Should You Be Taking Probiotics?
The more we learn about microbes, the more we find our health is tied to their well-being.
Each person carries more bacterial cells than human cells in their body, and the gut is especially rich in microscopic friends. While our understanding of just how these bacteria influence our health is still in early stages, it’s clear that the balance of communities in our system plays an important role.
A variety of fermented foods can help maintain that balance, but supplements are also a quick and easy way to get a decent dose of good bacteria. Follow this helpful guide to find out what you should be looking for in a supplement. And remember, always discuss with your doctor first before deciding to take a probiotic supplement.
Probiotics are the army of good bacteria keeping a balance with the natural occurring “bad” bacteria and yeast in our digestive system. If you’ve ever taken a biology or microbiology class, then you could guess how many different strains of bacteria there are in this word, let alone in your gut (it’s a lot by the way!).
Probiotics may be helpful for those suffering from allergies, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), cholesterol, blood pressure, lactose intolerance, chronic gut inflammation, bacterial overgrowths, h. pylori infections, diarrhea, constipation, eczema, and more.
Many things may affect gut function including diet, lifestyle, and stress. And if you’ve ever been on antibiotics for an extended period of time, your gut is most likely lacking the army of good bacteria. Antibiotics are anti-everything, including both the good and bad bacteria lining your gut.
Types of Probiotic Bacteria
Different bacterial strains have been studied in relation to helping ease or improve a certain disease/symptom, for example lactobacillus is one of the most well-known bacterias (which actually is just the genus, there are many varieties under this umbrella group, i.e. lactobacillus acidophilus). Other types of bacterias include saccharomyces boulardii, Enterococcus faecium, Streptococcus thermophilus, Leuconostoc, and Bifidobacteria.
There are 500 to 1,000 different types of bacteria in your intestines amounting to trillions of microbes and all have their own role to play. Probiotic supplements contain a subset of bacteria believed to be helpful in nourishing key communities. Here are a few to look out for:
This is a diverse family of bacteria, some of which are found in dairy products. Lactobacillus bulgaricus, acidophilus, gasseri, rhamnosus and casei are all species that have some research supporting their use.
This is a type of yeast that some research suggests may be helpful in some cases of diarrhea and other GI complaints.
Similarly to Lactobacillus, this is thought to be a member of naturally occurring good bacteria. More research needs to be done, but some studies indicate it may help with certain gastrointestinal illnesses and diseases.
Another intestine-dwelling bacteria that some studies are showing may be helpful for certain types of diarrhea and in conditions where the lining of the intestine and the bacterial communities that live there are damaged. The infantus kind is particularly helpful.
Unrelated to the Strep from “Strep throat,” this bacteria seems to work with Lactobacillus to produce helpful nutrients.
Probiotics in Food
Probiotics occur naturally in our digestive system already! They’re made from digesting the foods we eat. You can see how this can be an issue for those who don’t consume a diet high in whole foods and rely on the Standard American Diet for their nutrition.
Highly processed foods, ones that contain those antibiotics from meats and dairy (again I’m referring to those not produced on an actual farm with “farmer Joe” taking care of his animals), and foods lacking in fiber are just some ways our bodies aren’t primed for a healthy ecosystem.
Foods Rich in Probiotics
If you want to start consuming probiotic-rich foods, here is a list of the most beneficial probiotic foods:
Similar to yogurt, this fermented dairy product is a unique combination of milk and fermented kefir grains. Kefir has been consumed for well over 3,000 years, and the term kefir was started in Russia and Turkey and means “feeling good.”
Kefir is created by the fermentation of milk by the bacteria, and yeasts in kefir starter break down lactose in the milk. That’s why kefir is suitable for those who are otherwise lactose intolerant.
It has a slightly acidic and tart flavor and contains anywhere from 10 to 34 strains of probiotics. Kefir is similar to yogurt, but because it’s fermented with yeast and more bacteria, the final product is higher in probiotics.
