I’ve been asked a lot about probiotics recently so here we go! Probiotics seem to be everywhere you look these days. Just take a trip to your grocery or health food store, and you’ll find them lining the shelves. These probiotics come touting extraordinary health benefits such as the ability to lower blood pressure and affect your mental health.
As with all nutrients, you’re better off getting your probiotics from real food, including raw, fermented food sources such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, or kombucha. If you are generally in good health, probiotic supplements are probably not necessary.
There’s usually greater diversity in the probiotic strains found in naturally fermented foods than supplements. You can even learn to ferment, which can be a lot of fun (and WAY less expensive than probiotics supplements!)
Here are some cases where supplementing specific strains, or a large number of colony-forming units (CFUs) would be most beneficial.
DEPRESSION & ANXIETY
The more science uncovers about the human microbiome, the more we learn that gut bacteria play a huge role in your physiological well-being and mood (a result of that subject I love to talk about the gut-brain axis). This gut-brain relationship seems to be bidirectional. Meaning that changes in your microbes can affect how you think and feel (experiencing stress and anxiety, for example) and changes in how you feel can affect your gut bacteria. Studies have shown that the microbiome is also involved in regulating stress response and central nervous system development. These both play critical roles in depression and anxiety disorders.
In a meta-analysis looking at the effect of probiotics on anxiety, it was discovered that, after supplementing with probiotics, people with anxiety reported feeling less anxious than sufferers who did not take probiotics.
There’s no replacement for stress reduction techniques and seeking professional help for your anxiety or depression. Probiotics won’t replace medication.
But using probiotics might help get you on your way to feeling more like yourself if a gut imbalance is making things worse.
IF YOU ARE TRYING TO LOSE WEIGHT AND NOTHING IS WORKING
If you’ve tried everything and the pounds still aren’t coming off, you might want to consider supplementing with a probiotic. Obesity has been associated with dysbiotic shifts in the microbiome, either towards a lower number of good bacteria, or an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. It’s unclear whether having extra body weight can cause gut dysbiosis, or if disruptions to the microbiome can cause excess body weight.
Either way, supplementing with probiotics can be a good step to correct any microbial imbalances in your gut that could affect your weight.
Also, the use of probiotics for as little as three months has been shown to provide a significantly more substantial reduction in body weight and body fat percentage compared to not taking a probiotic. Don’t think that probiotics will be that “magic weight loss pill” you’ve been hoping for if you’re not making other helpful habit changes.
But if you do have an underlying microbial imbalance, supplementing with probiotics might help you drop a few extra pounds along the way to getting a healthier gut.
IF YOU HAVE AN INFLAMMATORY SKIN CONDITION
Probiotic supplements can be beneficial for inflammatory skin issues like eczema and psoriasis. These skin conditions are often linked to disturbances in the gut microbiome. And the gut-skin axis is a new area of research that confirms this critical relationship between our gut’s health and the health of our skin.
Some evidence suggests that using specific strains of probiotics may be helpful in reducing the symptoms of eczema and psoriasis. There are many underlying causes of skin issues, including gut infections, micronutrient deficiencies, and food sensitivities. Don’t rely solely on probiotics when trying to solve skin issues like eczema and psoriasis.
IF YOU ARE TAKING OR HAVE RECENTLY TAKEN ANTIBIOTICS
Antibiotics are one of the biggest necessary evils in the medical field. There are many cases (such as a UTI, bronchitis, or after surgery) where antibiotics are totally necessary, but they’re also very commonly overprescribed.
The main problem with antibiotics is that they not only kill the harmful bacteria that are making you sick, but they also destroy much of the good bacteria living in your gut. When that happens, your gut bacteria (also known as your microbiome) can get out of balance. By supplementing with probiotics both during and after your course of antibiotics, you can significantly reduce your chances of experiencing things like antibiotic-associated diarrhea, which results from the unfavorable changes in your microbiome caused by the antibiotic. To protect yourself from some of the undesirable side-effects of antibiotics, popping a probiotic about two hours after your antibiotic may help!
IF YOU HAVE CONSTIPATION OR DIARRHEA
If you’ve caught a stomach bug or traveling and getting blocked up, using a probiotic for a few days or weeks can often help you get back on track. Chronic digestive issues can benefit from probiotics too. BUT (and this is a big but) probiotic supplement is rarely enough to solve a chronic digestive problem.
HOW MANY GOOD BUGS ARE IN EACH PROBIOTIC DOSE?
The amount of living bacteria in each probiotic dose is quantified by “Colony Forming Units” (CFUs). Probiotic manufacturers will often call out how many live-active CFUs are in their product at the time of manufacturing. The CFU count of probiotics can range anywhere from 1 billion to 900 billion, and the cost of the supplement increases with the number of CFUs. So it’s important to know how many CFUs are enough for you. In general, a good probiotic supplement will contain at least 1 billion live-active CFUs. This is a good maintenance dose if you just want to take probiotics to maintain your good health.
If you have an autoimmune disease, suffer from a gut infection, take antibiotics, or have some other medical need, look for probiotic supplements with 10 – 25 billion CFUs. These will help supply a more therapeutic dose for your specific need.
Higher dose probiotic supplements, up to 900 billion CFUs, are available by prescription if you and your healthcare provider determine necessary for your condition.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST PROBIOTIC SUPPLEMENTS
There are so many different brands and strains of probiotics out there. If probiotic supplementation is right for you, here are some questions to ask to help you choose the best one.
It’s important to pick a probiotic that has research backing any claims made on its packaging. Even though two different brands of probiotics may contain the same strain of bacteria (lactobacillus plantarum, for example), they might not both provide the same benefits. You can usually tell if a probiotic has been extensively researched by reading its name. Look for a name that ends in a grouping of numbers and letters, known as the Strain ID (like lactobacillus plantarum 299v). These probiotic strains have usually undergone extensive testing, and most likely have searchable scientific research articles to back any claims made about the product. Without the inclusion of the Strain ID, there’s no way for you to know if you are getting a strain that will have the same positive effects as what has been found in research for a specific strain.
Probiotics are a great tool to add to your toolbox of supplements that can improve your overall health.
Christina C Wilson MS, CNS, LN