Probiotics have been getting a lot of buzz lately. These little microorganisms are credited with improving our immune systems, helping to keep us regular, and even with easing the symptoms of developmental disorders like autism. Probiotic supplements are available at health food stores, specialty shops, and mainstream grocery stores, and are even being infused into popular foods such as yogurt.
So what are these little creatures, and what exactly do they do? They are generally credited with increasing the “good” bacteria in our gut, while eliminating the “bad” bacteria. This general explanation makes sense for many non-medical laypersons, but some parents require more information before deciding whether or not to offer these supplements to their children with autism.
The gastrointestinal tract consists of everything between the mouth and the anus, and it is the first line of defense in a healthy body. The GI tract has over 400 different species of bacteria. These bacteria produce enzymes, which identify, digest, and deliver nutrients where they need to go. These enzymes are responsible for every metabolic process in the human body, and are essential for optimum health. Beneficial bacteria are also responsible for cleaning up cholesterol, manufacturing B vitamins, cleaning out the lower bowels, destroying bad bacteria, and eliminating toxins from the body.
A healthy GI tract should maintain a ratio of 85:15 good vs. bad bacteria. Unfortunately, there are many things that can disrupt this balance. Antibiotics, steriods/hormonal drugs, birth control pills, fluoride, chlorine, coffee/tea, carbonated drinks, radiation, stress, and preservatives are some of the everyday things that can lead to an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria. This can lead to many health problems, including constipation/diarrhea, increased susceptibility to colds and viruses, lethargy, irritability, and, in more severe cases, issues with brain development, attention, and self-stimulatory behaviors common in autism.
Researchers have successfully treated autistic-like symptoms in mice, and while they have not yet recommended widespread use of probiotics for the treatment of autism, they are hopeful. In the meantime, many parents are trying probiotics in the hopes that they can make a difference for their children.
It is important to note that all probiotics are not created equal. Some contain too few strands of healthy bacteria to be beneficial. Others contain bacteria that were “live” at the time of manufacture, but that may no longer be live by the time they reach the store shelf. Many healthy bacteria are quite delicate, and heat and moisture can cause them to die off quickly, which is why it’s recommended that most probiotics be kept in a cool, dry place like the refrigerator.
It is also important to make sure that the formula you choose contains not only the beneficial bacteria, but the medium in which the culture was grown. This is called the supernatant. It contains vitamins, enzymes, anti-oxidants and immune stimulators.
There are many products out there claiming to offer probiotic benefits, so it’s important to make an informed decision. Many parents have reported that a quality probiotic has made a tremendous difference for their child.