitute, the Daily Synbiotic from Seed.

Soon after the advent of the ‘germ theory of disease’ in the nineteenth century, the idea of voluntarily swallowing a pill full of bacteria would’ve sounded a little crazy. But as we learned more about the importance of the community of bacteria and other microorganisms occupying our intestines, eating probiotics has become the acceptable way to help re-populate our guts after courses of antibiotics or other stressors.

As we’ve continued to learn, it appears that our gut bugs influence far more than our digestive function and our ability to stay ‘regular.’ In fact, probiotics often aren’t that effective at re-populating the gut flora anyway. (Prebiotics tend to work better.) Our understanding of how probiotics work is evolving, and this is broadening the scope of health issues that probiotics can help treat.

We’re learning that the mechanisms behind the effect of probiotics are far more complicated than simply ‘topping off’ our supply of intestinal flora. Our gut bugs (even the transient ones) actually help modulate our immune system, and a robust immune system is necessary for the proper function of every other part of the body. Through the effect on immune regulation, probiotics can influence a number of conditions that may seem completely unrelated to the gut. In this post, I’ll describe five different uses for probiotics that are a bit unconventional but may be quite effective.

The benefits of probiotics go way beyond gut health.Tweet This

Depression

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, using probiotics to treat depression probably seems reasonable. But for the average person whose only knowledge of probiotics was gleaned from an Activia commercial, taking probiotics to treat any sort of mental disorder could seem ridiculous. Unfortunately, the average psychiatrist likely feels the same way.

Despite a lack of accord from the medical community, there’s a lot of research to suggest that probiotics can be remarkably useful in treating depression. I’ve talked in the past about the ‘gut-brain axis,’ whereby the health of the brain and the health of the gut are inextricably linked. This relationship is important and can make a huge difference in the mental health of those with gut dysbiosis.

A basic explanation of the relationship is that imbalances in intestinal flora can lead to inflammation in the gut, causing inflammatory cytokines to be released into the blood. These cytokines can then cross the blood-brain barrier and cause inflammation in the brain, which can create symptoms of depression. Probiotics – even if they don’t colonize the intestinal lining – can reduce this gut inflammation and subsequently reduce the brain inflammation, improving symptoms of depression.

Preclinical and clinical studies have shown reductions in anxiety and depression from probiotic supplements, with a reduction in inflammatory cytokines as a likely mechanism. (1, 2) Another potential connection between the gut and brain is through neurotransmitters produced in the gut. This topic really deserves its own post, but for now, suffice it to say that probiotics are a promising treatment for depression and other mental disorders, especially when combined with other gut-healing therapies.

Nasal Congestion

A lesser-known use for probiotics could be in treating congestion and other sinus issues. Just like everywhere else in your body, your nasal passages are colonized by microorganisms that help maintain the health of their environment, and disrupting that balance of beneficial flora can cause problems. There’s not a whole lot of research on this topic yet, but one study showed that a probiotic supplement (in the form of a ‘fermented milk drink’) decreased the levels of pathogenic bacteria in the nasal passages. Other research indicates that probiotics could be helpful in reducing the congestion and other symptoms associated with seasonal allergies. (3, 4) This is especially interesting because in Chinese medicine, they believe sinus issues are almost always related to the gut. Now modern research is beginning to show a connection!

Oral Health

Probiotics can also play a role in maintaining oral health, which isn’t all that surprising once you consider that your mouth is part of your digestive tract. Although your dentist probably won’t be recommending sauerkraut as an adjunct therapy to basic oral hygiene anytime soon, the relationship between probiotics and oral health has been discussed somewhat extensively in the scientific literature.

The ‘good’ bacteria in the mouth help maintain oral health by producing substances (such as hydrogen peroxide and other antimicrobial substances) that inhibit the growth of pathogens, and by competing with these pathogens for space. (5) If those beneficial bacteria are disrupted, pathogenic bacteria can move in and cause a variety of oral and dental issues, including tooth decay, gingivitis, and halitosis (bad breath).

