Probiotics. You’ve probably heard of them through a friend or seen them on the shelf of your local store, but you aren’t exactly sure what they are and what they do. So, today we’ll set the facts straight on these little helpers.
What Exactly are Probiotics?
Probiotics are supplements that consist of live bacteria and yeasts. Wait a second. Bacteria? Yeast?
Aren’t we supposed to avoid these? In this case, no. Our bodies are full of bacteria and yeast- some fighting for the good side and some fighting for the dark side. The bacteria and yeast that make up probiotics fall into the former category. They are the good guys that live in your gut.
In fact, you actually have up to 2 kg of microbes, consisting of tens of trillions of microorganisms, living in your gut right now! With at least 1,000 species of bacteria containing over 3 million genes, they actually create their own microbiome. And two-thirds of this gut microbiome is unique to you and no one else.
What Do Probiotics Do?
The microbiome in your gut plays a vital role in digestion. These microbes help break down foods the stomach and small intestine can’t digest, so your digestive system can more easily absorb the nutrients.
They also affect nerves that control gut movement, which helps send food through your gut. And they play a significant role in supporting your immune system as well as assisting in the production of specific vitamins.
Gut health has also been linked to:
- The immune system
- Mental health
- Autoimmune diseases
- Endocrine disorders
- Skin conditions
When the bacteria in the biome shift in an unhealthy direction— probiotics can add the good guys back into your system to bring it back into balance.
For example, taking antibiotics can kill off some of your good bacteria. Taking probiotic supplements can replace the bacteria that was lost to help your gut health get back to normal.
What Conditions Can Probiotics Be Used to Treat?
Providers will often suggest the use of probiotic supplements for the following conditions:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Infectious diarrhea (caused by viruses, bacteria, or parasites)
- Diarrhea caused by antibiotics
- Skin conditions, like eczema
- Urinary and vaginal health
- Preventing allergies and colds
- Oral health
Are They Safe for Everyone?
Most of the time, the answer is yes. But people who have problems with their immune systems or who have severe health conditions should check with their provider first to make sure that probiotics are safe for them to take.
Where Can Probiotics Be Found?
Probiotics are very popular right now. Probiotics can be found in a variety of foods, like:
- Sourdough bread
- Some cheeses
But they are more concentrated when taken in supplement form.
The Many Strains of Probiotics
There are a variety of strains (species) of probiotics. The most widely recognized strains are Lactobacillus and acidophilus. Each strain benefits a different system of the body.
Better Understanding Probiotics
Because the use of probiotics has exponentially increased over the last decade, some companies have used marketing tactics that have left customers misinformed. We’ll play a game of true or false to get more clarity.
1. The FDA regulates probiotics.
False. The FDA treats probiotics like foods, not like medications. Drug companies have to prove that their products are safe and effective, probiotics manufacturers do not.
2. It doesn’t matter which strain you buy. They all work the same.
False: Different strains have different effects on different parts of the body. And only a few probiotic strains have been researched extensively and have been shown to support the human body.
3. Higher-quality probiotics need to be in temperature-controlled environments.
True. Probiotics are living microorganisms and require a habitable environment to survive. Probiotics are sensitive to heat and moisture. When handled carelessly or exposed to extremely high temperatures during shipping or storage, microbes can lose their effectiveness and even die off. When this happens, the pill you swallow will be less potent, and you will not receive the benefits you paid for.
4. Higher potency equals better results.
False. Unfortunately, some manufacturers are putting products on the market, claiming that the extremely high potency of this product is going to be better for you than another product containing the same strain of probiotics at a lesser potency.
This is not always true. Research data shows that specific strains at a particular potency(CFU) provide health benefits for specific problems. For example, if a study on a specific probiotic strain indicates that 10 billion CFU will benefit a particular health problem, then the product claiming that it will benefit this problem should have precisely 10 billion CFU.
More than 10 billion is not required. If a company says that a product with a CFU higher than 10 billion is going to give better results, you may want to think twice about paying what will probably also be a higher price.
5. Guaranteed potency at the time of production equals guaranteed potency upon expiration.
False. Many manufacturers actively promote and guarantee the potency of their product when it is manufactured. But the fact is that probiotics die over time, so the product that was potent when it was produced may not be as potent when you take it.
How the manufacturer chooses to manufacture, ship, and store their products is just as important as how they produce them. Look for manufacturers that guarantee potency at expiration to make sure you get exactly what you paid for.
Lots of Choices
As you can see, not only are there a lot of choices, but there is a lot of marketing that may be difficult to sort through.
If you’ve ever stood in the probiotic aisle, you know that this is true! If you need some help understanding how probiotics may best serve you and your health or need some recommendations on brands that you can trust, we are here to help!
- Image attribution