Probiotics have gained a ton of press over the years, and rightly so. Every week new studies surface promoting the benefits of maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, and probiotics are a key part.
Probiotics are ‘good’ bacteria and yeasts within the body, and they are everywhere. There are more bacteria in the body then there are cells. Probiotics live within the sinus, mouth, ears, eyes, nose, gums, esophagus, tonsils, stomach, appendix, vagina, joints, and urinary tract, but most live within the large intestine or colon. Probiotics have been researched for decades, and many studies support the theory that they are essential for optimizing your health. Probiotics help to keep pathogens at bay, support proper digestion and nutrient absorption, improve mood, and boost the immune system. So should everyone consider taking a probiotic, or only individuals with health issues? Is supplementation necessary or can probiotics be obtained through food? If taking a probiotic supplement, which one do you choose? Read below to get the answers to these questions and more.
How can probiotics keep me healthy? Lets start with the immune system. Numerous studies indicate that probiotics can benefit us in this area. Immunity can help with anything from the common cold to chronic infections. Approximately 75-80% of our immune system exists within the gut. One of the many functions of the gut is to act as a protective barrier to antigens. Antigens are the ‘bad’ bacteria. These come from things like the environment or from food. They enter the body and wreak havoc. But we can also lose probiotics from things like stress, chemicals, artificial sweeteners, medications, and poor diet. When your microbiome is out of balance, your health will undoubtedly be compromised. In contrast, when your gut maintains the appropriate balance of healthy bacteria or flora, you are more equipped to fight off colds and illnesses and stay healthy. So, it is of benefit to maintain your good bacteria at all times, not just when taking an antibiotic.
In addition, probiotics can be hugely beneficial to those with digestive disorders such as constipation, diarrhea, IBS, lactose intolerance, Crohn’s and Colitis. Probiotics can help protect the integrity of the gut lining as well as replenish and rebalance the levels of good bacteria in the colon. They can also help to absorb depleted nutrients.
Probiotics can also help treat certain illnesses including, UTI’s, chronic yeast infections, and certain allergies.
Who needs a probiotic? Those who are generally healthy can benefit from having probiotics in their diet in order to stay healthy. Individuals who are taking an antibiotic should consider taking a probiotic as well. Antibiotics are great at getting rid of the ‘bad’ bacteria in our bodies, but in doing so also get rid of the good bacteria. Many people will take a probiotic throughout the duration of their antibiotic. But we don’t just get antibiotics from pharmacy. They also exist within our food supply. They can be found in conventional eggs, poultry, beef, pork, and fish. So even if you have not taken a prescribed antibiotic for quite some time, you could still be ingesting them through your diet.
How can I get Probiotics into my diet?
Probiotics can be found in two sources: fermented foods and supplements.
Fermented foods containing probiotics include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kimchi, and kombucha. Having a variety of these foods in your diet can be a simple, healthy, and delicious way to balance your flora.
Probiotic supplements are a bit trickier, as not all probiotics are created equal. One of the most important things to consider is the strain of probiotic. Broadly speaking, probiotics are identified through their scientific nomenclature. This includes three names: Genus, species, and strain. Each name helps to identify the probiotic based on properties that make it distinct from others, beginning at the broadest level, and ending with the most specific classification. It is the strain that can be most important, as this is where you can correlate research studies and data specific to the probiotic. A common analogy is that of dogs. All dogs belong to the genus Canis and the species familiaris, but within the species there is a huge variety among breed. Think shape, size, coat, etc. This same logic applies to a probiotic strain. When choosing a supplement for specific conditions, a healthcare provider or dietitian can help you to identify which strains have been shown to be the most effective. Strains that work well for one condition, might not necessarily work well for another. The strain should be listed on the supplement label. An example would be Lactobacillus (Genus) rhamnosus (Species) GG (Strain).
Other things to consider in a probiotic supplement include whether or not the supplement contains guaranteed live colonies, has an expiration date (don’t buy one without it), whether the manufacturer offers unbiased third party testing, and the total bacterial level. Probiotics are dosed in billions of colonies per pill. This might sound like a lot, but keep in mind that there are between 100-300 trillion probiotics that occur in our body naturally. I generally recommend starting with a low dose of 1-5 billion in order to determine if you tolerate it well, then gradually increasing your dosage to 10-20 billion over time. You can start with .5-1 pill per day depending on the brand and colony level, and go from there. Side effects from probiotic supplements are rare, but ones that I have generally seen in practice include bloating or flatulence when initially started.
Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of probiotics and their benefits. If you are considering adding a probiotic to your health regimen, talk to your health care provider or dietitian to determine which probiotic is best for you.