Numerous trials, both observational and clinical, have shown that supplementation with probiotics can reduce cavities and improve overall oral health by rebalancing the bacteria in the mouth. (678) Although probiotic pills taken internally may very well have a beneficial impact on oral health, the benefits shown by these studies are from probiotics that actually come into contact with and are able to colonize the mouth. This is another point in favor of getting probiotics from fermented foods, such as kimchi and kefir. Studies done with probiotic gum, mouthwash, and lozenges have also shown promise in treating oral conditions.

Acne

Acne is another common condition that can be influenced by probiotics, despite its seemingly distant relationship with the gut. In reality, the skin is very closely connected to the gut through the ‘gut-skin axis,’ which I’ve previously mentioned on the blog and podcast. (91011) Just as inflammation in the gut can cause inflammation in the brain, it can also lead to inflammation in the skin. This inflammation can manifest as acne, psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, or other skin conditions. So in the same way probiotics ameliorate symptoms of depression by reducing inflammation, they also improve skin disorders through a similar mechanism. (12)

In addition to taking probiotics internally, there’s some research showing that topical probiotics can reduce acne. (131415) The skin is naturally home to beneficial flora that protect the skin from pathogens and regulate inflammation, but these friendly populations of bacteria can be disturbed through harsh soaps and other environmental toxins. Restoring beneficial bacteria through probiotic lotions or spot treatments appears to reduce skin inflammation from the outside, thus improving acne.

Household Cleaners

The last unconventional use for probiotics I’ll mention is in household cleaning products. Natural House is one company that produces these types of products, and they include probiotics in everything from toilet bowl cleaner to all-purpose cleaner. The theory is that while antimicrobial formulas might temporarily sterilize whatever surface you’re cleaning, the pathogenic bacteria will quickly return because there’s nothing to stop them. By using household cleaners containing probiotics, you’re inoculating your house with beneficial bacteria that should make the environment less hospitable to pathogens. It’s the same concept as following up a course of antibiotics with probiotics – antibiotics will likely wipe out a bacterial infection, but if we don’t encourage beneficial bacteria to grow in its place, there’s a strong likelihood that the pathogenic bacteria will return.

There really aren’t any studies proving the effectiveness of these products, but I’d say it’s worth a shot! At the very least, you’ll be avoiding the toxic chemicals that are found in most household cleaners, and that’s reason enough to seek out alternative cleaning solutions.

Recommendations

  • Consume fermented foods and beverages like sauerkraut, kim chi, beet kvaas, kefir (water and dairy), yogurt, cortido, etc. on a daily basis.
  • Consume prebiotic foods that selectively stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria already inhabiting the gut. These include onions, jerusalem artichoke, and fruits and vegetables high in soluble fiber (sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, asparagus, turnips, mango, avocados, strawberries, apricots).
  • If you’re suffering from a chronic health problem, consider adding a supplemental probiotic and prebiotic. There are many considerations that determine which probiotic is optimal for a given health condition, but soil-based organisms are almost always effective and well-tolerated. I suggest Prescript Assist, which you can purchase here. For prebiotics, I suggest a mix of arabinogalactan, beta-glucan, inulin, and oligofructose. My favorite product is Prebiogen, which you can purchase here. (Note: prebiotics are FODMAPs, which may cause difficulty for those with digestive problems. Start with a very small amount and increase slowly.)

What other purposes do you use probiotics for? Share your unconventional probiotic tips in the comments below!

246 Comments

Join the conversation

  1. Hi Chris,
    Are soil based probiotics safe to take once or twice daily? I wonder how diverse they are and if they could create another kind of imbalance? I can’t tolerate any other probiotic so that is why I ask. Are they equal in health benefits?

    Thanks so much!

    • I think they’re safe and beneficial. Our ancestors likely consumed milligram quantities of saporophytic mycobacteria and other microorganisms from untreated water and soil every day.

