Admittedly, intestinal health is kind of an icky topic. It’s highly likely that it won’t come up at a dinner soirée, and even talking about it with a close friend can be uncomfortable at best. And if you take it one step further by talking about the microorganisms that reside in your gut, you’ll be lucky if people don’t just stand up and walk out of the room.
Despite this “gross factor,” if you’re suffering from poor intestinal health, your ears have probably perked up recently with all the talk about probiotic supplements. In fact, the term “probiotic” has now become such a buzzword that it was even featured on the popular Dr. Oz daytime TV show in February 2014. Because of this, you want to know as much about probiotics as you can, as well as if they really can provide you with the relief you’ve been looking for.
But what exactly are probiotics, and how do they work? Are there any benefits associated with the use of probiotics, and are there any side effects from taking them? And if you ultimately decide to purchase a probiotic supplement, what should you look for?
In this article, our goal is to provide you with everything you need to know about probiotics, as well as how to determine if they’re right for you. With this in mind, let’s dig in shall we?
What Are Probiotics?
According to Merriam-Webster, the term probiotic is defined as “a preparation (as a dietary supplement) containing live bacteria (as lactobacilli) that is taken orally to restore beneficial bacteria to the body.” In other words, in contrast to antibiotics, which are intended to remove bacteria from the body, probiotics add beneficial bacteria in order to achieve specific results. Without this symbiotic balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria (known as gut dysbiosis), which is something usually caused by stress, poor diet, and antibiotic use, you can experience a wide range of health consequences, including digestive upset, a feeling of sluggishness, and even difficulty losing weight.
According to this article, the average person has about five pounds of bacteria living in their gut (about the same weight as your brain), which amounts to trillions of individual cells. These bacteria play an integral role in our health—so important in fact, that “without gut bacteria, our brains and the rest of our bodies would suffer. We need them to maintain our health."
With this said, although isolating beneficial bacteria and reintroducing them into patients was originally thought of during the early 20th century, it wasn’t until several years later that this idea was put into practice. By 1935 though, Lactobacillus acidophilus was used in several human trials, and was found to be beneficial in treating chronic constipation. In fact, as we’ll see in a moment, this bacteria strain remains one of the most commonly used in today’s probiotics.
However, it wasn’t until 1953 that the term “probiotics” was officially used to describe this class of beneficial bacteria, and until the last decade that they’ve been touted as a viable alternative for relief from a wide variety of symptoms.
But what exactly are the benefits associated with regular probiotic use? Let’s take a closer look.
What Are the Benefits of Taking Probiotics?
Modern probiotics are generally taken in capsule, tablet, or powder form, which typically contain anywhere from 1 billion CFUs (colony-forming units) of beneficial bacteria per dose to more than 10 million in some instances. These bacteria cultures initially remain dormant among their food substrate, which is often made of soy or other plant-based material, but then become active after ingestion. Once broken down inside your stomach, these beneficial bacteria move into your gut, where they begin working to combat any harmful bacteria or toxins they encounter.
Because many of these beneficial bacteria strains are a natural part of our intestinal flora, outside of supplements, they’re often also found in many of the foods we eat, especially yogurts and soft cheeses. Now you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Great! I’ll just eat a bunch of foods containing probiotics, and save a ton of money on supplements.” Well, the truth is that, while this could certainly be beneficial, probiotic supplements generally contain much more concentrated levels of probiotics than do foods. As a result, they’ll often provide much faster and thorough relief than probiotic-rich foods can on their own.
With this in mind, some of the most common bacteria strains found in probiotic supplements include:
Lactobacillus acidophilus – This is one of the most popular probiotic strains due to its wide-reaching benefits, such as reduced IBS-related inflammation, decreased allergic response, inhibition of pathogenic bacteria, and much more. This probiotic strain also naturally adheres to human intestinal cells and produces anti-microbial substances, while surviving better in the human gastrointestinal tract than other strains.
Lactobacillus casei – This strain provides many of the same benefits as acidophilus, with the addition of reduced H. pylori (a common cause of stomach ulcers and even cancer) severity, and protection against salmonella. Despite what the name may lead you to believe, many strains of Lactobacillus may be beneficial for those with lactose intolerance.
Bacillus coagulans – Shown to boost immune system response and to reduce IBS-related abdominal pain.
Bifidobacterium infantis – Reduces diarrhea, inflammation, and allergic responses. This bacteria strain has also been shown to be naturally resistant to stomach acid.
If you’ve spent any time on HighYa, you’re probably a little leery about some of these claims. After all, they sound pretty great, and as we outlined in our Nutritional Supplements Buyer’s Guide, manufacturers tend to make a whole lot of really big claims without providing much evidence to support them.
Because of this, let’s find out what science has to say about the benefits associated with probiotics.
Are the Claims Made by Probiotic Manufacturers Supported by Science?
