Do you have acne, carb and sweets cravings, trouble sleeping, fatigue, difficulty losing weight or digestive issues? If you answered yes to any of those, your microbiome may be to blame. “Microbiome” refers to the approximately 100 trillion organisms that live within (and on!) your body. The majority of them are concentrated in the gut, which is where we’ll focus today as we answer the hot topic: When it comes to probiotics, are we just wasting our money??
I have been asked this question many, many times and a quick google search on “money spent on probiotics” shows just how popular this supplement is becoming. The first article that appeared was titled “US per capita spending on probiotic supplements expected to nearly double by 2016.” NutraIngredients head of market research Ewa Hudson says “global sales of probiotic supplements were predicted to rise 48% from 2.7 billion in 2011 to 4 billion in 2016. Within that, the strongest growth was coming form the US, which generated new sales of 140 million in 2011 alone”. The second article that shows up? fortune.com, “Probiotics are a waste of money study finds”. So why then, if they’re such a waste, are sales rising so rapidly? And better still, what’s a consumer to do about it?
Let’s start by examining this particular study, mentioned in Fortune, that deems probiotics useless. The sample sizes were horrendously small, ranging from 21 to 81 people and the probiotics used were not dedicated probiotic supplements, but rather probiotic containing foods. Anyone who remembers high school biology knows those sample sizes are far too small for such a sweeping conclusion. The next issue is the use of processed foods that contain probiotics as opposed to a probiotic capsule with live bacteria or live probiotic rich foods like kimchi or kefir. The probiotic containing foods used in the study likely were a waste of time and money because there were probably mostly dead, but that doesn’t mean that live probiotics are not vital to our health and longevity. A quick search of PubMed uncovers a plethora of published research on the importance of balancing your microbiome, and the crucial role probiotics can play in helping achieve that oh so delicate balance.
The first factor to consider when choosing a probiotic is the issue of quality because as you might imagine, dead bugs don’t do you a ton of good. (Interestingly enough they DO still trigger beneficial chemical pathways in your gut even when dead, but they are not doing nearly the same job as if they’re alive.) When alive they control an extraordinary amount of processes in your body. They are immune modulators, they produce important vitamins (one of the most studied is their production of B vitamins), they regulate neurotransmitters (especially seretonin), they enhance the barrier function of your intestines (which helps prevent intestinal permeability aka leaky gut) by affecting the intestinal epithelial cells and so much more. A recent study showed several strains of probiotics to be as effective as xanax in controlling anxiety. There are 10 times more of bacterial DNA in your body than human DNA so I urge you to embrace them and support them rather so they can go to work for you!
Choosing a Brand
Because you get the most benefit when they are alive it’s imperative to evaluate the company’s claims of longevity and stability. The probiotic VSL#3 has the most scientific evidence I’ve found to back it’s claims of efficacy so that is a trusted brand of mine. Although it is medical grade and you’ll need to get it from the pharmacist, it is over the counter and Costco carries it. Another brand I trust, and carry for my own clients is MegaSpore. They are also backed by an impressive body of research and provide a different type of probiotic than you usually see in store. MegaSpore is a spore based probiotic which tends to be much heartier and survives better in the gut. When in doubt, it’s best to find brands that are refrigerated when you buy them at the store or shipped on ice if purchased online to keep them cool and alive. The Food Babe recently posted a story on how many brands do not have any active bugs in them by the time you take them. She has a demo on her site of how to test yours. If you’re interested in your own personal science experiment, follow the link http://foodbabe.com/2016/09/21/probiotic-pill-worthless-simple-test-find-home/
Choosing a Strain
The second important factor to consider when discussing probiotics is what kind does YOUR body need? For starters, microbiomes are incredibly diverse from one person to the next and the strain you may be lacking, your neighbor may have in abundance. If you really want to get specific in targeting your gut strains, you can take a stool test to see exactly what bugs you have and which ones you’re lacking (a really easy one is Ubiome which involves mailing in a simple swab of your toilet paper. A more robust option is a comprehensive diagnostic stool test). Once your results are in hand you can supplement based on what is lacking in your gut specifically.
If you don’t want to undergo a test, you can base supplementation on which specific symptoms you have that you want to eliminate, or avoid. Women for example may want to pay extra attention to Lacto stains in particular to ward off yeast infections, especially after a round of antibiotics. L. rhamnosus (GR-1) and L. reuteri (RC-14) have been shown to be “especially adept at colonizing the vaginal environment and fighting off attempts by unwelcome bacteria and fungi to gain a foothold.” Researchers responsible for publishing “Probiotics for prevention and treatment of respiratory tract infections in children” discussed several different strains of probiotics and their specific uses including “S boulardii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG, and Lactobacillus reuteri. DSM 17938 were used to treat acute gastroenteritis, IBS, and antibiotic-associated diarrhea in children and adult patients” One strain I always recommend to clients with GI distress is Saccaromyces boulardii. S. Boulardi is not a bacteria but a beneficial yeast proven effective against candida (a “bad” yeast) and proven effective against serious and sometimes fatal cases of chronic diarrhea from ulcerative colitis and c. difficile.
The last thing to consider when choosing a protiobic is what else is going on in your body? It is often recommended to take a PREbiotic supplement or eat a prebiotic food with your PRObiotic to feed them. Prebiotic foods such as jeruselum artichoke and other fiber rich foods can also be used for food for the good bacteria. It’s a great strategy unless you have SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth because prebiotics fuel the SIBO infestation and exacerbate the condition. Another example of something to be aware of is histamine. If you have high blood histamine levels it would be wise to avoid histamine producing strains of bacteria in your probiotic and stick to bifidio strains as they do not release excess histamine.
How to Take Probiotics
Another important strategy is to rotate through strains one bottle at a time, continuously purchasing different strains as each previous bottle runs out. I can’t stress enough how important diversity is when it comes to your microbiome. If you’ve hung in there reading this so far, you hopefully now understand how different each strain is, the importance of each strain, and the fact that they all do SO many different jobs. You really want all those different guys in there.
I recommend with all supplements, including probiotics, to start low and go slow. When first starting out in the world of probiotics you may want to start with half a capsule in the beginning, and work your way up to a full capsule, then up to the full dose whatever that may be depending on the strength of the probiotic. If you notice negative side effects, perhaps that strain is not for you at this time, back off, and try something else. Try to take note of symptom changes as you go, has your eczema cleared? Are you headaches less often? Do you crave less sweets? As always consult with your doctor before undergoing any changes.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful and please comment below with questions, comments, or anything I may have missed!
To your health,