What are probiotics?
Probiotics are a nutritional supplement of “good” bacteria. Your body and your digestive tract are literally covered with bacteria. Before you reach for the hand sanitizer, understand that these microbes play important roles in our health. They are not a bunch of free loaders. They carry their weight by helping us digest our food, boosting our immune function, and even helping us not gain weight. And this is only the tip of the iceberg of what we know about our gut bacteria. Research is ongoing and the more we learn, the more I believe our gut bacteria is critical to our overall health.
So where do probiotics fit in? Well, probiotics can be a great way to ensure a friendly population of gut bacteria. But do you really need to take them? Most likely, yes. In this modern era, most of us suffer from some form of dysbiosis, meaning our gut bacteria population is not the healthiest. It could mean that we have too much of one bacterium, not enough of another, not enough variety of bacteria, or not enough colonies. We honestly haven’t figured out what health really looks like when it comes to our gut bacteria and most likely it looks different for each person. But we do know that most of us live our lives in a way that wreaks havoc on our gut bacteria.
Signs of dysbiosis
- Poor digestion
- Frequent colds
- Chronic yeast infections
- Food sensitivities
Causes of dysbiosis
- Drugs (hormones & steroids in particular)
- Food preservative & additives
Probiotic supplements can go a long way to restoring a healthy population of gut bacteria. Probiotics may even help in treating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, infectious diarrhea, upper respiratory tract infections, eczema, psoriasis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and anxiety.
What kind of probiotic should You use?
So most of us should take probiotics daily, but what kind? There are a million different probiotics on the market and it can all get a little confusing. And unfortunately, research has yet to really answer this question. There are hundreds of different species of bacteria in our gut and we have no idea what each species does or how much we need of each. This makes choosing a probiotic difficult.
For general replenishment and maintenance, I look for probiotics that contain a variety of species. Most probiotics only contain 1 or 2 species. While these species are known to be beneficial, they have only limited health benefits.
In general, I recommend soil-based probiotics. They contain a variety of species naturally found in the environment. Since we evolved with gut bacteria that came from the dirt found on our food, it stands to reason that our physiology responds the best to those soil-based species.
Another consideration when it comes to probiotics is the quality. For the best health benefits, probiotics should contain live microbes. But many do not. So when choosing a probiotic, look for ones that are refrigerated or state they are shelf stable on the label. Most probiotics need to be stored in the refrigerator and you should plan to use them up quickly. Overtime, the potency will decline as the microbes die.
So how much should you take? Well, that is totally dependent on your current health, the medications you take, and the severity of your dysbiosis. So talk to a doctor who can determine how much probiotics you need. Your doctor may also recommend particular species of bacteria based on your health conditions.
Other ways to support healthy gut bacteria
- Eat fermented foods
- Practice mindful eating to decrease the effects of stress on digestion and the gut bacteria
- Skip the processed & packaged foods
- Eat organic to minimize pesticides
- Play in the dirt
- Don’t use hand sanitizer (just wash your hands with soap and water)
- Get rid of toxic cleaning supplies at home
To be safe, please talk to your doctor about using probiotics. If you have severe dysbiosis or an intestinal infection, you will need to treat that before using probiotics. Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) is a form of dysbiosis that requires the elimination of bacteria before probiotic use. If you have any digestive symptoms or you have been diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), talk to your doctor about being evaluated for SIBO before you start probiotics. Probiotics may worsen your condition if you have SIBO.
- Tremaroli V & Bäckhed F (2012). Functional interactions between the gut microbiota and host metabolism. Nature 489:242-249.
- Robles Alonso V & Guarner F (2013). Linking the gut microbiota to human health. British Journal of Nutrition 109:S21-S26.
- Clarke SF, Murphy EF, Nilaweera K, et al. (2012). The gut microbiota and its relationship to diet and obesity. Gut Microbes 3(3):186-202.
I'm Dr. Carly and my mission is to create a health revolution. I believe that another prescription is not the answer. I believe in using natural therapies that go beyond the symptoms. And I believe that doctors should spend way more than 7 minutes with a patient.