Here’s the short answer: It depends which claims you’re talking about. But the truth is that, out of all the nutritional supplements we’ve reviewed here at HighYa, probiotics probably have the most clinical evidence pointing to the fact that they can be effective for a wide variety of digestive-related symptoms. According to WebMD, these include relief from diarrheal symptoms, colic in babies, lung infections, ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome, H pylori and bacterial vaginal infections, and eczema. In fact, regarding Lactobacillus only, a quick search of the National Institutes of Health PubMed will provide you with more than 5,300 clinical studies outlining its effects under a variety of conditions.
But hold on a second, because this doesn’t mean that all the claims made by probiotic supplement manufacturers have this same level of clinical support, which is still lacking for those related to relief from Crohn’s disease, lactose intolerance, urinary tract infections, boosted immune system, cancer, and many other conditions.
Also, it’s important to note the subtle distinction between primary (those provided directly by the beneficial bacteria) and secondary (those caused indirectly by the beneficial bacteria) benefits. In other words, some of the grander claims made by probiotic supplements include increased energy and improved mood, for example. However, probiotics may only provide these benefits as a result of relief from symptoms associated with bacterial imbalance in your gut.
To illustrate this, let’s use a more common medication as an example. Imagine that your legs are sore from a recent bike ride, and you take ibuprofen to help relieve the pain. Once this pain is gone, you may then feel happier and more able to focus on tasks. However, ibuprofen didn’t directly make you feel happier and more focused; this was only a secondary benefit provided as a result of pain relief, not directly caused by the medication.
As always, if you’re wondering whether or not probiotics can provide relief from a specific ailment that you suffer from, the best person to speak with is your physician.
Are There Any Side Effects Associated with Taking Probiotics?
Because the beneficial bacteria they contain are a large part of our natural digestive processes, probiotic supplements are considered safe for the majority of the population, and can even be used by children and babies.
With this said, far and away the most common side effects associated with probiotics are bloating a gassiness, although these typically subside after a few days once your intestinal flora has become more balanced. However, if you’re pregnant or nursing, have a weakened immune system, or suffer from short bowel syndrome, then you may want to think twice about taking probiotics.
As we mentioned above, if you’re thinking about beginning a probiotic regimen, you should always talk with your physician about possible side effects related to current medications and medical conditions.
What Should You Look Out for When Purchasing Probiotic Supplements?
While deciding to take a probiotic supplement can feel like a big first step in the right direction, your next hurdle is to find one that will address your specific needs, and then to choose a reputable manufacturer. This is because, as we mentioned in our Nutritional Supplements Buyer’s Guide, nutritional supplements are not regulated by the FDA, which means that manufacturers may not always provide the highest level of quality, and are not required to back up their claims with evidence. In fact, ConsumerLab.com recently performed an in-depth review of more than 40 of the most popular probiotic supplements on the market and found that a full “30% of probiotic supplements fall short on the listed amounts of helpful organisms.” In other words, nearly 1 out of every 3 supplements they tested didn’t actually contain the bacterial CFUs claimed on their labels.
With this said, there are several things you can do to separate the good manufacturers from the bad. You’ll always want to verify that the probiotic supplement’s website includes important information such as an ingredients list or product label, details about where the supplement is manufactured—including whether or not this was in a GMP approved and FDA registered facility—and if their supplements are regularly subjected to third-party testing for purity and efficacy.
From a convenience standpoint, you may want to look for a probiotic supplement that doesn’t require refrigeration in order to keep the bacteria alive. Also, it’s generally the case that the higher the CFU count the more potent the supplement will be, although for some of the “stronger” bacteria strains this may not always be true. Finally, the more resistant a strain of bacteria is to the powerful acid in your stomach, the more that will ultimately reach your gut, where they can begin providing benefits. As such, some supplements manufacturers include acid-resistant strains in their probiotic formulations, while others even feature proprietary technology that further helps them avoid being broken down by your stomach acid.
Finally, remember that not all probiotics will be suitable for providing relief from your specific symptoms. As noted in this article, “You can kind of think of probiotics as more or less a toolbox. Some strains are going to be really good at doing one thing, and others are going to be good at doing another.” In order to gauge which probiotic strains will be most beneficial for you, schedule an appoint with your physician to thoroughly discuss the positive and negatives.
What’s the Bottom Line About Probiotics?
When it comes down to it, by balancing the levels of good bacteria within your gut, there is some promising evidence showing that probiotic supplements can provide relief from a wide variety of symptoms. However, this doesn’t mean that all probiotic strains will provide relief from your specific symptoms, and not all probiotic supplements are created equal. However, because we here at HighYa are most concerned about making you a more informed consumer, what you learned here should go a long way toward helping you make the right decision.
Have you taken probiotics before? If so, what was your experience? Other than talking with a physician, what recommendations do you have for other consumers looking to learn more about probiotics? Tell the world about it by leaving a comment below!