What are probiotics and why are they good for you?
In health and nutrition world, we hear all about the “importance of probiotics.”
Yogurt commercials claim their brand is a “good source of probiotics.”
Your trainer or blogger tells you to start taking a probiotic for overall health.
And Dr. Oz has recorded multiple episodes on the power of probiotics.
—But very few claims really ever explain why probiotics are good for us beyond “good gut health” and a “healthy gut micro biome.”
Here’s all-you-need-to-know about probiotics and a no-nonsense shopping guide for what to look for in a probiotic supplement (hint: not all probiotics are created equal):
Q. What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live organisms (i.e. bacocteria) found in foods in supplements that are similar to a variety of healthy live organisms (bacteria) that you naturally have in your gut.
Your gut is home to about 100-trillion bacteria (10 times the amount of cells in your body). In addition, about 7 pounds of “you” is composed of bacteria that live in your intestines.
Enter: The NEED for probiotics—an extra dose of healthy bacteria (found in foods and supplements) that help balance out any fermenting, rotting, unhealthy bacteria that is also found in your gut.
Q. What is the gut “micro-biome?”
The gut “micro-biome” is the term referred to your overall eco-system in your gut.
Essentially: Your gut micro-biome is the “house” consisting of all your gut bacteria organisms in your body.
Q. How do I know if my gut “microbiome” is unhealthy?
Common signs of an “imbalanced gut flora” include: Digestive symptoms (IBS, constipation, bloating, GERD, loose stools, stomach cramps), allergies, skin breakouts and acne, autoimmune conditions, arthritis, ADD/ADHD, brain fog, chronic anxiety, low mood, insomnia, chronic fatigue, blood sugar imbalances, crazy PMS and hormonal imbalances, heart disease, cancer, gout, and other inflammatory diseases—just to name a few.
Q. Why is taking a probiotic “good for you?”
Your gut is the “gut is the gateway to health.” Think about it: Your digestive system is the one system in your entire body that is responsible for delivering nutrients, eradicating bacteria and supplying every other system’s energy and health needs throughout your life time. If your gut is unhealthy or “imbalanced”—(full of rotting, fermenting, unhealthy bacteria from undigested food particles, medications, environmental toxins, GMO’s, pesticides, antibiotics, etc.), then you can bet your bottom dollar that your health will take a hit.
In short: The healthier and more balanced our gut bacteria in our gut microbiome, the better for our overall health!
Enter: Probiotics, also known as the “steel armor” for a healthy gut. Probiotics supply your body with a super-punch boost of healthy gut bacteria to help balance your gut flora.
Q. What positive side effects could I expect to see if I take a probiotic?
Positives associated with probiotics include: Lessened anxiety and low mood, better focus and concentration, regular bowel habits (daily), improved digestion and absorption of nutrients, healthier and clearer skin, lessened gut damage when taking antibiotics, improved immune system and decreased allergies—just to name a few.
Q. Are there any negative side effects from probiotics?
The biggest “side” effects from probiotics include “healing” or “die off” reactions typically experienced when introducing probiotics (or a new formula) to your gut (as long as your supplement is a quality probiotic). Since probiotics “disrupt” your gut micro biome with healthy bacteria, if you have lots of unhealthy bacteria, there may be a “re-shift” of these bacteria to welcome in more “good guys.” Increased transit time, loose stools, stomach upset or skin breakouts may be experienced for a short term.
Q. What are the best sources of probiotics and how often should I take them?
The “best sources” of probiotics include a variety of probiotics—both in food and supplement forms. I recommend 1-2 capsules of a soil-based organism per day, along with 1 to 2 servings of fermented foods, and a pre-biotic supplement or foods as well. In addition, consider varying up your probiotics supplement brand every one to three months or so. (See recommendations below).
Q. What is a prebiotic?!
Pre-biotics are starches and fiber (found in foods like green-tipped bananas, plantains, cooked and cooled sweet potatoes and squashes, onions, leeks and powders)—that serve as food for your probiotics. .
In fact, pre-biotics are arguably MORE important and necessary because they HELP your probiotics STICK AROUND and increase probiotic counts in your gut. (i.e. Pre-biotics feed your probiotics).
For a long time, we’ve thought that taking probiotics is like putting gas into your car tank—you fill it up and there’s more gas. But it doesn’t work that way. Instead, probiotics only serve as “maintainers” or gatekeepers of the “good” gut bacteria that you have ALREADY in your body—but they don’t produce more. Pre-Biotics, on the other hand DO increase the beneficial bacteria because they provide food for those beneficial species in the first place. When you consume pre-biotics, you help multiply your probiotics, so you CAN increase YOU beneficial bacteria over time. (See recommendations below).
