Bacteria get a seriously bad rap, but we need beneficial ones to stay healthy. In fact, the Western world has built an entire cleaning industry around keeping us safe from it – most of us equate dirt with disease.
Sterile environments are great for hospital rooms, but what if I told you that bacteria can be good for you? And that all those antibacterial soaps and bleach-based cleaners are affecting your digestion?
It sounds nuts.
But stick with me. We’re about to get down and dirty in the world of probiotics, your body’s favorite bugs.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are living bacterial microorganisms that benefit your health by improving your intestinal flora, also known as your gut microbiota or microbiome. (source) (source) There are up to 100 trillion of these microbes in your gut, each one with a specific job. (source)
That means that your body is made of roughly as many bacterial cells as human cells. (source) Mind. Blown. Fortunately, we have a mutually beneficial relationship with them – like when your friend sleeps on your couch for six months, but cleans and makes dinner every night.
The bacteria in your gut microbiome serves lots of functions, and the scientific community is just really getting started in its understanding of exactly what those are.
Here’s a great infographic that points out some of the roles of bacteria in physical and mental health:
The original infographic occurred in The Huffington Post.
The Benefits of Probiotics
Every one of us has a different bacterial makeup. Sort of like a fingerprint, your gut biome is completely different from your best friend’s or even your child’s. But scientists are just scratching the surface of what each species of bacteria does and how they work together. That means we don’t really know what an “optimal” gut biome looks like.
Still, we know enough to classify some gut bugs as beneficial and some as not so good. E. coli, for instance, lives in everyone. Totally normal. It’s when this “non-beneficial” gut bug has the opportunity to get out of control that it becomes a problem. There are also super beneficial bacteria that promote healthy digestion and better performance overall.
- Aid in digestion
- Help you absorb minerals and other critical micronutrients
- Strengthen your immune system
- Decrease inflammation
- Stop the bacteria, viruses, and fungi we all have a little of, (like E. coli, H. pylori, and candida) from taking over and making you sick – just like your BFF runs interference for you when your overbearing family member comes over
- Help process some medications
- Prevent DNA damage
How do Probiotics Work?
Your gut microbiome is a complex ecosystem with trillions of inhabitants. While that is so freaking cool to think about, it also makes it hard to figure out how probiotics work in your body. Here’s what we do know so far:
- Probiotics adhere to the lining of your gut, where they prevent bad bacteria like E. coli from sticking to your intestines. (source)
- The lactic acid produced by these bacteria makes your body a less comfortable place for H. pylori, cancer cells, and candida to live. (source, source, source)
- Your gut bugs extract energy from otherwise unusable fiber through the process of fermentation. If you don’t have enough of the right kind of bacteria, you could eat the same thing, but derive less energy from it. (source, source)
- The acid in your stomach is designed to get rid of bad gut bugs and prevent them from either making it from your mouth into your intestines or vice versa. However, in people with chronically low stomach acid or who have been taking acid blocking medications, that function may be impaired.
Probiotics for Weight Loss, Depression, and Aging
It’s easy to think of your gut microbiome as impacting your digestion. But the microbes in your gut can trigger biological cascades that affect everything from your lungs to your brain!
Specific strains of probiotics are connected to treating and preventing things like:
- IBS (source)
- Respiratory tract infections (source)
- Ulcers and other problems caused by h. Pylori (source)
- Colorectal cancer (source, source)
- Insulin Regulation (source)
- Lowering cholesterol (source)
- Neurological and cognitive disorders, including Alzheimer’s Disease (source, source, source)
- Psychological disorders (source)
- Age-related illness (source)
- Osteoporosis (source)
- Antibiotic-associated diarrhea (source)
- Rosacea (source)
How to Balance Your Gut Bacteria Naturally
My approach is always food first, then supplement if necessary. It’s amazing how many traditional cultures have relied on raw, fermented foods because they’re naturally high in probiotics and enzymes.
Fortunately, there are a lot of foods that contain probiotics. Adding small amounts of fermented food to your day will increase the diversity of your gut microbes and help balance your ratio of good to bad bacteria.
Here are some options, some of which may or may not work for your unique nutritional needs:
- Kefir is a fermented drink made from milk and grains. It improves digestion, lowers blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol. It also suppresses tumors and reduces inflammation. (source, source)
- Fermented vegetables including cabbage (sauerkraut), carrots, peppers, radishes, beets, and celery, contain various strains of Lactobacillus bacteria. (source) There can be variations in the amount of Lactobacillus bacteria, as it depends on how much is on the vegetables from the air and soil in which the vegetables grew. (source) There is also a difference in the cancer-fighting capabilities of vegetables grown organically vs. conventionally. (source)
- Raw apple cider vinegar contains that stringy blob affectionately called, “the mother.” The mother provides probiotics, and the vinegar itself is antimicrobial and reduces oxidative stress. (source, source)
- Yogurt also contains the probiotic Lactobacillus, which protects both humans and animals from illnesses caused by other bacteria, and decreases risk of cardiometabolic diseases (source, source). If you’re going to do yogurt, opt for full-fat options from pastured animals.
