What the heck are probiotics?

The word “probiotic” comes from the Latin, meaning “for life”. But does anyone actually know what probiotics are and specifically how they can benefit you? It seems like “probiotic” is the new “electrolyte”- it’s a buzzword that gets thrown around haphazardly without much explanation. Well here is the information you need to know.

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that are colonized in your intestines and help manufacture certain nutrients- B12 and vitamin K, to name a couple. The human intestine actually contains TEN TIMES more bacterial cells than all the other cells that make up a person’s body! There are about 500 different strains of bacteria colonized in your intestines, helping your gut to be responsible for 70-80% of your immunity. The entirety of the bacteria and fungal species in an intestine is called the “microbiome”.

But how do they work? Think of your intestines as a parking lot. When you take your probiotic supplement all of the spaces are full of pretty, well-maintained cars.
However, you can also use food to increase your beneficial bacteria: fermented foods (sauerkraut, kim chi, dill pickles, yoghurt, miso soup), foods with prebiotics, substances that feed good bacteria (asparagus, leeks, garlic, onions, banana, chicory root) and fiber rich foods, that break down to short chain fatty acids which also support intestinal and beneficial bacterial cells.  Combining a probiotic supplement with beneficial bacteria- promoting food is a great idea!  

But when you don’t maintain your gut health, parking spaces get empty, and then filled with old, broken-down cars- whose owners don’t care if they knock into everyone else when they swing open their doors. These cars represent harmful (pathogenic) bacteria, which cause intestinal discomfort, increased risk of food poisoning, and increase inflammation- the cause of much dis-ease in the gut and in the systemic body. It may even cause you to be more stressed, as recent research has shown that adequate intake of probiotics may alter how your brain reacts to stressful situations. There is ongoing research examining links between probiotic supplementation and such diseases as eczema, allergies, cold prevention, and oral health.

So how do you know if a probiotic is right for you? Most likely, it is. If you have a compromised intestinal tract, you’ll want to discuss with your doctor before starting probiotics, or any supplement. Different types of probiotic supplements may be more appropriate for different people, depending on specific physiology and medical history. Many people are familiar with the idea of taking a probiotic when they are prescribed an antibiotic. This is because the antibiotic kills off the offending bacteria in one’s body, but before being absorbed can wipe out much of the beneficial gut in the intestine. Thus it is a smart idea to protect one’s microbiome when on antibiotics and even for a few weeks after the antibiotic prescription is over by putting back into the gut even a few of the most beneficial bacteria.

So what else aside from an antibiotic prescription can compromise your parking lot? Antibiotics consumed in the foods, (meat and poultry), environmental pollutants, too much alcohol, coffee, junk food, refined sugars, over the counter medications (particularly NSAIDS), other prescription drugs like proton pump inhibitors;  the list is getting longer as more research comes out. What are the signs that your gut might be compromised? Recurrent gastroenteritis infections, chronic diarrhea or constipation,  gas/bloating, indigestion or maldigestion, flatulence, anxiety or depression, fatigue, vaginal or anal itching, or even bad breath.

How do you find the right probiotic? You’ll want to look for a product that has more than one strain of probiotic. Lactobacillus acidophilus is a very popular strain as it’s been linked reducing symptoms of IBS, and may actually have cancer-preventing properties. But it’s best to balance it with other types; get a good mix of make and model in your parking lot. Bifidobacterium helps with a variety of functions, from vitamin production to killing pathogens, and it is the key probiotic for children under two years old. One of my favorite supplements for young children is Klaire Labs Infant Formula.

This product provides 10 different strains of probiotic in a ¼ tsp dose! This is one benefit of supplement over food (when usually we focus on diet first and supplements second).  You can see on the label to the left that one 1/4 teaspoon dose of the probiotic supplement provides 10+ billion CFUs (colony forming units; the term for individual cells). A serving of yogurt, 6-8oz, would provide a wide range of probiotics, anywhere from 90 to 500 billion CFUs, depending on the processing.  So, day to day food is excellent but when one is taking an antibiotic or has problematic dietary or lifestyle habits that negatively affect one’s microbiome, a supplement is really needed.

A probiotic can be added to milk (breast milk, formula, or milk alternative). If you want to get creative, add it to lukewarm oatmeal, peanut butter (or other nut butter), cream cheese, yogurt… the list goes on and on (please add your own ideas for delivering probiotics in the comments below)!  Do not add probiotics to hot fluids or foods, as they are living cells, and heat will kill them.  Probiotics will survive for up to 6 months outside the fridge if the temperature is <85F.  They will survive two years in the fridge and 20 years in the freezer.

Many times when I have suggested the addition of a probiotic to an infant’s nutrition, the mother seems ill at ease. Dr. Mona Morstein of Arizona Integrative Medical Solutions explains, “Probiotics are indeed in breast milk, but only the ones your white blood cells grab from the lining of [the mother’s] intestine.  If you have had any antibiotics, or have any gastrointestinal or digestion upset, or any health problem at all, there is a risk your microbiome may not be 100% healthy.  That is why probiotics should be considered in newborns.  Although breast milk is excellent food, the most perfect food of all for babies, there are many studies showing adding a probiotic to a baby’s nutrition prevents episodes of diarrhea.  Other nutrients shown to help a baby reduce auto-immune diseases and allergic developments are fish oils and Vitamin D3.  A mother can either take those products herself to go through the breast milk, or dose them to her breast-feeding baby. A probiotic for a newborn should contain Bifidobacterium as the main, or at least half the species of bacteria in the product.”

Moral of the story: is a probiotic supplement right for you? Most likely. Is it right for you infant, child, and spouse? Probably. Try it out and see how much better you feel.