Oh, the supplement industry. What a large, confusing world of pills, powders, and gels filled with so very many convincing claims it’s hard not to believe you shouldn’t just buy everything in the store. Though if you know my philosophy around food and supplements, you know the last thing I want is for you to be taking a cocktail of 10-30 different supplements a day instead of focusing on eating whole, healthy foods. Supplements are just that-supplemental. They may add some benefits to your health, but first and foremost you need to fix the way you eat. With that said, I have my strongly recommended handful (not always recommended for all), one of which is a probiotic. You may recall my blog on your newest trillion best friends? Well here is a little more information to spark some motivation on how to keep those friends happy, healthy, and best functioning to serve you, and it’s all about the probiotic.
Probiotics: foods and supplements that contain good bacteria and help them colonize in the gut
Prebiotics: dietary fibers that help FEED the bacteria in the gut
A note *not all bacterial strains in probiotics are created equal. Some have shown to benefit one area of health where others will help another. It is important to recognize this when looking for a supplement for yourself*
In that last post I went over some of the incredibly important functions the bacteria in your large intestine serve. Let’s review a little, though, because your gut microbiome is SO COOL. Some also refer to it as your second brain because the enteric nervous system-digestive system-is the second largest part of our neurological system. So first, bacteria in your body outnumber your cells 10:1. Take that number in for a second. Your body is TEN TIMES more bacteria than it is you. Most of these bacteria line your digestive tract and support your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, fight infections, and a whole lot more (7). They manufacture vitamins like vitamin K and some of the B vitamins, turn fibers into short-chain fatty acids which feed the gut wall and perform other metabolic fuctions (1, 2), stimulate the immune system and regulate the integrity of the gut-helping to prevent “leakage” into the body (3). One may think bacteria are harmful, and though this is true to an extent, if you have an appropriate balance of good bacteria (85%) to bad bacteria (15%) in your body, there is little need for concern. It is when this balance gets thrown out of whack that we see a ton of problems. An unbalanced flora has been linked to numerous diseases and conditions (Type I diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, colorectal cancer, Alzheimer’s, mental health illness, neurological disorders, and many, many more (3)). So, what can help or hurt the development of your gut microbiome?
The production and development of your gut microbiome starts when you go through your mother’s birth canal and are exposed to her bacteria for the first time. It further develops with the breast milk you drink, food you eat, and bacteria you are otherwise exposed to like dirt and pets. If you do not have enough good bacteria from an imbalanced exposure or antibiotic treatments wiping them out and not replenishing in an appropriate way, the side effects can include digestive disorders, skin problems, candida, autoimmune disease, and frequent illness. Concern about this imbalance hasn’t always been necessary because probiotics from food in our diets helped to build and maintain a healthy, balanced gut. At least, they did historically (7). We used to get them from eating fresh foods from good soil, animals that ate foods from that soil, and by fermenting our foods to keep them from spoiling. Now we are consuming foods produced through damaging agricultural practices like soaking our foods with chlorine and pesticides (7), and eating processed foods with incredibly low nutrient density. Many parts of our diet and lifestyle actually have antibiotics that harm or kill the good bacteria in our bodies. These can be things like:
- Genetically modified foods
Avoiding these and improving diet/lifestyle can help optimize your gut microbiome balance. If the health of your gut is not a priority, it can quickly become a breeding ground for bad bacteria, yeast, viruses, fungi, and parasites (7), which not only cause acute damage, but chronic as well-leading to many of the conditions and diseases mentioned earlier.
Some benefits of taking a probiotic:
- Weight loss (Obese individuals have different gut bacteria than lean individuals. Ever heard of those fecal transplants? Research has shown in animal studies that fecal transplants from lean animals can help obese animals lose weight (4))
- improved digestion/absorption
- enhanced immune function (Did you know 80% of your immune system is located in your digestive tract (7,8)??)
- better skin (no more acne or eczema)
- reduced risk of many diseases
- decrease inflammation
- reduction of gas/bloating/constipation
- protect against irritable bowel disease (Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis)
- reduce anxiety and depression (5, 6)
- lower total and LDL cholesterol levels
- reduce blood pressure
So where can you get healthy sources of probiotics?
- apple cider vinegar
- fermented foods- yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, kombucha
As you increase the colonies of the lovely bacteria in your colon, you will want to make sure to feed them so that they thrive. You can do this by feeding them PREBIOTICS. The prebiotics found in whole foods come from fermentable fiber, also known as soluble fiber. Some foods high in soluble fiber include raw garlic, raw/cooked onion, raw asparagus, raw banana, chia seeds, flax seeds, sweet potatoes and other organic fruits and vegetables.
Picking a Probiotic Supplement
Like I said before, there are many strains of bacteria out there, some that work in different ways and support different things like immunity, digestion, fat burning, or balancing hormones. Picking the right one for your health is important, and the probiotic supplements out there are often ineffective, coming with a lot of fillers and of very poor quality. When reading the probiotic label, it should show the genus, species, and strain of the probiotic. Common groups include lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium (different species within each group, and different strains in the species) It should also give you the colony forming units (CFUs) at the time of manufacturing. You also want to note the company’s storage and cooling techniques since most probiotics can die under heat (7).
- CFU Count: purchase a probiotic supplement that has a high number of probiotics, ideally from 15 billion to 100 billion
- Stability: Probiotics need to be kept cold to best be preserved. Look for their handling methods during production, transport, storage, and sales.
- “Live and Active Cultures”. Look for this versus “made with active cultures”. Good and bad bacteria may be killed or harmed if the product was heat-treated after fermentation.
- Find the Right Strains: do some research and find out what strains you need to support your specific needs and find a brand that has those. Generally speaking, a probiotic supplement should have 10-30 strains. Make sure these are strains like bacillus coagulans, saccharomyces, boulardii, bacillus subtilis, lactobacillus rhamnosus, and others that ensure probiotics make it to the gut and are able to colonize.
To make things easier for you, I have a nice graphic that shows some probiotic strains and their specific benefits:
There are usually not many side effects when taking a probiotic if you are healthy. However, many people have a misunderstanding of that word, so it may not be a bad idea to check with a healthcare professional to get the go-ahead on taking one. Bloating, gas, and diarrhea may happen if you take too much too soon. This goes for the supplements and probiotic foods. Please use extra caution if you have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or have significant digestive issues already. Other than that, probiotics tend to be very helpful, especially when used with a healthy, active lifestyle.
Well hopefully I have sparked some interest and increased your motivation to optimize your gut health! Again, make sure you consult a healthcare practitioner (myself included J) prior to starting a probiotic as it can be quite dangerous if you are not in good health. Other than that, use those guidelines to choose one and if you really don’t want to do the research, we have a great one at CoreFit you can come check out! Feel free to e-mail with questions or topic suggestions. Therese@corefitinc.com
Therese Martinez, MS, RD, CPT