Probiotic use has increased exponentially in the past decade, as studies have evaluated the role of probiotics in improving and maintaining gut and immune health. As awareness of probiotics has increased, so too has the noise increased; it seems as though there is a new headline about probiotic supplementation on a regular basis. Here, we'll cut through the noise and get down to what you need to know about using probiotics for gut health.
Introduction to Probiotics for Gut Health
Probiotics have been hyped for years now, but many people still do not fully understand what probiotics are, how they support health, and what you should look for in a probiotic supplement. Understanding all of these components will help you identify the best probiotics for your needs and goals.
The term "probiotics" describes contained, live microorganisms that may provide health benefits when they are consumed in adequate amounts, both in terms of the probiotic strains being consumed and the amount of probiotics being taken in. Probiotics are utilized to support and strengthen gut health by improving the number of healthy bacterial colonies in the gut. With adequate bacterial colonization of strains that are considered beneficial, probiotics can impact numerous aspects of an individual's health, ranging from improved immune responses to improved digestive processes.
Maintaining the health of your gut's microbiome has health benefits that extend beyond the basics of digestion; although a healthy balance of bacteria can help with stomach upset and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, gut health can also be linked to autoimmune disorders, mental health, and more. Called "the brain in your gut," the GI tract is home to functions like hormone regulation, immune response, and digestion, all of which can positively (or negatively) impact your overall health and well-being. Whether you are facing a medical condition diagnosis or you are simply feeling a general sense of malaise, your gut may be at least a partial culprit.
How exactly do probiotics work? Introducing different probiotic strains into the gut can help produce antimicrobial compounds, outweigh the harmful bacteria that may be present in your gut and consequently rob them of the nutrients and food they need to thrive, and stimulate the immune system. Because mounting an immune response is vital in maintaining health, ensuring that you have plenty of the "good guys" to work for you is essential.
Types of Probiotics
Although there are hundreds of different probiotic strains, with as many as five hundred having been discovered. These strains can be found in probiotic foods, drinks, and dedicated supplements, with the most common being lactobacillus, bifidobacterium, and streptococcus.
Each type of probiotic has its own set of characteristics, benefits, and sources. Not all fermented foods contain all different strains of probiotic, which is why many people turn to supplements to get their probiotics; to receive the same numerous species into your gastrointestinal tract, you have to consume a wide variety of fermented foods. Utilizing dietary supplements helps limit the amount of new foods that have to be introduced into and maintained in your diet.
The different types of beneficial bacteria have been linked to different benefits and conditions. Lactobacillus, for instance, has been tied to both lactose intolerance and improved vaginal health, while bifidobacterium has been tied to improvements in abdominal pain and digestive health and immune function. Saccharomyces boulardii has ties to improvements in fungal overgrowth within the intestines. Taking a multi-strain probiotic can help target multiple strains at once, while a single-strain probiotic can offer a more targeted or direct intervention.
For those specifically targeting gut health and decreasing an imbalance of bad bacteria in the gut, there are specific strains that can be particularly beneficial. The strains most often studied for their human health benefits (and gut health in particular) are lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidobacterium lactis. Both of these have been shown to target immune health and GI integrity, which supports numerous different aspects of human health and can be a wonderful way to offer support to a healthy person looking to support their immune system and someone with a distinct GI condition or ongoing distress.
Prebiotics are often confused with probiotics, but prebiotics are not colonies of healthy bacteria. Instead, prebiotics support probiotic bacteria by acting as a source of food for this particular type of bacteria. Prebiotics are usually fiber-based, and feed healthy bacteria within the intestinal tract. They are a great item to use in conjunction with probiotics, as they help support the growth and activity of healthy bacteria.
Health Benefits of Probiotics for Gut Health
Gut dysbiosis, or an imbalance of bad bacteria and good bacteria, has been linked to numerous issues with immune health, and has been tied to a diverse range of conditions. Although improved digestion and strengthened immune function are two of the most basic benefits of making sure there is a balance between bad bacteria and good, there is far more that can benefit from probiotic supplementation. Urinary tract infections, chronic digestive issues, and even autoimmune disorders can all benefit from the introduction of certain bacterial strains, while improving immune function and reducing inflammation within the body. Probiotic bacteria can improve digestion and immune function and reduce the need for long-term interventions for ongoing conditions that begin in the gut.
There is evidence supporting the use of probiotics to target specific conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and ongoing diarrhea, including diarrhea that occurs in tandem with antibiotic use. Utilizing a probiotic health supplement regularly can limit the reach of these conditions and, in some cases, eradicate symptoms entirely.
