You have probably seen the commercials on TV for brands promoting the merits of healthy bacteria in yogurt for digestive health—even going as far as calling their products “probiotic yogurt.” However, many people are still unaware of the role probiotics play and probably don’t fully understand the extent of their benefits. Is yogurt a good enough source of probiotics? Should one take a probiotic supplement? What do the different strains mean, and what dosage should be taken? There is a lot of confusion and many myths about these good bugs, so let’s dig in!
Why Do We Need Probiotics?
Probiotics play an important role in maintaining our gut flora. The human intestinal tract is home to approximately 100 trillion microorganisms, from more than 1,000 diverse bacterial species. (1)
Collectively, they are tremendously important for overall health. You have probably heard about “good bugs” and “bad bugs.” The good bugs are the good bacteria that do a variety of positive things for us. For instance, they help us digest food, synthesize certain vitamins and play an important role in immune defence.
Good bugs need good foods to help them grow. Stress, changes in the diet, contaminated food, chlorinated water, use of certain medications and numerous other factors can alter the bacterial flora in the intestinal tract. The bottom line is that these good bugs are our friends, and we need them to stay happy by taking good care of them. A diet high in processed foods and sugar will feed the bad bugs and create dysbiosis, an imbalance in normal gut flora. This can really affect one’s overall health, considering approximately 70 percent of our immune defence comes from the gut! (2)
The Many Benefits Of Probiotics
The health benefits of probiotics seem to be endless. By adding more probiotic foods into your diet, you could see all of the following benefits:
- stronger immune system
- improved digestion
- increased energy from the production of vitamin B12
- better breath because probiotics destroy Candida
- healthier skin, since probiotics naturally treat eczema and psoriasis
- reduced colds and flu
- healing from leaky gut syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease
- weight loss
How Probiotics Work
Our intestinal tract is comprised of various parts, and these various parts contain different concentrations of bacteria. The majority of these bacteria reside in the large intestine. The large intestine is said to have between ten and one hundred billion bacteria, whereas the small intestine has only about ten thousand. Due to this, a common misconception is that supplementing with probiotics has very little effect on our gut microbiota, as a measly 25-50-billion colony-forming unit (CFU) can be seen quite small when compared to the hundreds of billions of bacteria found in the large intestine.
Although the majority of our bugs are found in the large intestine, the aim of probiotics is to populate the small intestine, where nutrients from food are absorbed into the bloodstream and where antibiotics tend to have the biggest effect leaving us susceptible to health complications. The small intestine’s membrane is only one cell layer deep, meaning that it is easier for bacteria to latch on and colonize it, By comparison, the large intestine can be up to 200 cells deep, making it more difficult for bacteria to latch on. Supplementing with a high-quality probiotic of a 25-100 billion CFU, therefore, has a great impact on repopulating the small intestine with the necessary bacteria to function optimally.
Here’s how probiotics work: They help good bacteria create a barrier, or film-like coating, over the inner lining of the intestinal wall. This film keeps toxins and bad bacteria from gaining access to the wall— and through it, to your bloodstream.
One of the ways in which probiotics may help is by promoting healing and repair of the digestive tract. When the digestive tract is inflamed—due to the conditions mentioned above or infection and irritation by alcohol, painkillers, or antibiotics—it can become abnormally permeable, which is a major cause of the development of food sensitivities and autoimmune issues. This sequence of events can also cause other inflammatory diseases such as arthritis or cardiovascular diseases, conditions which have also been shown to improve with the help of probiotics.
The most proven benefit of probiotics is in cases of diarrhea—especially those brought on by bacterial infections. If you suffer from food sensitivities, chances are probiotics will help you, too. Many food reactions are not solely due to a sensitivity to the food, but also to the feeding of unfriendly bacteria, which then produce substances that activate the immune system in the gut.
In addition, a 2014 meta-analysis of 20 trials done on adults and children concluded that probiotics reduce the duration of cough and cold symptoms by 30 percent, whereas 200 mg of vitamin C showed only an 18 percent reduction in children and only 14 percent in adults.(3) This clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of probiotics on the immune system.
More probiotics benefits include the fact that they:
- regulate local and systemic (i.e. full body) immune function
- break down nutrients for metabolite pathways, as well as for glycemic control, cholesterol and the amino acids that enhance gut health
- support the mucosal barrier
- enhance nutrient utilization and absorption
- prevent neoplastic changes
- regulate motility (i.e. gut muscle action)
- regulate appetite (i.e. leptin and ghrelin)
- prevent infection—systemic and gastrointestinal
Fermented Food and Yogurt
Contrary to popular belief, yogurt may not be an ideal source of probiotics. Due to the process of pasteurization, the number of bacteria found in yogurt is greatly reduced. For this reason, companies that claim their yogurt has active cultures actually add live bacteria to the yogurt after the pasteurization process is complete. Depending on the brand, the type of strains of bacteria and the CFU will vary, making it difficult to keep track of the probiotic count one is ingesting and whether they provide enough variety. Another issue is that conventional yogurts are loaded with sugars and artificial sweeteners, and sometimes fillers such as cornstarch, which, in turn, are shown to cause gastrointestinal issues and feed the bad bacteria in our gut. For these reasons, it is best to try to make your own yogurt from home using grass-fed, organic dairy and bacteria cultures that can be purchased from any health food store.