  2. There was an interesting article published on natural news.com (http://www.naturalnews.com/038783_probiotics_maltodextrin_GMOs.html) back in january stating that many probiotic supplements contain genetically modified flow agents and fillers that are intentionally not listed as ingredients. I would guess this is illegal, but something to be aware of. Mike Adams recommends Sunbiotics organic chewable probiotic supplements (http://store.naturalnews.com/Sunbiotics-Organic-Potent-Probiotic-Prebiotic-Tablets–30-count_p_215.html) – might be a good option for children because they are chewable.

    I think as with most nutrition, getting probiotics from whole fermented foods or kefir is always the best way to go, but unfortunately it is not practical sometimes especially for children, so finding a good supplement is a good idea. One thing I have found that works well is fermenting young coconut water and creating a kefir out of it. Coconut water has so many benefits anyway and fermented coconut water kefir is a powerful natural whole food probiotic as well and tastes decent. You can add a little stevia or mix some into a yummy smoothie for a child. Also, goat milk kefir sweetened with stevia actually tastes really good and my children love it. Raw organic goat milk would be the best to make kefir out of – if you can find it. I would not recommend most of the goat milk kefir in health food stores unless it is unsweetened – they typically have way too much sugar.

    It is also good to be aware that prebiotics (including fiber) may have negative effects on your gut flora balance if it is out of balance in the first place. The prebiotics and fiber can feed the pathogenic bacteria and make the imbalance even worse. So it is important to balance the gut flora first or along with prebiotics and then the prebiotics will enhance the gut flora and serve the purpose they are intended for.

  3. Thanks for this article. It’s interesting how the science on probiotics and prebiotics has evolved over the few years I have been learning about natural health.

    Seven years ago I saved an article from Dr. Mercola which recommended downing as much as a whole bottle (only if necessary) for acute diarrhea. The recommendation was to take a high potency strain every 30 minutes until experiencing relief. I shared the idea with friends and used it myself with success. As I eat better I have fewer episodes of acute illness.

  4. Chris
    I have started taking probiotics mostly because of the positive things I have read hear and other sites. I have a couple of questions maybe you could touch on or direct me to some help.

    I was/am asymptomatic to any gut problems. Is there any way to verify their benefits? Should I expect any more-or-less obvious changes/indicators of the beneficial effects? How long before I should expect any of them to manifest? I am willing to give it some time but still looking to justify $ vs benefit.

  5. When soil based pro-biotics first came out several years ago we used them and looked for a less expensive alternative….some internet research led me to Effective Microorganisms….used for industrial waste, mold remedation, water treatment, agriculture use, composting, human pro-biotics, food/beverage fermentation, (makes a pretty good wine with bottled organic concord grape juice!) etc….. http://www.scdworld.com

  6. I have found that adding some paprika/chilli powder and olive oil makes sawerkraut ( home made ) more palatable…Luis Mtz. Mexico

  7. Is there an sense in using maybe three or four different probiotic products and varying those, in order to constantly expose the intestines to new and beneficial organisms?

    All of these organisms compete against each other, so by varying them up you would be destroying the organisms you had previously taken in.

    I wasn’t clear from the article when do you take prebiotics and when do you take probiotics? Are you recommending taking both?

    • Yes, I’m recommending both because they have different mechanisms. Probiotics stimulate T-regulatory cells and have an immune-modulating effect (among others); prebiotics selectively stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria already in the gut.

      I think SBOs + fermented foods probably most closely mimics our ancestral exposure.

      • Do you recommend taking the prebiotic at the same time as the probiotic? For example, take the probiotic with breakfast and then put the prebiotic into tea or some other liquid that you drink after breakfast.

      • Regarding prebiotics, I understand there is some controversy. There are “experts” who say that prebiotics can stimulate the growth of all bacteria. If one is already presenting with a lot of dysbiosis, how would you proceed with using prebiotics?

  8. Hi Chris,
    If one were to take a soil based probiotic as there only probiotic is that a safe route to go? Wondering if it is diverse enough not to create another kind of imbalance. Are they ok to take once or twice daily? I ask because it is the only one I can tolerate. Thank you so much.