As the value of using active cultures as a source of health intervention is increasingly being studied, the potential reach of probiotic benefits has expanded. Rather than limiting research to conditions directly impacting the gut, studies are beginning to evaluate how harmful bacteria in the gut can impact other health arenas, including mental health and cardiovascular disease. Current studies have not definitively determined how active cultures impact these conditions, but the interconnected nature of the human body is being uncovered more and more each day. Consequently, some studies have begun to evaluate heart health and mental and emotional well-being, and have determined that beneficial strains of bacteria can positively impact both.
Choosing the Right Probiotic Supplement
Choosing the best probiotic supplement for your needs can be difficult; after all, there are many different types of bacteria that can be included in probiotic products, including probiotic-rich foods. To choose the one that is best for you, consider the strain of the supplement, the dosage included in each serving size, and its shelf stability. Choosing a supplement that contains the right strains to target your concerns, and is stable enough to survive both storage and digestion will mean the difference between seeing improvements to your health and consuming an essentially "empty" capsule.
A brief introduction to probiotic products reveals a litany of options. These options typically include capsules, powders, and gummies. Capsules are typically seen as the most convenient and stable form of delivery, while powders are more versatile and may be easier to hide in foods to supplement a child's diet. Gummies can be useful for those who struggle to take vitamins, and probiotic-rich foods can be preferred by those who do not respond well to supplements.
Not all probiotic supplements are created equal. Selecting an unknown or questionable brand could mean consuming nothing valuable at all, or could prove to be actually harmful. Going with a brand that has a history of producing high-quality supplements is essential to make sure you are actually receiving the beneficial microbes promised to reduce pathogenic bacteria. When looking at labels, search for key information, such as the number of CFUs (colony-forming units) per serving, and how potent strains within the supplement are. Our gut health-focused supplement is an example that combines each of these things to provide a superlative product.
Factors to Consider When Choosing Probiotics for Gut Health
There are three different things to look at when choosing a probiotic. These include strain diversity, CFUs, and shelf stability. We'll look at each in greater detail below.
- Strain diversity. When deciding on a probiotic, look for a product with different types of active bacteria. Including multiple strains ensures that you are receiving as diverse an array as possible of friendly bacteria to populate your gut.
- Colony-forming units (CFUs). Ideally, your dose of probiotics will contain at least 10 billion CFUs per serving. Why? Not every single strain of your dose is going to survive the harsh environment of your digestive tract. Taking a high dose increases the likelihood of receiving an adequate amount of probiotic strains to successfully populate your gut.
- Shelf stability. Your best product is going to be one that has been tested to ensure shelf stability so that you can rest easy knowing that your probiotics are alive and effective when you take them.
Best Natural Food Sources of Probiotics
Probiotic supplements are popular and easy to take, but you can further increase your probiotic intake by eating and drinking probiotic-rich foods and drinks. The most common sources include:
- Yogurt. Adding plain yogurt to your diet is a great way to include probiotics in your day to day eating habits. Plain yogurt can be substituted for sour cream or mayonnaise, used in sauces and dressings, placed in smoothies, or consumed on its own.
- Kombucha. This popular drink is filled with antioxidants and probiotics and is easy to find in most health stores, and is increasingly found in standard grocery store aisles, as well.
- Sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is a traditional fermented cabbage dish that can be consumed on its own, as a side dish, or even as part of a sandwich, and is a great source of probiotics.
- Kimchi. Kimchi is a spicy dish from Korea made from an assortment of fermented vegetables. Kimchi can be added to other dishes to add a probiotic (and a spicy kick), or enjoyed on its own.
- Tempeh. Tempeh is a popular fermented product made from soybeans. It is high in both protein and probiotics, and is lauded for its full, nutty flavor.
- Miso. Miso is another soybean product. A fermented soybean paste, it is also high in protein and probiotics, and has also been described as having a nut-like flavor.
Potential Risks and Side Effects of Probiotics
Although most studies evaluating probiotics are positive, there are some risks and side effects that have been explored in clinical studies. The most common concerns include the following:
- Digestive issues. Probiotics have the potential to cause mild digestive discomfort, including gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
- Allergic reactions. In rare cases, it is possible to experience an allergic reaction to the bacteria found in probiotic supplements.
- Interactions with medications. Antibiotics can negatively interact with probiotics, and can counteract or altogether eradicate the efficacy of probiotic intervention.
Probiotics can be an excellent way to support the intestinal microbiota in order to support overall health and wellness. From mental and cardiovascular health to regular bowel movements, probiotics can be useful for a host of concerns and issues. By using probiotic supplements with plenty of different strains, adequate CFUs, and long-term shelf stability, you can ensure that you are consuming the probiotics most likely to support your gut and improve the relationship between bacterial colonies in your gut to boost immunity, support intestinal regulation, and increase health.