05 Nov Choosing a Quality Probiotic
The world of probiotics is becoming extremely popular (and overwhelming). So, what exactly do you look for in a quality probiotic?
What is a probiotic?
The word probiotic can be broken down into two root words: pro- (meaning good) and biotic (meaning bacteria). “Good” bacteria is a term meant to distinguish healthy, normal bacteria from “bad” bacteria, the kind that makes you sick.
Did you know we have just about as many bacteria on and in our bodies as the number of individual cells that make up our bodies??? In a 2016 study, the Weizmann Institute found an average of 1.3 bacterial cells per human cell. That’s so crazy and fascinating! Of course, the ratio varies from person to person because we are individualized. 😊
Why and when do we need probiotics?
Did you know you have power over trillions of life forms? There are an estimated 30-50 trillion bacteria cells in an individual person. They grow and change throughout your lifetime based on your choices and environment. What you eat changes the bacteria necessary in your digestive tract to properly break down the food and make it into usable nutrients for the cells of your body. Additionally, every time you come into contact with another person or place, you are exposed to their specific set of bacteria. This includes sick people. You need to protect your body and your health by maintaining a favorable proportion of healthy bacteria compared to unhealthy bacteria. This is where probiotics can be helpful.
For many people, probiotics may only be required at certain vulnerable times. For instance, when you’re sick or when people are sick around you. Or, when you take antibiotics for a urinary tract infection or a surgery.
Some people, however, require probiotics more regularly. For these people, choosing a high-quality probiotic is particularly important. These are people whose digestive tract is more susceptible to imbalance, causing skin rashes, diarrhea, constipation, gassiness, brain fog. The list of symptoms indicating an imbalance in gut bacteria is long and spans many body systems. Probiotics are a safe place to start when trying to optimize one’s health.
What about prebiotics?
A prebiotic is a food for bacteria. As we’ve mentioned, quality probiotics are alive! In order to keep anything alive, we need to feed them to keep them alive! For bacteria, it’s a prebiotic, or a fiber. Bacteria feed on fibers, so keep eating those yummy vegetables and fruit!
In most high-quality probiotic products, you’ll see things like FOS (fructo-oligosaccharide), GOS (galacto-oligosaccharide), or inulin. These are the 3 most common prebiotics because of the type of bacteria they feed, “good” gut bacteria. These prebiotics are included in quality probiotic products because they help to create the intended effect, more “good” bacteria.
There are some instances where prebiotics are not recommended. Some people with food or histamine sensitivities may find themselves reactive to prebiotics. Additionally, patients with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) are often reactive to prebiotics and fibers. In these cases, a probiotic without any prebiotics is recommended.
Limitations of Probiotics
I’m sure you’ve heard of the microbiome. It’s the collection of microbes that inhabit our bodies. We have a microbiome on our skin that is entirely different than the microbiome of the gut or ears. While probiotics are important for increasing the “good” bacteria ratio of the gut microbiome, they are only a small part of the picture. Most probiotics are consumed orally, and therefore affect the gut microbiome more than any other microbiome (like the skin, ears, eyes, sexual organs, etc.). Furthermore, much less research has focused on the other microbiomes of the body.
That being said, our gut is meant to digest the things we consume. Therefore, the number of bacteria you consume in a probiotic is not the same as the amount that reaches the intended target organ, the intestines. This is why a high CFU count is recommended. Spore-based probiotics are another interesting topic. It is argued that Spore-based probiotics sneak past the digestive enzymes to the target intestines with a much higher count (CFU) than the average probiotic. (Another topic for another day)
Additionally, all of the microbiomes are made up of way more than just bacteria. There are fungi, viruses, archaea, protozoa – all sorts of little living things, hence, micro- (meaning small) and biome (meaning life). Although a lot of research has been performed on the bacterial portion of the microbiome, the rest of the microbiome components are underrepresented. There are some products that can help with regulating the fungal (yeast) component of the microbiome.
Choosing a Quality Probiotic Summary
If you’re going to be looking for your first probiotic, or for a new probiotic, here are some quick guidelines:
- Talk to a health practitioner about your probiotic health goals. They will help you find a product tailored to meet these goals.
- Know if your probiotic requires refrigeration or if it is shelf-stable. Will you remember to take it if it is stored in the refrigerator?
- Select a probiotic with 1-10 billion CFUs per serving and at least 5 strains.
- Select a probiotic with prebiotics included (FOS, GOS, inulin). Some exceptions to this, be sure to discuss with your doctor.
- Select a probiotic that labels the exact strains included. Each strain ID is connected to research.
Sender R, Fuchs S, Milo R (2016) Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body. PLoS Biol 14(8): e1002533.