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

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 the Daily Synbiotic from Seed, which you can purchase here. For prebiotics, I suggest a mix of arabinogalactan, beta-glucan, inulin, and oligofructose. My favorite product is Prebiogen. (Note: prebiotics are FODMAPs, which may cause difficulty for those with digestive problems. Start with a very small amount and increase slowly.)

246 Comments

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  1. Love learning more about probiotics. This question is a little similar to above but would SBO and fermented food (sauerkraut or water/milk kefir or yoghurt) be suitable for someone with long term mildly active IBD?

    • Yes, definitely. Though individual sensitivity to certain probiotics with IBD varies.

  2. Great information, Chris! I’ve been taking the prescript assist probiotic based on your recommendation. Do you recommend a dosage and optimal time to take – with food, without, morning, night, etc?

  3. Hi Chris,

    I have Ulcerative Colitis. I control it with a strict diet and take no meds. My diet consists of protein, fat and well cooked veggies. I am apparently fructose intolerant, any fruit (or high sugar veggie) and my symptoms appear in a day or so. However, it appears every time I try fermented veggies or eat too much greek yogurt (which I now purchase, years ago I strained my own yogurt), my symptoms begin to reappear. I am sorry if this is TMI, but my symptom is mucus. Why would that be? I thought probiotics should be a good thing for someone like me with UC. No?

    • You’re not the only one. I found that my IBS improved and food sensitivities decreased once I stopped taking probiotics in capsule form. I tried many, many different brands, but nothing helped until I stopped taking them. After giving my body time to heal from the onslaught of “good bacteria” I now find that I can eat some probiotic foods weekly, such as plain yogurt, kefir or pickles etc. I will probably avoid taking commercial probiotics from now on. My digestion became so messed up on them that I could hardly eat anything and became extremely food phobic because everything made me sick. I lost a huge amount of weight and looked like a cadaver. I originally started taking the probiotics to recover from antibiotics. I just kept taking them for several years thereafter thinking it was a good thing.

        • Thanks for the link. I’ve tried many probiotics, including IBS specific with bifid bacterium and lactobacillus but it just must be too much for me. It’s been six months since I have stopped probiotic supplements and its amazing how much better I feel. It’s not that I don’t get probiotics in my diet now. I eat yogurt, kefir, and Bubbies pickles several times each week. Just not every day or large amounts. It’s a small part of my diet. It seems that my system just does not tolerate large, massive amounts of concentrated probiotics. That might have been appropriate after I had taken the antibiotics, but maybe it unbalanced my system to continue for years afterward. I developed Gerd and IBS. In addition, two months ago I started taking a new enzyme supplement, Digest Gold, and that has made a huge difference.

      • I tested negative for SIBO. I think I caused problems for my self by overdoing it with probiotics and not realizing that I also needed digestive enzymes. Cutting out probiotic supplements but still eating fermented foods, in small amounts, and making sure I was digesting everything by using a good digestive enzyme, has made a huge difference for me. I can eat! Also gaining back some weight, have good energy and brain fog is gone. I’m soooo happy that I made these two small changes in my life.

  4. Thanks Chris. I have doubts about probiotics for “nasal congestion” though. I have been suffering with chronic sinus infections – obviously fungal – for 4 years. I have tried pretty much everything – including your past suggestions in terms of breaking thru biofilm with xylitol – and so far nothing has gotten rid of the problem. (NutriBiotoc Nasal Spray with GSE has helped a bit but no killing of the fungus) Candida diet and antifungals haven’t done it either. I have constant post-nasal drip and yucky yellow mucus in my nose each morning. Been taking probiotics (flora, Udo’s choice, Super 8 Hi-Potency Probiotics, refrigerated) for a couple years and they help my gut, but not the congestion and fungal situation. 🙁

    • Question can I snort probiotic capsule powder to cure a lingering sinus infection??? I’ve used it as a suppository vaginally for bacterial vaginosis and it worked. Assuming it’s the same type of bacteria it should clear up too. I tried apple cider vinegar just hurts my gallbladder. It did clear up my ear recently because I lost hearing for a day. Let me know please!

  5. I can turn standard Lactobacillus plus Bifidus probiotic capsules into equally active yoghurt, which goes further (and is far superior to normal yoghurt) by mixing them will milk and fermenting in an Easiyo hot-water yoghurt maker. Once it’s ready keep it in the fridge and save money on probiotics.

  6. My dr. has had me put the contents of a probiotic capsule in my sinus rinse when I get sinus infections…works wonders!

    • hey adriann, what specific strands or combination of probiotic strands or product did you use for intranasal purposes? did your dr. reccomend a specific one? and did it eliminate or alleviate the sinus swelling and congestion?

      • He said that any would work. Just make sure they are a good quality brand…not drugstore. I use PB8 brand…open the capsule and empty into your sinus rinse. It works great for me. Anytime I feel any sinus crud coming on, I do this. My Dr. recommended doing it for 3 days.

        • Adriann,

          Sounds like a forward-thinking doctor! Any chance you’re in NYC? I’m in need of a doctor….

          • Sorry…I am in Ohio and my Dr. is 45 minutes away in Michigan. It is so hard to find a good Dr. in my area!

            • Adriann, where in Michigan is your doctor, and what is your doctor’s name? I’m looking for someone good, especially if he has experience with candida issues. Thanks!