Made from fermented cabbage and other vegetables, sauerkraut is not diverse in probiotics but is high in organic acids (what gives food its sour taste) that support the growth of good bacteria. Sauerkraut is extremely popular in Germany today.
Sauerkraut is high in vitamin C and digestive enzymes. It’s also a good source of natural lactic acid bacteria, such as lactobacillus.
Sauerkraut juice has been studied to benefit digestive issues like leaky gut, diarrhea and constipation, and is also effective at helping you kick a cold fast.
Kimchi is a cousin to sauerkraut and is the Korean take on cultured veggies.
It’s created by mixing a main ingredient, such as Chinese cabbage, with a number of other foods and spices, like red pepper flakes, radishes, carrots, garlic, ginger, onion, sea salt and fish sauce. The mixture is then left aside to ferment for three to 14 days.
4. Coconut Kefir
Made by fermenting the juice of young coconuts with kefir grains, this dairy-free option for kefir has some of the same probiotics as traditional dairy kefir but is typically not as high in probiotics. Still, it has several strains that are great for your health.
Coconut kefir has a great flavor, and you can add a bit of stevia, water and lime juice to it to make a great-tasting drink.
A popular dish in Japan consisting of fermented soybeans, natto contains the extremely powerful probiotic bacillus subtilis, which has been proven to bolster your immune system, support cardiovascular health and enhance digestion of vitamin K2.
Natto can also contain vitamin B12, which is lacking in vegan diets and is one of the highest plant-based sources of protein at 17.7 grams per 100-gram serving size.
Possibly the most popular probiotic food is live cultured yogurt or greek yogurt made from the milk of cows, goats or sheep.
Yogurt in most cases can rank at the top of probiotic foods if it comes from raw, grass-fed animals. The problem is there is a large variation on the quality of yogurts on the market today.
It’s recommend when buying yogurt to look for three things: First, that it comes from goat’s, sheep milk or A2 cows milk; second, that it’s grass-fed; and third, that it’s organic.
Kvass is a common fermented beverage in Eastern Europe since ancient times. It was traditionally made by fermenting rye or barley, which gives it its mild flavor. In more recent years, it’s been created using beets, fruit, along with other root vegetables like carrots.
Kvass uses lactobacilli probiotics, which have blood- and liver-cleansing properties.
Miso is one of the mainstays of traditional Japanese medicine and is commonly used in macrobiotic cooking as a digestive regulator. Miso has been a staple in Chinese and Japanese diets dating back approximately 2,500 years.
Today, most of the Japanese population begins the day with a warm bowl of miso soup believed to stimulate the digestive system and energize the body.
Made from fermented soybeans, rice or barley, adding a tablespoon of miso to some hot water makes an excellent, quick, probiotic-rich soup.
The fermentation process can take anywhere from a few days to a couple of years to complete, and the end result is a red, white or dark brown paste with a buttery texture.
Miso soup is famous throughout the world, and it’s very easy to prepare. Simply dissolve a tablespoonful of miso paste in a pot of water filled with seaweed and other ingredients of your choice.
Kombucha is an effervescent fermentation of black tea that’s started by using a SCOBY, also known as a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.
Kombucha has been around for over 2,000 years and was thought to originate in 212 B.C. in the Far East. It later surfaced in Japan and then spread to Russia.
Many claims have been made about kombucha, but its primarily health benefits include digestive support, increased energy and liver detoxification.
10. Raw Cheese
Goat’s milk, sheep’s milk and A2 aged cheeses are particularly high in probiotics, including thermophillus, bifudus, bulgaricus and acidophilus. Always buy raw cheese and not pasteurized or you will not be getting any of the probiotics benefits.
Finding a Good Probiotic Supplement
It’s important to note that there are different types of strains of probiotics. The probiotics benefits experienced with one probiotic strain may be completely different from the health benefits seen from another probiotic.
Certain strains of probiotics support immunity, others digestion, and some even help burn fat and balance hormones.
