Should I Really Be Taking Probiotics?
If you walk into the supplement section of the grocery store and reach the probiotic section – it’s overwhelming! The word on the street for a WHILE now has been that probiotics are good for you, they help your gut, and your health. Which is all well and good, and they in fact are an important component to a healthy gut flora, but how do you even know which one to choose, and why to choose it, other than what it tells you on the label? As always, I am here to help steer you in the right direction, help you feel more knowledgeable about WHY probiotics are important, how you can choose the right one for you if it’s recommended, and ways you can support your gut microbes without supplements.
What are probiotics and what do they do?
Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacteria) that can benefit the health of the host they are introduced to. There are different genera (multiple of genus) of probiotic organisms, and even more species of them! Each species has its own unique benefit or characteristics – so many that scientists are still researching and discovering them. Within a species of probiotic microorganisms, there are specific strains. Strains are where the specific health benefit really takes hold – aka “strain specificity.” You can think of these similarly as you think of dog breeds – they are the same species, but then each breed is different (temperament, height, length, etc.).
To help put this into perspective, here is a chart to help break it down –
Just think, you can have the same genus, and the same species, but DOZENS of different strains within that. Plus, dozens of different species, and multiple genera! Other common genera of probiotics are – Bacillus, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, and Escherichia. All these bacteria create our gut microbiome, and when it comes to “gut health,” the more diverse of a microbiome we have, the healthier it is. Diversity ensures that no one genus, species, or strain takes over, which will then create dysbiosis – the opposite of what we want.
So, what do they do exactly? So much. They play a vital role in helping our immune defenses. They bind to viruses, preventing them from passing the mucosal lining and intestinal wall. They also produce antimicrobial compounds and inhibit harmful bacteria from invading our cells. Not only do they help defend against pathogens, but they also support our immune system in regulating inflammation, help maintain a proper pH in our colon, and provide energy to nearby cells.
Most research supports their use for gastrointestinal conditions, their use during and especially after antibiotic use, immune system support, and some research supporting their effectiveness with depression or anxiety. Although, there is continual research being done looking at probiotic strains for a myriad of other health conditions or concerns like inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, even GI distress induced by stress.
How to decide if taking a probiotic is right for you.
The first and foremost suggestion I have here is – ask your physician! Although, many times physicians simply suggest the top over the counter option you can find at any pharmacy. Which is not a knock at all, but it isn’t exactly specific to YOU, and there isn’t a whole lot of guidance on what to look for when reading the labels.
The reason this is my first suggestion, is that each person is unique, and although research helps drive evidence-based treatments, we need to consider YOU as a whole. What is suggested for you, might not be the way it is prescribed or suggested for the next person. And if you aren’t receiving the benefits you had hoped for, having a physician on your side, digging deeper at what the root cause is to your health concerns can truly make a difference. I would be more than happy to speak with you about your health concerns and see if taking a probiotic would be a good fit for you and your health goals.
Other than receiving proper guidance for your specific needs, a probiotic might be a good fit for you if you’re having constant digestive issues. Bloating, diarrhea, constipation, etc. As well as during and after taking antibiotics for an infection. Now, probiotics won’t be the “cure,” digging deeper to find the root cause of those digestive issues will be the main priority, while probiotics should be an aid to establishing a healthier gastrointestinal tract all together.
What should I look for when choosing a probiotic at the store?
Dosage. Most research has concluded that doses of 1 billion CFUs or greater are most effective for providing their therapeutic effects. Generally speaking, that will be per strain. So, if a probiotic supplement has 10 different strains within it, check to see if the dose is at least 10 billion CFUs.
Another thing to keep in mind, is the more specific the reason for taking it, the more specific the supplement facts should be. Some probiotics will only list the genus and the species (ex: Lactobacillus plantarum), my rule of thumb is that it’s perfectly alright IF the label doesn’t make a claim that it’s good for “mood” or “immune system function” or any other specific benefit. If it does claim to help with a health concern, look to see if they list the specific strains (ex: Lactobacillus plantarum 299v)
My Top 2 Tips for Supporting your Microbiome.
If you’re not sure about taking a probiotic, there are ways you can easily support a healthy microbiome through your diet!
#1 Fiber – eating a diverse array of fibrous foods will provide your gut with “prebiotics” – these feed the good bacteria in your gut and keep them thriving. Great sources of prebiotic fibers are onions, garlic, asparagus, and artichokes.
#2 Fermented foods – These will be your best source of probiotics from food sources, rather than a supplement. Although you might not see specific therapeutic effects from consuming them, they do help to keep our microbiome diverse and healthy. Common fermented foods are yogurts, kefir, and kombucha. Pickles are also a fermented food, although be sure to purchase ones that are not made with vinegar – those do not contain any live probiotics. If you’re feeling adventurous, kimchi (fermented spicy cabbage) is a fun addition to your morning eggs. Parent tip – Kombucha, pickles, and kimchi can also be made at home, which can be a cool way to get the kids involved with healthy foods and learning about the fermentation process.
Hopefully you feel a little more knowledgeable about probiotics, whether you’re already taking some, or getting curious about it. They can be beneficial for specific health concerns, but they can also be an aid to supporting your general health.
At STRONGLIFE Functional Medicine in Lithia, FL, Dr. Justin Scott can help you address any underlying issues, whether you realize they’re there or not, and improve your overall health.
“I hope that you found this as valuable as my patients have over the years. If you’re interested in a patient-centered process that takes into account all aspects that affect your health, then I would encourage to visit our website at www.stronglifefunctionalmedicine.com to see how we help our patients improve their health and to find if you are a good candidate for a Functional Medicine approach.”