    • Yes, I think an SBO + fermented foods closely mimics our ancestral exposure to these organisms.

  9. Hi Chris, thanks for this interesting post. Could you guide me towards the probiotic that would help with Gallbladder issues.

  10. During years of tummy issues, I purchased many probiotic supplements, which never seemed to make any difference. Then, thanks to R Nikoley, I tried kefir. The positive effects were significant enough that I now culture it myself (plus, I really like the taste so I drink a lot, and prefer full-fat, and I’m too cheap to pay for ready-made when I can even find the full-fat version). I have used it (applied like calamine lotion) for cuts and scrapes, and it seems to speed healing. I forget how I stumbled on to this use, but a web search for “kefir wound healing” turns up a lot of information.

    I’m now (also thanks to R Nikoley) also using 4T unmodified potato starch daily, at bedtime, as a prebiotic. I find that in addition to a further reduction of tummy issues/discomfort, I am also sleeping more soundly.

    • You can open a fresh probiotic capsule and mix with lotion for your skin. Personally, I would mix it fresh each time. We plan to experiment with different probiotic strains at the same time (dividing up areas of skin with acne) so we can see the differences. And testing different lotions. Also will try mixing probiotics with a tiny bit of olive oil or coconut oil which have skin healing properties in themselves.

      • There is a distinct difference between aerobic and anaerobic bacterium. Many people think of aerobic and anaerobic in terms of exercise, or for the more scientifically inclined, in cellular activity. What many people don’t realize is that this process affects bacterium as well.
        There are certain bacteria that thrive in places where oxygen is available, hence the term aerobic, whereas there are also bacteria that thrive through fermentation rather than cellular respiration.  There are some probiotics that do not need oxygen to live, which the probiotics which are found in yogurt. Those probiotics will not do anything to your skin if applied as yogurt because they cannot survive in the presence of oxygen; they are the anaerobes. However, there are certain bacteria, these are the probiotics in Probiotic Action, that do need oxygen to survive, and those are the ones you want to put on your skin. Not all probiotics are the same and it’s important to know the difference.”

  11. How long do the probiotics live in ferment foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut? I’ve wondered if they increase of decrease in number with storage (once the jar is opened)?

    • I’m guessing it’s like a bottle of probiotic capsules in the fridge- you repeatedly open it and it’s fine as long as it’s kept cold. A jar of Bubbie’s sour kraut gets eaten within a week or two at our house anyway so I never worry about that 🙂

  12. Hi Chris, would you recommend a brand? I am currently using the JarrowDophilus, which is great according to my research..

      • Hi Chris, you wrote that you recommend Prescript Assist for most people…. Who should not take it? How about the Natren Healthy Trinity?

        • Hi
          If you want to maintain a healthy gut you take it for the rest of your life. Probiotics are like vitamins and minerals that you need it everyday to replenish your gut flora.
          Hope this helps:)

        • I suggest to read http://freetheanimal.com/2014/05/resistant-problems-ignorance.html
          The author, a health care worker, wanted to get rid of chronic salmonella and took a mix of 3 soil-based probiotics. After 10 weeks, the salmonella was gone and as a side effect ALSO the old gluten intolerance was gone and the bloodsugar was significantly less.

          And to give a more direct answer to your question: I think it depends how much is necessary and for which period. Some need a strong mix for 10 weeks and others may need less. You have to trust yourself. Basically you do not have to ask a docter ‘doc, I feel fine, all symptoms are gone. Can I stop with the treatment?’. So take the probiotics until you feel fine.

        • Jon- I’m not familiar with Klaire Therbiotic, but I do know from our nutritionist that people with SIBO should not have certain strains such as lactobacillus acidophilus. Even if you don’t have SIBO, some people shouldn’t have acidophilus like my daughter who has no noticeable problem with acidophilus but shouldn’t have it due to something that showed up on her testing, according to our CN. So she takes the PrescriptAssist soil based and now we’re all taking it (started with a fraction of a capsule and went up gradually like we do with any probiotic).