Fermented foods are a helpful option to support gut health. Indian and Chinese cultures have been feeding their bodies with these fermented foods for centuries. Fermentation is done to preserve food, as well as enhance taste and flavours. These foods create good bacteria and are rich in enzymes that strengthen the immune system, help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals, and keep our brains sharper. New research shows that fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha—fermented for a long time so the sugar content is lower—and pickled veggies, apple cider vinegar and tempeh help colonize the gut with healthy bacteria. (4)
To get the maximum benefit of fermented foods, it is important to read product labels and choose only those that contain active, live cultures—preferably raw—and unpasteurized, perishable ingredients. Fermented vegetables and dairy products like kefir are the most popular options. When it comes to dairy, look for fermented, grass-fed options. Fermented foods can also be made at home, though the probiotic content will vary by batch. Home fermentation is a safe way to ensure that you are ingesting beneficial bacteria. You can use starter cultures such as SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) to easily ferment vegetables or brew kombucha from home.
A product I often recommend to people is a fermented, non-dairy product the Cultured Coconut. It is a probiotic teeming with over 4 trillion Colony Forming Units (CFU) and over 40 active strains in just one tablespoon, making it the most powerful probiotic on the market. Get 15% off of your purchase when you buy from this link. The discount will automatically be applied to your cart at checkout.
What Are Prebiotics?
Prebiotics are fibre-rich foods on which good bacteria feed and grow. In order to be considered “prebiotic,” food must be non-digestible by host enzymes, leading to fermentation in the gastrointestinal tract by bacteria. This means that prebiotic foods pass through the upper part of the gastrointestinal tract and remain undigested, as the human body can’t fully break them down. Once they pass through the small intestine, they reach the colon, where they’re fermented by the gut microflora. There they become “fuel” for the beneficial bacteria that live within your gut, making them happy and enabling them to do their job.
Some of the associated benefits of adding prebiotic foods to your diet include:
- lowered risk for cardiovascular disease
- improved digestion
- lowered stress response
- improved hormonal balance
- improved immune function
- lowered risk for obesity and weight gain
- lowered inflammation and autoimmune reactions
The following are prebiotic-rich foods:
- dandelion greens
- acacia gum (or gum arabic)
- chicory root
- Jerusalem artichoke
- raw jicama
Prebiotics and probiotics together play a fundamental role in preserving health by maintaining the balance and diversity of intestinal bacteria—especially increasing the number of good bugs. Although it is always best to get your prebiotics through food, there are supplements available when a person needs a high intake of prebiotics. Fructooligosaccharides (FOS), inulin, high-soluble fibres like Larch arabinogalactans and modified citrus pectin are all beneficial.
What To Look For In A Good Probiotic
In order to maintain colonization in the digestive tract, probiotics should be taken regularly. General maintenance recommendations call for ingesting a minimum of 12.5 to 25 billion CFU per serving per day, but this can vary, based on an individual’s specific health condition. For instance, a person who has immune or gut issues may need a higher CFU count in order to help repopulate and rebalance their gut.
To leverage your natural gut, lactic-acid-producing strains like lactobacillus and acidophilus are needed in the small and large intestine, respectively. By leveraging the hierarchy present in the gut, a good formulation will ensure that there is a critical balance to help replenish and maintain the benefits of strains.
When you start using probiotic supplements, pay attention to how you feel. Are you noticing a reduction in gas and bloating? Are you becoming more regular? Typically, when taking probiotics, signs of digestive discomfort are supposed to decrease. However, if you feel that bloating or flatulence are increasing, it may be a sign that you have an underlying condition that requires gut-healing before you can introduce new strains of bacteria. One such condition is SIBO (Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). Also, people diagnosed with SIBO cannot easily handle probiotics that contain arabinogalactan.
Keep in mind that quality does matter—make sure that you use a probiotic brand that has many different strains to give you the variety of bugs that you need. It’s also a good idea to cycle your probiotic strains to make sure you get as much variety as possible. Finally, remember to incorporate fermented foods into your diet!
Skinny Bugs Versus Fat Bugs?
Yes, you read right! Thin people have different intestinal bugs than obese people. Researchers at the Genome Sequencing Centre at Washington University have demonstrated that there are notable differences in the bacteria of a lean person versus the bacteria of an obese person.(7) Lean individuals in the study had a higher ratio of a kind of bacteria called Bacteroidetes in comparison to another kind called Firmicutes. While obese subjects were found to have much higher levels of Firmicutes when compared to levels of Bacteroidetes. The ratio of Firmicutes-to-Bacteroidetes has been shown to be critical for determining health and risk of diseases. And, if that was not enough for us to pay attention to this ratio, recent studies show that higher levels of Firmicutes actually have the potential to turn on genes that increase risks of obesity, diabetes and even cardiovascular disease. (5)
Probiotics and fermented foods have been a part of the human diet for thousands of years. It is important to ensure that we are getting an adequate supply of them to keep our good bacteria happy. As mentioned in this chapter, insufficient gut bacteria come with a slew of health effects, including digestive disorders, skin issues, Candida, autoimmune diseases, weight gain and even compromised gene expression. Modern-day science is linking more and more widespread chronic conditions to gut health, so a happy gut is truly a happy you!
- Guinane, C. M., & Cotter, P. D. (2013, July). Role of the gut microbiota in health and chronic gastrointestinal disease: understanding a hidden metabolic organ. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3667473/
- Vighi, G., Marcucci, F., Sensi, L., Cara, G. D., & Frati, F. (2008, September). Allergy and the gastrointestinal system. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/
- Plummer, D. (n.d.). The Human Microbiome: A Key Driver in Lifelong Health & Disease.
- Bray, K. (2016, December 08). The health benefits of fermented foods – Nutrition. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://www.choice.com.au/food-and- drink/nutrition/superfoods/articles/fermented-foods
- Zhang, Y., Li, S., Gan, R., Zhou, T., Xu, D., & Li, H. (2015, April). Impacts of Gut Bacteria on Human Health and Diseases. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4425030/