If you want to use probiotics to help with a specific health concern, it’s vital to select the right probiotic for the right condition. Or you can consume a wide range of probiotics in your food to be covered.
You are what you digest, and there are no other compounds in the world that support digestion and the assimilation of nutrients better than living probiotics.
When reading a probiotic label, it should reveal the genus, species and strain of the probiotic. The product (usually in capsules) should also give you the colony forming units (CFUs) at the time of manufacturing.
Also, the majority of probiotics can die under heat so knowing the company had proper storing and cooling of the facility is also important.
There are five specific things you want to consider when buying a probiotic supplement:
Brand quality — Look for brands that are reputable
High CFU count — Purchase a probiotic brand that has a higher number of probiotics, from 15 billion to 100 billion.
Strain diversity — Search for a probiotic supplement that has 10–30 different strains.
Survivability — Look for strains like bacillus coagulans, saccharomyces boulardii, bacillus subtilis, lactobacillus rhamnosus, and other cultures or formulas that ensure probiotics make it to the gut and are able to colonize.
Research — Do your homework and look for brands that have strains that support your specific needs.
Here are a few more things to look for in your probiotic capsules:
Stay away from general health claims and consider how much information is really on a label:
The fresher the better when you’re talking about living organisms.
Sugar is not a good food source for probiotics. Prebiotics are the food source meant to keep probiotics alive. A synbiotic is a supplement that contains both prebiotics and probiotics. The best synbiotics contain healthy plant starches and fiber.
Living vs. Dead:
“Live and active cultures” is a better bet than “made with active cultures.” After fermentation, the product may be heat-treated, which kills off both good and bad bacteria (extending shelf life).
“Live and active cultures” does not necessarily mean that the kinds of bacteria the product holds have been proven as beneficial. The bacteria strain should consist of two names and two letters: the genus, species and strain. If the label lists two names, it could be any one of hundreds of bacteria without research or proven health benefits behind it.
This is where it gets tricky. Some probiotic supplements don’t list the amount of bacteria their products contain, and the amount that’s effective depends upon many qualifiers. Health benefits can occur with 50 million CFUs for certain conditions and may take as many as 1 trillion CFU for others. The higher the number the better. The Food Standards Code claims that at least one million live bacteria per gram are necessary in yogurt and other fermented drinks to provide the 10 billion CFU needed for health effect.
Which Strains of Probiotic Bacteria Should You Be Looking For?
- Bifidobacterium bifidum — the most dominant bifidobacteria probiotic in infants and in the large intestine, supports production of vitamins in gut, inhibits harmful bacteria, supports immune system response and prevents diarrhea. (6)
- Bifidobacterium longum — supports liver function, reduces inflammation, removes lead and heavy metals. (7)
- Bifidobacterium breve — another bifidobacteria probiotic that helps colonize healthy gut community and crowd out bad bacteria. (8)
- Bifidobacterium infantis — alleviates IBS symptoms, diarrhea and constipation. (9)
- Lactobacillus casei — supports immunity, inhibits h. pylori and helps fight infections. (10)
- Lactobacillus acidophilus — relieves gas, bloating, improves lactose intolerance. Shown to help with a 61 percent reduction in E. coli, lower cholesterol levels and creation of vitamin K. (11) Also, important in GALT immune strength.
- Lactobacillus bulgaricus — a powerful probiotic strain that has been shown to fight harmful bacteria that invades your digestive system and is stable enough to withstand the acidic digestive juices of the stomach. It also neutralizes toxins and naturally produces its own antibiotics.
- Lactobacillus brevis — shown to survive the GI tract, boost cellular immunity, enhanced natural T-killer cells and kill h. pylori bacteria. (12)
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus — supports bacterial balance and supports healthy skin, helps fight urinary tract infections, respiratory infections, and reduce anxiety by reducing stress hormones and GABA neurotransmitter receptors. (13) Also, survives GI tract.