Probiotics & Pre-biotics Consumers Guide
Not all probiotics are created equal. Just like there’s a quality difference in a McDonald’s hamburger compared to a grass-fed burger from Wholly Cow Burger, there’s a quality difference in various probiotics on shelves.
A true probiotic, designed by nature, is a species found in our environment, as well as in our digestive system. Unfortunately, approximately 95% of probiotic products on shelves today do NOT meet these criteria (including the yogurts that claim they have probiotics. In actuality, you’d have to eat about 25 servings of that one yogurt to get the probiotics they claim). Many probiotics sold in stores (as well as food sources of probiotics) are simply watered down versions of the “real deal,” and if anything, a waste of your money. Get the quality bang for your buck and your bod with these quick-hit shopping tips:
- Know What You’re Getting: Two Primary Different Types of Probiotics.
There are two primary types of probiotics most people benefit from:
- Lactic-Acid Bacteria Probiotics
Lactic-acid bacteria is the most common type of probiotic people take—since it is found the vast majority of supplements on shelves. It is also the type of bacteria found in fermented foods (sauerkraut, kombucha, fermented veggies and some quality pharmaceutical grade probiotics)
- Broad-Spectrum Soil-based or Spore-Based Probiotics
Soil-based and Spore-based organisms are a “newer evolution” of probiotics consisting of soil-based or spore-forming strains of bacteria found in nutrient-rich soil. Soil-based bacteria (SBOs) have the ability to “seed” the digestive tract with bacteria that will flourish and support a balanced microbiome overall. Unlike other probiotics not derived from soil, soil-based and spore-based probiotics are generally well-tolerated by most people, and are very stable (i.e. they don’t need any special coatings or preservatives to ensure a clinically relevant amount reaches the appropriate areas of the gut).
I often recommend soil-based organisms because of their superior tolerability and colonization of the G.I. tract, coupled with food sources (fermented foods) to consume a variety of lactic acid bacteria. Win. Win. *See recommendations below
- Look for This on the Label:
-The List & Names of Probiotic strains. If the specific names of the strains of probiotics are NOT listed on the label (i.e. it just says “live organisms), steer clear. As for the “top” probiotic superstars, strains names to look out for these names on your bottle:
- Soil-based Organisms (with strains listed on it)
- Lactic Acid Bacteria
(especially with Saccharomyces boulardii, and possibly Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium breve, Lactobacillus plantarum,and/or Bifidobacteria infantis)
- Fermented Foods with “live and active cultures” or homemade fermentNote: Generally you WILL be able to tell what fermented foods REALLY have probiotics in them and which ones don’t. A study of the popularly advertised DanActive Yogurt revealed that you’d have to eat 25 times the amount of one serving to get anywhere near to the probiotics they claim to have in their formulas. The same applies to kombuchas, fermented veggies, and other yogurts too.
–Probiotic “CFU” Count:
CFU stands for “colony forming units” and is used to quantify how many bacteria you will receive per dose. Probiotics come in varied “CFU Counts”—anywhere from “1-billion CFU’s” to “100-billion” (or more) CFUS. Generally speaking, the higher the CFU, the more likely more (healthy) bacteria are to house in your gut. CFU count is most important to consider in lactic acid bacteria supplements. ook for a potency count (CFUs or “colony forming units”) of 50 billion or higher
Paying $10 to $20 for your probiotic? Chances are you’re not getting the real deal. Remember, you get what you pay for. While this doesn’t have to mean going for the “most expensive” variety (or even that the most expensive variety is good), it does mean that the majority of varieties sold on shelves at HEB or Nutri-Shop may not be worth your dollas’
- Vary it Up:
Variety is the spice of life and probiotics are like snowflakes—no two are alike. They contain hundreds and billions of different strands that can be beneficial for the sake of all-around gut micro biome balance. Just like your body would miss out on multiple nutrients if you were to eat only eggs everyday for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day as your protein source, the same goes for the bacteria you feed your gut. Every 1 to 3 months, rotate your top brands of probiotics to keep your body guessing.
- Start Slowly
Any time you start a new probiotic, it’s typically best to introduce it gradually to your body, as there is often a “healing” or even “die off” reaction that can be experienced—sometimes making your body feel worse before it feels better. (This is a good sign though). With whatever formula you choose, consider “dosing up” by starting with one capsule every other day, then progressing to one capsule daily the next week, then on to upwards of two doses of probiotic supplements daily, along with fermented foods.