              • His name is Dr. Walter Woodhouse. He is in 9050 Lewis Ave

                Temperance, MI 48182

                (734) 850-8902 (Office)

                (734) 850-8934 (Fax)

                Map & Directions ›

                Hope this helps!

  7. Not sure on the cleaning products, but the rest of this is all excellent information. Inflammation in the gut leads to inflammation in the brain??? No wonder so many people seem to have mental illness.

  8. Hey Chris, are coconut kefirs safe for those who are histamine intolerant? Also, have you ever heard of any toxicity regarding probiotic supplementation (I’m sure there are many variables here depending on the individual) but do you think it could be problematic for me to take 1 tbsp. of coconut kefir (100 billion organisms) while also using a probiotic lotion or soap, etc? I’ve looked into this and gotten mixed answers, but I appreciate your time and dedication! I look forward to your response, thanks again!

    • Derek: some of the microorganisms in kefir may be histamine producing, but the answer to your question will depend on your overall sensitivity to histamine. The only way to know is to remove it for 2-3 weeks, then add back in.

      No, I don’t think 1 TBSP of coconut kefir with probiotic lotions or soaps is toxic. Remember that our ancestors consumed milligram quantities of microorganisms from untreated water, soil and fermenting plant matter on a daily basis.

  9. I have treated my hayfever with a different loop. Following work showing that xylitol helps dental health by changing the mouth bacteria, I have used xylitol nose spray to try to change the sinus bacteria. All I can say is that this year, I have NO reaction to grass pollen – the first time in 50 years. I am still reacting to tree pollens but not nearly as much as most of my friends who I used to be similar to..

  10. Love this article! I’m taking probiotics for the benefits… I still know so little about my Auntoimmune Atrophic Gastritis, I am wondering if probiotics help in that department in any way??? Thanks for posting the other uses… I had no idea probiotics had so many uses! 🙂

    • Yes, I think that’s plausible, though I’m not aware of any studies investigating it.

  11. Grow your own probiotics, and then they will be suited to your microclimate. My kombucha is doing wonders for my allergies!

  12. Awesome post, I am starting to get a bit of an obsession with probiotics.

    I have just decided that once all my current cleaning products are gone in my house, I will be switching to probiotic products, and had just come across the Natural House brand website. Chris, I assume you have tried these products? How well do they work? I know they will kill pathogenic bacteria no problem, but what about stains?

    Also, What are your thoughts on Primal Defense probitics? This product has SBOs also. I tried the Prescript Assist brand but it is much harder to come by than Primal Defense.

    I actually wrote about some uses for probiotics, including their effects on seasonal allergies and protection from the damages of alcohol consumption.
    http://www.thebarefootgolfer.com/2013/03/01/seasonal-allergies-are-probiotics-the-cure/
    http://www.thebarefootgolfer.com/2013/02/22/alcohol-and-leaky-gut-the-probiotic-protection-factor/

    • well, kinda…. i use systemic enzymes, and when i discovered an old blood stain on some linens, i opened a capsule and rubbed a little into the moistened spot. sure enough, it came clean. lacking encapsulated enzymes, i’d sure try probiotics for this application.

  13. That’s cool that you included household cleaners in your uses of probiotics. I have been fermenting lemons in plain water and use that for cleaning (microwave and conventional ovens, countertops, shower room, sink, etc.), and even use it as a replacement for LemmeShine. I love that it does the job, and I don’t have to suppress breathing while cleaning up. Now I gotta try using that for cleaning toilet bowls as well. I thought it was a revolutionary idea I had, until I saw your link!

  14. Hi Chris, What kind of dosage of probiotics would you recommend for someone taking it for anxiety/depression?

    By the way I heard a very interesting story on the NPR radio show Radio Lab where they did a piece on probiotics and a study that people were involved in to treat anxiety. They said that the treatment was very effective but that the participants were taking the probiotics in incredibly high doses that were not available to consumers. I normally use JarroDophilus.

    Thanks!

  15. Chris,
    I’ve been reading about resistant starch lately. I would love to see you blog something about this subject as it relates to probiotics, gut health, etc. Is it really all it’s made out to be? The information about RS seems really lacking. It’s hard to find out how much RS various foods have. Food producers are inconsistent in labeling – ie, if they count RS as fiber on the label or not. Some things I read claim that RS has more effect on gut health than soluble fiber. If so, why is there so much pushing of the health benefits of fiber instead of RS in its various forms… RS-1, RS-2, RS-3, and RS-4.

    • I’ll be covering it briefly in my book. The only whole foods that contain significant amounts of RS are white potatoes that have been cooked and cooled for 24 hours, green bananas, green plantains, plantain flour and cassava flour. The green plantains can be dehydrated and eaten as chips; plantain flour could theoretically be mixed with water, but it doesn’t mix well. Cassava flour is goitrogenic unless cooked, and when it’s cooked it loses RS. That is why many people are using potato starch to obtain RS; it has about 8g per TB, it mixes well with water, and it’s cheap. Get the Bob’s Red Mill variety.

      • Thanks Chris. How is it that potato starch retains the RS in processing but not casava flour? Do you know if the RS crystals re-form if you make a paste/dough from the casava flour and then allow it to cool?

      • Btw, my understanding is that all industrially produced casava flour has been cooked, otherwise it would be harmful. Not only goitrogenic but has some poisons in it as well. Where I live they also call it manjioca, aipim, and tapioca flour.