Probiotics have become the go to supplement for gastrointestinal complaints like Vitamin C is to fighting a cold. However, not many people know how and why probiotics work (or don’t work). The prefix “pro” means in support of and the suffix “biotic” translates to life. Hence, the term probiotic literally means in support of life. On the contrary, the prefix “anti” means against so antibiotic literally translates to “against life”. Just one course of antibiotics in your life is enough to change your microbiome permanently.
Why are you taking probiotics?
If you have a bacterial imbalance or other gut infections, probiotics can be a life altering intervention. However, depending on the severity and type of infection, probiotics on their own may not be an effective treatment method. The issue is that bad bugs such as bacteria, parasites, and yeast are opportunistic and must be eradicated through targeted antimicrobial therapy. By only employing probiotics, we are utilizing a “crowd out the bad stuff” strategy. This is like trying to breakdown the Great Wall of China with a small hammer, you may be causing small changes but in the majority of cases, this will have no clinical effect.
In fact, probiotic use can actually make the problem worse. You can have an overgrowth of “good” bacteria and make the problem worse by adding in more of the same strain. Furthermore, if the bacteria has migrated up your GI tract, you can develop a condition known as Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO occurs when these bacteria take refuge in your small intestine and begin to proliferate. This ultimately causes a myriad of symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, flatulence, diarrhea and constipation to acne, headaches, and mental fatigue.
On the plus side, probiotics can have many beneficial health outcomes. They have been indicated in:
- Improving Digestive Health
- Improving Mental Health (Depression, Anxiety and Stress-Related Disorders)
- Improving Immune Health
- Improving Skin Health (Acne, Dry Skin)
- Improving Oral Health (Correcting Oral Dysbiosis)
- Aiding Weight Loss
By completing a risk-benefit analysis on probiotics, you can increase your success rate and lower your risk significantly by just getting tested by your practitioner. A comprehensive stool panel can indicate specific strain imbalances in your colon and assist in a precise treatment plan. It can also provide information on biodiversity within the gut and if a certain strain is present in excess. Not only does a functional stool test tell you these strains, but it saves you the guess work of picking a probiotic and also saves you the financial burden of buying a product that might not work or in the worst case scenario, cause you harm.
What kind of probiotics are you taking?
There are hundreds of known strains of beneficial bacteria residing in the human gut. Combine this fact with the multitude of probiotic choices available at your local health food store with multiple strain formulas and varying potencies, finding out what might work best is a difficult task.
The most common populations of bacteria available in most probiotics are Lactobacillus strains and Bifidobacter strains. The best probiotics are ones that go beyond these two strains and include other strains. These are also the main strains available in conventional fermented foods such as yogurt and kefir.
You must also make sure that your probiotic is encased in a coated pill to survive the harsh acidic environment of the stomach. Unfortunately, since the stomach provides an initial obstacle for bacteria to get to the intestines, this creates a bottle neck effect where the full dosage of probiotics is not guaranteed to reach the small intestines.
Here are some steps for finding the best probiotic for you:
- Choose a high potency probiotic designated by CFUs (Colony Forming Units)
- Choose a multi-strained formula
- See if the CFU for the multiple strains of bacteria add up to the overall
- advertised CFU
- Check the expiry date
- Opt for the shelf-stable probiotic (no refrigeration required)
We recommend taking probiotics before bed (if dosage is once a day)
While probiotic formulas can be excellent for therapeutic purposes, one way to ensure you are getting a good volume of probiotics is to eat fermented foods. Fermented foods have been around in cultures all around the world for hundreds of years. The Mediterranean diet is the most researched diet in history and one of the reasons indicated for its success in creating healthy populations was the inclusion of fermented foods. Today, you can either create your own fermented foods or purchase them from health food stores. The most common sources include:
The duration of effectiveness for probiotic supplements is controversial and it has been suggested that probiotics are only effective for the time you continue to take them. By ensuring daily dosages of probiotic rich food, we can keep our guts happy and balanced for long-term health.
Spore Forming Organisms (The New Super Probiotic?)
Before humans learned how to isolate individual bacteria and package them into acid-resistant pills, we relied on our environment to support our gut flora. Our soil is the mother of all life and has immense biodiversity of microorganisms. As our soil quality decreases over the years, we have lower quality plant life and human populations with increasing health issues.
Spore Forming Organisms (SFOs) are naturally occurring bacteria from soil. Historically, our ancestors did not need to worry about washing fruits and vegetables thoroughly for the fear of pesticides and toxins. They also did not need to wash these food items in vinegar baths like we do today. They ate the fruits and vegetables covered in soil which in turn provided them with a potent daily dosage of soil based organisms. As babies, we were meant to roll around in the dirt and explore our environment while at the same time ingesting plenty of SFOs. In our modern culture, sanitary environments have become mainstream and constant hand washing and sterilization of surfaces robs us of an opportunity to ingest SFOs.
The vast majority of probiotic supplements used today are lactic acid bacteria. While these bacteria have been studied for a longer time and shown to be beneficial, research has shown that SFOs may be the superior choice to recolonize our gut and rebuild our immunity for several reasons. As mentioned previously, your typical lactic acid bacteria need to be placed in a coated pill to get through the acidity of the stomach. SFOs appear to maintain their potency and are less likely to breakdown in the stomach. If more SFOs survive the bottleneck effect of the stomach, it will increase the number of live organisms to colonize your gut. SFOs also reproduce differently than bacteria as they are spore forming. This rapid proliferation makes them work faster.
One caveat to remember is that research in the field of SFOs is still a work in progress. Some research has suggested that taking SFOs can cause a negative response in individuals that do not have enough of their own bacteria to keep the rapid proliferation of SFOs in check while anecdotal evidence suggests the power of SFOs to create miraculous changes.
Probiotics: The future of medicine?
While the research on probiotics continues to increase, we may have reached a new frontier in healthcare. With the foundational discovery that we are more parts bacteria than any other cell and that this ratio is close to 10:1 in favor of bacteria, the future of medicine may be entirely bacteria based. If you follow the news, the field of fecal transplants has made immense changes in patients with near-fatal infections, inflammatory bowel diseases, autism, and multiple sclerosis. Fecal transplants are literally changing patient’s lives.
Ratios of bacteria have also been isolated in different populations of the world and compared to the prevalence of certain diseases in those areas. This provides a direct relationship between why people of one area of a world are affected by the same disease whereas in another nation, it may be a rare occurrence. Further studies have implicated a bacterial imbalance to autoimmune disease, obesity, cancer and a laundry list of other conditions.
As new research continues to pour in, one thing we know for certain is: you can only be as healthy as your gut. In the future, it will come as no surprise if the treatment of disease will only require the addition or rebalancing of bacteria.