You probably heard all the health-promoting functions your microbiome does for you. You know that taking a probiotic supplement regularly can help to heal and maintain GI health.
So you make a trip to the supplement store and find you are overwhelmed by all the choices.
How many billion CFU's are best? What's a CFU? This one has two strains of probiotics and that one has seven. Can I get away with the cheaper one? Which is best for me?
The first thing you need to know is some background information. There are two main probiotic types: Lactobacillus strains and soil-based strains. Both are vital parts of our microbiome.
Let's begin with the soil-based type. Our food used to be teeming with friendly soil-based bacteria. With the advent of factory farming, pesticides, and chemical fertilizer that feeds the plant rather than building up the soil probiotics, this leaves our food relatively sterile. On top of this, kids are not allowed to play in the dirt as much as they used to, being put into bleached day cares or preschools at a young age.
Non-soil-based probiotics are human colonizers such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and bifidus species. They have been living symbiotically in our intestines, mucus membranes, and skin since the dawn of time. These are passed on to us from our mothers, beginning with the birth process. Of course, arriving via C-section changes this a bit, but that's another tale to tell.
Keep them Cold
The most important thing you should look for in a quality product is for it to be refrigerated. This keeps them alive and ready to populate your gut. For this same reason, probiotics should be kept refrigerated at home as well.
The exception to this rule is if the probiotic is 100% soil-based. These bacteria are in a dormant state and have a spore case that protects them from both heat and stomach-acid. They start to grow again when they reach the moist environment of your intestines. Soil probiotics are a great choice if you travel a lot and have no access to a refrigerator, or if you just need to keep your supplements out on the table in order to remember to take them.
10 Strains are Better than 1
Once you found the refrigerated probiotics, you should look to see how many different strains of probiotics are in the bottle. The most common strains are ones such as Lactobacillis acidophilus and other Lactobacillis species, as well as Bifidobcterium bifidum and other Bifido's.
A robust human microbiome has a wide diversity of bacteria, so a probiotic should be as diverse as possible. Look for a product with at least 10 probiotic strains. Single strains are at times useful if you are treating a specific digestive problem.
What is a CFU?
A colony-forming unit (CFU) means how many live bacteria you get when you grow out what's in the pill. The fact is, not all the bacteria in the bottle are alive, and the CFU count is supposed to be the company's best assessment of how many of them will still be alive by the time you swallow a pill.
Several research studies have looked at the CFU of a probiotic and how much it helps heal a person's digestive illness and most of them conclude that more is not necessarily better. Although having the number measured in the billions is best, you probably don't need to go much higher than 30 billion CFUs for general digestive health.
What about pre-biotics?
These are basically food sources for the probiotic bacteria. They can help to not only keep happy what's in the bottle, but can theoretically feed the other established beneficial bacteria in your gut.
However, you might want to avoid them if you have found that eating extra plant fiber makes your gut symptoms worse. In this case they are feeding the huge population of bad bacteria in your gut and you need to find a probiotic specifically without pre-biotics until you can reduce the bad bacteria.
The biggest difficulty with choosing a quality probiotic is being able to know what brands you can trust. Since there is no real oversight or regulation in probiotic production, there is a lot of room for companies to make false claims on the label.
For example, some companies use bacterial strains found in cows, not humans. The probiotic may be contaminated with unfriendly bacteria, viruses, yeast, or fillers and this has been proven by an independent team of researchers for certain “cheaper” brands.
Even the CFU on the label could be inaccurate, with the whole bottle containing dead bacteria, either due to poor shipping and storage or blatant lying.
Go ahead and call the company. Ask them if they have proof of independent third party verification of what is written on the label so you know you are getting what you're paying for.
So which one is right for you?
For general, all-purpose intestinal support, go with the one that is refrigerated, has at least ten different strains, several billion CFU's per serving, and no weird fillers on the ingredients label. Getting the most expensive one is not usually necessary, nor is it a guarantee of the best quality. However, getting the cheapest one is probably not a good idea either.
Unfortunately for the consumer, most reputable brands can only be sold through doctors, so you won't even be able to find them in a store.
If this all still sounds confusing, seek out a licensed professional who knows about the microbiome and GI health, even for just one visit to establish an optimal digestive health protocol if you have no current problems. If you do have digestive problems, a probiotic tailored to your specific needs would serve you best.
Carol*, a patient of mine, was unable to enjoy spending time with her young children. She was having chronic abdominal pain and so much bloating she said she looked pregnant half the time and it all got in the way of her being fully present with her kids. She would often have to lay on her bed until the pain went down, and she was feeling more tired than ever before in her life.
It turned out that Carol had dysbiosis. This is when the microbiome of your intestines becomes out of balance and the unfriendly bacteria and yeast begin to grow stronger and more numerous.
When the microbiome in your gut is in proper balance, your digestion runs smoothly and you don't really have to think about it much. Your friendly bacteria do the right thing and behave well for you. But if the bacterial balance shifts towards too many unfriendly bacteria, viruses, yeast, or even parasites, you begin to notice there is a problem down there. It's like they are having a wild party and leaving a terrible mess!
