If you frequent health food circles, you’ve likely heard of probiotics. It seems that everyone is a fan of microbes these days — especially the kind that live in your gut and aid digestion.
But there are still a lot of misconceptions about what probiotics are and why you might want to take them. If the whole idea of inviting live microorganisms to colonize in your gut seems strange, we’re here to help break it down.
What are Probiotics?
‘Probiotic’ comes from Greek root words that mean “for life,” and it’s not a stretch to say that’s precisely what these bacteria provide for your body. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as live microorganisms that provide health benefits to their host. Probiotics function symbiotically with your body, drawing benefits from you while providing benefits to you.
Over 1,000 different microbes are known to call your gastrointestinal tract home. Like a tiny ecosystem, your microbiome consists of a wide variety of species that work together in intricate ways to keep your body functioning at its best. Probiotics play important roles in your digestion and nutrient absorption, your immunity, and even your mental and emotional well-being.
Why Take Probiotics?
One reason probiotics are so popular these days is that most of us have less than stellar digestive systems. This is often directly related to the kind of bacteria you have in your gut.
The typical modern Western diet fills you with starches, simple carbs, and far too much sugar — all things that feed the wrong kind of bacteria. At the same time, increased use of antibiotics, high stress, and less time spent outdoors all work to deplete the good bacteria in your body.
This disruption in the balance of your microflora can trigger digestive discomfort and make your metabolism less efficient, resulting in lower energy. It also compromises your immunity, allowing invasive bugs and yeasts to gain a foothold. It can even affect your brain health through the recently discovered gut-brain axis.
Taking probiotics can help replenish the good bacteria in your gut and restore healthy balance to the microbiome, supporting all of these bodily systems to function as they should.
Choosing a Probiotic Supplement
Probiotic supplements provide you with live, beneficial microbes to recolonize in your gut. Beyond these basics, there are some profound differences between different probiotic supplements. Pay attention to the following details to find the best supplement for you.
Diversity of Bacteria
Since every human microbiome is different, not every probiotic strain will benefit every body in the same way. Therefore, it’s smart to take a supplement that has a wide variety of bacterial strains, to increase your chances of finding the best strains for your body. The strains that have been most researched and shown to be generally beneficial are those from the lactobacilli and bifidobacterial families
Stomach acid isn’t kind to bacteria, and many probiotics are rendered ineffective by the digestive process. Some brands combat these concerns by using special encapsulations to protect the live cultures and ensure that they make it to your gut alive. Look for a supplement that has “acid protection” or a “time release” feature, or otherwise guarantees that cultures will be live by the expiration date.
Bacterial Density or Potency
The concentration of bacterial strains in a probiotic supplement is measured as ‘Colony Forming Units,’ or CFUs. The higher the CFU count, the more bacteria you are introducing into your system. This is typically equated with potency, and probiotic supplements will often compete with each other by trying to have the highest CFU count.
But this is only half of the story. If the supplement doesn’t have some kind of acid protection or smart delivery system (see above), then the CFU you start with may not be what you end up with at all. A supplement that can claim a high level of survivability will often deliver more live bacteria than an unprotected supplement with a higher CFU count.
Probiotic supplements contain living organisms, so pay attention to how they need to be stored. Some are sold refrigerated because their microbes are susceptible to temperature fluctuations, while others have shelf-stable formulas that do fine so long as they are kept out of direct heat and sunlight. Check the expiration date to ensure that you are getting live probiotics at the strength you need.
Once you realize that friendly bacteria have always been a part of the normal healthy functioning of the human body, it doesn’t seem so strange to want to welcome them back in. Just listen to your gut — it may be asking for a little reinforcement.