Probiotics are one of the most common self-prescribed supplements I see in patients. When I ask them why they are taking them, I often get the standard “I heard they were good for me”. Followed by “I’m not sure if they are helping.”
Without understanding why a probiotic can be good for you, it is hard to gauge if it is working for you. In addition, there are vast differences in probiotics. Picking an appropriate choice depends on the kind of “good” you are trying to achieve.
To understand probiotics, you must be introduced to your amazing microbiome. The microbiome consists of the trillions of microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, viruses, etc) that live in and on our bodies. The microbiome exists primarily in our digestive tract and embodies the concept of good bacteria. We have evolved to live symbiotically with our microbiome. Meaning that we rely on one another for survival. The health of our microbiome is crucial for our own health. Particularly our digestive health and our immune system.
Digestion, Nutrition, & The Microbiome
The majority of our microbiome exists in our digestive tract. Particularly the large intestine. It supports the break-down of a variety of foods. Primarily in more fibrous foods such as vegetables and legumes. The microbiome also turns indigestible foods into short chain fatty acids (SCFA) which are anti-inflammatory for our system.
A healthy microbiome also plays a role in our metabolic health. Aiding in both blood sugar regulation and fat digestion and storage. In animal research, mice without a microbiome are more prone to obesity and diabetes. In humans, we see a similar effect. Those with a healthy balanced microbiome tend to be leaner versus those with “unbalanced” or unhealthy microbiomes who tend to be overweight.
The microbiome is considered healthy when there is a good balance between the various species that we know are beneficial to our health. Also called commensal organisms.
When there is too much of one species or if there are harmful (pathogenic) species present in the microbiome, then it is considered unhealthy.
Eat This, Not That!
The food choices that we make have a huge impact on the health of our microbiome. Eating an abundance of vegetables, particularly non-starchy vegetables, fruits, and whole grains has a positive effect on the health of our microbiome. In contrast, diets that are high in refined sugars, sugar alternatives, and preservatives (found in packaged foods) have a profoundly negative effect on our microbiome. The use of anti-biotics and frequent laxatives also harm our microbiome because they flush out and kill our good bacteria and organisms.
An unhealthy microbiome leads to unhealthy digestion, causing bloating, gas, heartburn, constipation, and diarrhea. It has also been linked to a variety of digestive conditions including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Research has shown that probiotics can have a positive effect on these conditions by returning the microbiome to a more balanced state. For further information, click here to read, “The Brain in Your Gut”.
Immunity, Inflammation, & The Microbiome
A healthy microbiome is also essential for the health of our immune system. Our microbiome is an active part of our immune system. Our commensal organisms will attack outside germs to prevent them from infecting us. The microbiome also plays a major role in educating our immune system.
An unhealthy microbiome tends to be a poor teacher and promotes a more inflammatory immune system. This leads to wide-spread inflammation in your body which has been linked to arthritis, psoriasis, eczema, diabetes, depression, and anxiety. It also leads to a weaker immune system overall, meaning you are more likely to get sick.
Using probiotics in these conditions can help shift the microbiome to educate a less inflammatory and stronger immune system. It is also important to note that antibiotics, pain killers, and corticosteroids, which are all used to treat the above conditions, have a negative impact on our microbiome health. Using probiotics after rounds of these medications is a great practice for supporting your microbiome health.
What Makes A Good Probiotic?
It is always helpful to consult a knowledgeable health care professional when picking a probiotic. Especially when it comes to treating specific conditions. There are specific strains that have been shown to be beneficial for specific conditions. They can also recommend better quality brands to ensure that you are actually getting the probiotics stated on a label. That said, there are general rules that everyone should know when picking probiotics.
What To Look For When Choosing Probiotics
Firstly, you want a minimum of 10 billion CFU (colony forming units). This is the number of organisms present in the probiotics. Our microbiome organisms vastly outweigh the cells in our body. If you are getting a probiotic with a lower number than 10 billion, the probiotic is likely not making it all the way through your digestive tract. Thus won’t be as effective.
Secondly, you want to look for a variety of species on the ingredient list, usually 10 -15 total. Most should be lactobacillus species or Bifidobacterium species. These make up the bulk of our microbiome. In specific conditions, you may only want 1-2 species in your probiotic but for general health, a variety is more appropriate.
Most probiotics must be kept in the fridge as they are living organisms. To see noticeable changes, I recommend a minimum of 4 weeks of consistent dosing, although some conditions require up to 3 months of dosing.
Lastly, I probiotics are not meant to be taken for a lifetime (really there are very few supplements that would even fall into that category). They should be used strategically and temporarily to shift and balance your microbiome back into its healthiest state. On a daily basis you should be supporting your microbiome through diet & lifestyle.
Aim for 7-9 servings of vegetables per day. Drink lots of water, and avoid artificial sweeteners and refined sugar. Consider adding fermented foods in your diet to give your body small doses of probiotics for maintenance. Kimchi, kombucha, sauerkraut, and plain yogurt are all great options to incorporate into your diet. Click here to read, “7 Must-Eat Fermented Foods for a Healthy Gut”.
8 Easy Tips
1. Sit down to eat.
Digestion is a resting activity. If you are eating on the move, your body is sending its energy to keep you moving instead of focusing on breaking down that food.
Take time to enjoy your food! Sit down, smell it, and taste every bite!
2. Increase your vegetable intake.
Yes you must eat your veggies. There are so many reasons but for your gut it’s about feeding your microbiome and keeping you regular. Your plate should be half filled with a variety of veggies – raw or cooked, both are great!
3. Say goodbye to packaged foods.
Your gut doesn’t know what to do with the preservatives. Plus these foods tend to be high in sugar which is going to feed bad bacteria.
4. Try adding a fermented food to your diet once a week.
Kimchi, sauerkraut, & kombucha are all great things to add to your diet to get an extra dose of good bacteria for your gut. Yogurt can be great too however many popular brands (ex: Activia) are filled with extra sugar that makes your gut friendly decision a bit counter-productive!
5. Limit your red meat consumption to once per week.
Even better get consider grass-fed, hormone-free cuts of meat to get your fix!
Red meat can be inflammatory on the gut and eating too much has been linked to colon cancer! Click here to read, “What Meat Do You Eat?”to learn more about what kind of meat is best for you.
6. Sigh it out.
Or hum or sing. That vibration you feel at the back of your throat when you do these activities is stimulating the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve runs from your brain to your gut and promotes relaxation and digestion. Stress reduction + gut health promotion in less than 30 seconds! Click here to learn more about The Healing Power Of Mantra Meditation.
7. Get yourself moving.
Physical activity is always the answer. Not a fan of the gym? That is okay – it’s about moving and getting that heart rate up. Find something you enjoy and aim to get 30 minutes per day. Walking, dancing, vigorously cleaning the house, walking up and down the stairs – whatever so long as you are moving!
8. Try adding some gut friendly tea into your life.
Peppermint, chamomile, and ginger are all tasty teas that we consider carminatives – a fancy word for saying they promote digestion! A great way to end a good meal!