Probiotics for Gut, Brain & Immunity

An interview with digestive health expert Dr. Sara Celik

By Jason Sebeslav

Dr. Sara Celik, ND, HMC, BHSc is a Naturopathic Doctor and Homeopathic Master Clinician with over 15 years of experience. With her extensive clinical and educational background, she is a sought-after national authority on natural health. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Dr Celik some key questions about probiotics and gut health.

Jason Sebeslav: Dr Celik, natural health experts (and natural health stores!) have been talking about the importance of probiotics for years. Now it seems like everyone is talking about probiotics and gut health. What do you think accounts for the wider interest?

Dr Sara Celik: Some people are looking for ways to be healthier, while others are looking for solutions to their digestive issues such as IBS, heartburn or gas and bloating. We read more, attend educational health seminars and watch videos online. There is no shortage of information and this has lead to increased exposure and knowledge.

JS: So what exactly is this gut flora, or good bacteria?

SC: ‘Good’ gut bacteria are known as probiotics and the term probiotic literally means “for life”. These organisms are ‘friendly’ bacteria that thrive in the human digestive tract throughout a person’s entire life. While they have many functions in the body, they are most commonly known for producing vitamins and assisting with the digestion of food. Research shows that probiotics also support the immune system, reduce inflammation and may contribute to a healthier mood.

JS: If we all have beneficial bacteria, why would we need to supplement with them?

SC: We need to supplement with probiotics daily since the bacteria in the gut is easily destroyed. Take a look at our modern day lifestyle which consists of high levels of stress, nutrient-depleted foods, environmental pollution, and the overuse of medication. All of these factors can disrupt a healthy gut environment and create an imbalance of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ gut flora. When this imbalance occurs, it is referred to as dysbiosis. One of the best ways to treat dysbiosis and address an imbalance of gut flora is with probiotic supplements.

JS: What are some key symptoms of an imbalance in gut flora?

SC: Besides the obvious symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea, other signs and symptoms may include headaches, skin problems (acne or eczema), fatigue, mood changes or depression, poor immunity or difficulty maintaining a healthy weight.

JS: There’s been a lot of interest in the so called “gut-brain” connection. How would you explain the connection in a simple way?

SC: The gut is often referred to as the second brain. It contains its own neural network called the Enteric Nervous System (ENS), which contains millions of nerves. Although the ENS doesn’t make decisions or solve math problems the way the brain does, it can communicate other important messages to a person through hormones and neurotransmitters. Gut feelings and decisions made based on intuition are thought to be from the second brain. New research is investigating the connection with conditions such as anxiety, depression and the gut. To date, many of the studies have been done in animals and more research is needed.

JS: As the interest in probiotics has exploded, so has the product offering! With so much to choose from, how do people know what to look for?

SC: First, you need to look for potency or culture count, which refers to the total amount of live, ‘friendly’ bacterial cultures per dose. Most of my patients take a ‘one-a-day’ capsule with a daily dose of 50 billion active bacteria. Second, a variety of bacterial strains is important. While some strains are better for increasing immunity such as Bifidobacterium bifidum, others can help with digestion by decreasing gas like Bifidobacterium longum. There are even probiotics like Lactobacillus rhamnosus that can fight against bad bacteria from spoiled food. So look for a multi-strain probiotic supplement. Finally, buy enteric coated capsules. ‘Friendly’ bacteria have to survive the harsh acidic environment of the stomach as they make their way to the intestines. A protective enteric coating will ensure the bacteria arrive alive where they are needed the most.

JS: People often assume that eating yogurt provides enough probiotics. Is this true?

SC: Yogurt typically only contains 1 billion live bacterial cultures, which is not enough for therapeutic benefit. The probiotic supplements that I recommend to my patients usually contain 50 billion live bacteria per serving and do not have artificial colours and flavours that are often found in yogurt cups.

JS: What would you say is one of the most amazing facts about probiotics that most people don’t know?

SC: Most people aren’t aware that 70-80% of the immune system lies in the digestive system. Probiotic bacteria act as a protective army and play a big role in fighting off pathogenic organisms (harmful bacteria and viruses). When patients ask me for my immune-boosting tips, I always start with the importance of healthy gut flora. Probiotic research is rapidly evolving and it appears probiotics may be beneficial for individuals who have food allergies, autoimmune disease and other serious health conditions. It’s a field of medicine that we ought to keep a close eye on.