- Top Recommended Brands:
As I mentioned, I generally recommend most people integrate a soil-based or spore-based probiotic supplement, coupled with lactic acid bacteria (primarily from fermented foods). Also, remember, don’t neglect the importance of pre-biotics (the fiber that FEEDS your probiotics and helps them “stick” in your gut).
Soil Based Organisms
- Garden of Life Primal Defense Ultra (See my Probiotic & Pre-biotic Recommendations in my Full Script link for a 10% discount)
- FloraMyces (See my Full Script link below for a 10% discount)
- Prescript Assist* (my top choice) by Prescript Assist (See my Probiotic & Pre-biotic Recommendations in my Full Script link for a 10% discount)
- Megaspore Probiotic by Microbiome Labs (Sold through practitioners)
- RestoraFlora by Microbiome Labs (Sold through practitioners )
- Primal Flora Probiotic
Lactic Acid Bacteria
Fermented Foods (hands down) are the number one source of choice—consuming 1 to 2 “medicinal” or condiment sized servings daily. Some foods include: fermented full-fat grass-fed yogurt, kefir, goat’s milk kefir, sauerkraut, fermented cheese, low-sugar kombucha, fermented and pickled vegetables, kimchi, and fermented tofu, miso and tempeh.
My fave fermented food you can buy?
- Farmhouse Culture’s Sauerkraut (Whole Foods, Central Market, HEB)
- Health-Ade & K-Tonic Kombucha (Whole Foods, Central Market, HEB)
- Redwood Hill’s Goat’s Milk Kefir & Yogurt (Whole Foods, Central Market, HEB)
- Stonyfield Farms & Maplehill Creamery Full-fat Plain Yogurt (Whole Foods, Central Market)
- Coyo Coconut Yogurt (Central Market)
- Fermented veggies and yogurt at the farmer’s market
Ways to Eat Pro-biotic Foods
- Eat 2-3 forkfuls of sauerkraut or fermented veggies—straight from the jar
- Use kefir (goats milk, coconut, water) as the base of a smoothie
- Add blueberries to kefir or full-fat yogurt (goat’s milk, coconut) and eat like a dessert
- Start your day off with some fermented yogurt
- Sip 2-4 oz. of a low-sugar Kombucha (max 2-3 grams per serving)
- Drink beet kavas
- Avoid highly-processed tofu (fermented tofu is often sold at Chinese/Asian Grocery Stores)
And, if fermented foods really are not your thing, or you find yourself unable to tolerate them (i.e. many people with severe bacterial overgrowth don’t tolerate fermented foods until unhealthy bacteria are killed off) I have a few brands I recommend:
- Jarrow Brand’s Formulas (Whole Foods, HEB, Central Market)
- Thorne Ultra Flora (See my Probiotic & Pre-biotic Recommendations in my Full Script link for a 10% discount)
- Transformation Enzymes Probiotic 42.5 (See my Probiotic & Pre-biotic Recommendations in my Full Script link for a 10% discount)
Lastly, don’t forget the importance of pre-biotic. Pre-biotics come in both supplement and starch form. Choose one pre-biotic supplement to take with your probiotics, and incorporate pre-biotic foods into your diet
Choose one (many found in their true form at the grocery store or online)
- PaleoFiber by Designs for Health (See FullScript Store below for 10% off)
- Integrative Therapeutics Fiber (See FullScript Store below for 10% off)
- Prebiogen Supplement by Chris Kresser
Grocery Stores & Amazon Starches
- Unmodified potato starch
- Glucomannan powder
- Partially Hydrolyzed Guar Gum
- Psyllium Husk
- Modified Citrus Pectin
- Asparagus (al-dente)
- Coconut Flour
- Cooked & cooled potatoes/sweet potatoes and squashes
- Cooked and cooled Jasmine white rice & lentils
- Green tipped plantains/bananas
- Jerusalem Artichoke
- Mushrooms (reishi, shiitake and maitake)
- Nutritional Yeast
- Potato Starch or Plantain Starch
- Seaweed/Algae (Beta-glucan, or -glucan—a soluble fiber)
Ways to Eat Pre-biotic Foods
- Mix psyllium husk powder with the unmodified potato starch into water, unsweetened almond milk or a smoothie
- Add Glucomannan powder to water, almond milk or a smoothie
- Make plantain “pancakes” or with green-tipped plantains, plantain flour or potato starch
- Eat half a green-tipped banana dipped in coconut butter or raw nut-butter as a snack
- Add a cooked-and-cooled sweet potato or regular potato to your dinner
- Add artichoke hearts to your salad
- Cook with fresh onions