Because there are so many different causes of dysbiosis, it is actually a common problem. Poor diet, stress, heartburn medications, and antibiotic use are just some of the reasons people end up with dysbiosis. You are probably familiar with how antibiotics can cause diarrhea. This is because the antibiotic wiped out most all of the bacteria, both good and bad. However, not all the bacteria are completely wiped out. The strongest of unfriendly bacteria are sometimes left behind. They may repopulate faster than the friendly bacteria and take over the real estate, causing mayhem. Yeast can take advantage like this too, especially when your diet is feeding them what they love (sugar). All kinds of digestive problems can result from too many bad bacteria and yeast, such as constipation, diarrhea, bloating, pain, irregularity, and heart burn.
If the unfriendly bacteria continue to dominate the gut, they can actually damage the lining of the intestines. As a result of this damage, problems can arise such as leaky gut syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and weight gain. Some not-so-obvious symptoms of an imbalanced microbiome stem from inflammation in the gut that changes your brain's neurotransmitter levels, leading to anxiety, depression, and fatigue. When this happens, you know your gut has turned against you!
Luckily for Carol, she had not been having dysbiosis for too long. After using some herbal medicine to reduce the number of unfriendly bacteria, as well as following a special diet to prevent their regrowth, she was feeling better and regaining her energy to play with her children. Following a microbiome-friendly diet is all she needs to do now to feel great for the long-term. She says she has never felt healthier and is able to live her full life again.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
The key to a happy belly is taking care of what's inside. Your gut is filled with a diverse population of microorganisms, known as the microbiome. Below are four ways to making it happy and keep it that way.
1. Eat Plant Fiber. One way to keep your belly happy is to feed it real, whole foods with fiber. Plant fiber is the preferred food source for your friendly bacteria. You can get plenty of fiber by eating both cooked and raw vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Only plants contain fiber, and the more it looks like it did when growing, the more it will benefit your body and your microbiome. Choose organic whenever possible, because GMO foods and pesticides contain chemicals, such as glyphosate in Roundup, that alter and destroy your friendly gut bacteria.
2. Eat Fermented Food. Foods that are naturally fermented contain probiotics within the food and brine. Examples are sauerkraut, pickles, and unsweetened kombucha. They are found in the refrigerated section of your natural food store, and never contain vinegar. Make sure you read the label carefully to know that it is truly fermented. You can also make your own at home.
3. Reduce Sugar and Processed Food. We all know that eating less processed food is good for us, but here is the main reason why: Sugar, processed food and fast food are all clinically proven to reduce the health of your microbiome. The sugars and emulsifiers in processed foods are what feed the unfriendly bacteria and yeast. This leads to them becoming stronger, taking up more real estate in your intestines. The more the unfriendly bacteria grow, the more you will experience problems in your digestion and beyond.
4. Reduce Standard Meat and Dairy. When animals are raised on factory farms, they are fed antibiotics which then get into their meat and milk. If you eat these animal products every day it's the same as taking low dose antibiotics every day, which we all know is harmful to our friendly bacteria. To ensure you are not getting antibiotics, read the label and look for organic, grass-fed or free-range.
Our gut bacteria are all the rage in today's science and medical literature. And it's no wonder, since we now know that they regulate so much of our body's daily functioning. The microbiome is what we call the collective genome of all the bacteria, viruses, and yeast that live in and on our bodies. The microbiota is the name for the ecological community of microorganisms that reside in us, and it's something you might want to know about since they outnumber your human cells ten to one!
Each person can vary quite dramatically in the types of bacteria that live in their large intestine, but for the most part a healthy person has a huge diversity of friendly bacteria mixed with a little yeast, some unfriendly bacteria, and viruses. You can think of it like a village, where the friendly bacteria predominate, but the unfriendly bacteria, yeast, and viruses live there too. Each friendly bacteria has a job and does it well.
When the village is running smoothly, the friendly bacteria assist our body in many different ways. They help to break down the food we eat so we can digest it. They help in the absorption of some minerals. Some of our crucial vitamins like B vitamins and K2 are actually made by the friendly bacteria, as well as other compounds which directly feed the intestinal cells and keeps them healthy.
This village also trains and regulates our immune system, since over 70% of our immune system is in and around the intestines. It shapes our body's ability to recognize what is safe and what should be destroyed. Certain friendly bacteria reduce the inflammation response, which is good because too much inflammation in your intestines leads to destruction of the tissue.
A healthy microbiome also leads to a happy person, overall. The friendly bacteria produce over 90% of your body's serotonin. This neurotransmitter keeps your digestion regular and your brain happy. There is a direct connection between the brain and the intestines. Our gut is truly our second brain, and they are in constant communication with each other. So trust your gut next time it tells you something!
The microbiome is truly an amazing yet under-appreciated part of our body. In the next few blogs, I will help you learn more about how to take care of your microbiome, and what can happen when it becomes out of balance.
Dr. Melissa DeForest: I am a Naturopathic Doctor who specializes in digestive disorders. My goal is to educate, inspire, and empower others to lead a life they love.
Disclaimer: All information presented here is for educational purposes only, and should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult with your doctor before starting any new exercise, supplement, or diet routine.