- Bacillus subtilis — an endospore probiotic that’s heat-resistant. Elicits a potent immune response and supports GALT. (14, 15) Suppresses growth of bad bacteria like salmonella and other pathogens.
- Bacillus coagulans — an endospore probiotic that’s heat-resistant and improves nutrient absorption. Also has been shown to reduce inflammation and symptoms of arthritis. (16)
- Saccharomyces boulardii — a yeast probiotic strain that restores natural flora in the large and small intestine and improves intestinal cell growth. It’s proved effective in treating inflammatory bowel disease like Crohn’s disease. (17) It’s been shown to have anti-toxin effects, be antimicrobial and reduce inflammation. (18, 19)
Probiotics and Immunity – The Science
Probiotics play a role in defining and maintaining the delicate balance between necessary and excessive defense mechanisms. The immune response is initiated when the body is exposed to foreign substances or a tissue injury. The immune system exerts a protective role as it tries to maintain homeostasis, and when the body senses a threat, it triggers adaptive immune responses that cause inflammation. It’s when there’s an unbalanced immune response that severe inflammation, uncontrolled tissue damage and disease develop.
According to research published in Immunobiology: The Immune System in Health and Disease, the immune system can be viewed as an organ that’s distributed throughout the body to defend us against pathogens, wherever they may enter or spread. Within the immune system, a series of distinct compartments can be distinguished, and each has the ability to generate a response to pathogens present in that particular set of body tissues.
The mucosal immune system includes the permeable surfaces of the body — the eyes, nose, mouth, throat, lungs, uterus, vagina and, the most important area for the discussion of probiotics, the gut. The gut acts as a portal of entry to a vast array of foreign antigens in the form of food, and the gut is heavily colonized by beneficial microorganisms that protect us against pathogenic bacteria by occupying the ecological niches for bacteria in the gut. (20)
Our mucosal immune system plays a significant role in maintaining intestinal homeostasis and causing systematic protective responses. Large amounts of antigens pass through the gut daily, and 100 trillion bacteria are associated with the gastrointestinal tract. This rich gut microbial community is referred to as the microbiome, which plays a vital role in the immune system. Current research indicates that microbial imbalance is associated with broad diseases that are not restricted to the gastrointestinal tract. Researchers have proved that probiotics are a powerful therapeutic strategy for manipulating our microbial composition and immune responses. Certain species of bacteria can have large effects on the gut immune system, and the balance of good and bad bacteria is necessary for the maintenance of homeostasis. (21)
This is why manipulating the microbiome is an alternative approach for maintaining health and preventing or treating diseases.
According to research published in Current Opinion in Gastroenterology, several beneficial effects of probiotics on our intestinal mucosal defense system have been identified:
Probiotics act as a barrier, lining the intestinal tract. They block bacterial effects by producing substances that kill bacteria and compete with pathogens and toxins to support the intestinal epithelium (the thin tissue forming the outer layer of the intestines).
Probiotics enhance mucus production so we have a thicker mucus layer, which protects us against invasive bacteria.
Probiotics promote the survival of intestinal epithelial cells that help remove foreign substances.
Probiotics enhance barrier function and stimulate protective responses from intestinal epithelial cells.
Probiotics enhance innate immunity and control pathogen-induced inflammation by secreting protective immunoglobulins and stimulating dendritic cells to make them slightly less responsive and less reactive to bacteria. (22)
Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that many probiotic effects are mediated through immune regulation, particularly through balance control of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines, or substances that are secreted by cells of the immune system and have an effect on their cells. This is how probiotics alleviate intestinal inflammation, normalize gut dysfunction and down-regulate hypersensitivity reactions. (23)
Scientists are learning more each day about the role of microbes in keeping people healthy and the multitude of health benefits associated with consuming the right type and levels of probiotic microbes.
Research to date suggests that probiotic bacteria can improve digestive function and enhance the immune system. For those reasons alone, it’s important to start increasing our daily consumption of probiotics.
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