- Fermented green tea (kombucha) helps with obesity and insulin resistance (source)
- Other fermented foods include fermented soy (tempeh, miso, natto) and non-alcoholic fermented grain drinks
- Eating meat creates a better environment for beneficial bacteria, with white meat consumption being the best for Lactobacillus, thereby reducing inflammation overall. (source)
- Exercise promotes both gut integrity and diversity of gut flora…to a point. (source) While it is common for the average intestine to contain 1000 species of bacteria, (source) medications and other lifestyle factors may compromise this diversity. Exercise can help with this, (source) especially regular, moderate endurance exercise. (source) For some people, high-intensity training or hardcore endurance training can make it worse.
As with anything, let your body be your guide and remember that what’s best for you may change over time.
What are Prebiotics and How Do They Work?
Prebiotics are fiber-containing carbohydrates that you don’t digest in your stomach. Instead, prebiotics pass through your stomach relatively unscathed and become food for beneficial bacteria in your intestines. (source, source) That’s right – they provide food for some bacteria, but not others. (source)
Some scientists believe that humans evolved to eat prebiotics. (source) Makes sense, considering prebiotics can protect against obesity and metabolic diseases by balancing your blood sugar and making you feel satisfied after meals. (source, source, source) Some examples of prebiotics include:
- Inulin from chicory root or Jerusalem artichoke
- Yacon root
- Garlic and onions
- Dragonfruit oligosaccharide
Can I Take a Probiotic and Prebiotic at the Same Time?
Not only can you take probiotics and prebiotics at the same time – you should. There are even special supplements out there that contain both. These are called synbiotics and they work by increasing the diversity and number of beneficial gut bugs, all while feeding beneficial bacteria with those indigestible prebiotics.
The fermentation of prebiotics also creates short-chain fatty acids, which the cells of your intestines use for fuel. Short-chain fatty acids also reduce inflammation, which is one of the reasons the combo of prebiotics and probiotics is so helpful in managing diseases caused by inflammation. (source)
Pro-tip: My favorite probiotic is actually a synbiotic. It also contains a hit of vitamin C to protect your body from free radical damage.
Things that Harm Beneficial Bacteria
So why do we need to take supplements for this stuff? Humans certainly didn’t have probiotic pills 100 years ago, and there was a much lower incidence of conditions like obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.
The fact is, chemicals and modern-day lifestyle practices are enemy #1 of your gut bugs. So, unless you’re living on an organic farm outside of the city with your own pristine water source, it’s likely your gut bacteria is taking a hit.
Here are just a few things that can decimate your good gut flora:
- Stress. Stress causes the release of brain chemicals that cause inflammation; and inflammation decreases the beneficial bacteria in your gut. (source)
- Sugar. Sugar (big surprise) harms your microbiome, especially early in life. (source)
- Gluten. Removing gluten from drastically changes the bacteria in your gut. If you have digestive problems, it might make sense to experiment with going gluten-free. (source)
- Medications. Meds like olanzapine, (source) proton pump inhibitors, (source, source) and antibiotics (source) all harm beneficial bacteria.
- Processed foods. Dietary additives, such as polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulose, (which are used to stop processed food from separating) harm your microbiome, either directly, or by creating inflammation in the digestive tract. (source)
- Water. Chlorinated and otherwise treated tap water can do a number on your gut bugs. If you drink tap water, consider installing a filtration system in your house.
The good news is: Just as you can destroy gut bacteria, you can also build it back up. Your microbiome will change so much over time that your bacterial makeup from years ago probably look like they came from a totally different person. (source) Your microbiome can even change depending on the time of day that it was measured. (source)
You can change your microbiome dramatically by minimizing things that disrupt your microbiome, exercising, and eating a diversity of foods that contain probiotics and prebiotics. (source, source, source, source)
Should I Take a Probiotic Supplement?
While food and exercise are my favorite ways to increase beneficial bacteria, some people may need the extra support of a probiotic supplement. (Yes, even I take one.) You may want to consider taking a probiotic supplement if you:
- Have been on medication (even over the counter meds!) that disrupts your microbiome
- Have IBS or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Suffer from constipation or diarrhea
- Do a lot of high-intensity or endurance workouts
- Are (or have been) exposed to a significant amount of stress
- Have a history of eating sugar or processed foods
It’s best to consult a health care professional before beginning a supplement routine.
When to Avoid Probiotics
While it’s always smart to check in with a licensed professional before starting any supplement, be especially careful if: (source)
- You have a weakened immune system, HIV, or AIDS
- You are undergoing chemotherapy
- You are taking immunosuppressants
How to Choose a Probiotic Supplement
Lactobacilli, Bifidobacterium, S. Boulardii, and B. coagulans are the most well-studied strains. (source) My favorite probiotic supplement is a synbiotic – the combination of prebiotics and probiotics that I mentioned earlier. It makes sense, right?
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