They’re everywhere – they’re in yogurt, cereal, chocolate, vegetables, dog food, and definitely in the vitamin aisle at your local grocery store. They’re touted as one of nature’s superfoods, and companies spend millions of dollars yearly on advertisements that tell you about its miraculous health benefits.
What is this miracle food? They’re microorganisms called probiotics. You’ve probably seen celebrity endorsements and TV commercials telling you that you will reap so many benefits from taking probiotics, from digestive benefits to reducing depression and all the way to preventing cancer. But are probiotics all that they’re claimed to be? Read on to find out.
What Are Probiotics?
Your gut contains trillions of bacteria. Most people think of nasty, oozing infections when they think of bacteria, but the 500 different types of bacteria in your intestinal tract are mostly beneficial or neutral. Your gut is also unique to you, much like your fingerprint. The composition of microorganisms in your GI tract is extremely complex and dynamic — depends on your age, genes, history of antibiotic use, other medications you may be taking, and socioeconomics.
Probiotics are bacteria and some types of yeast in your digestive system that are thought to be beneficial to your health because they help absorb nutrients and regulate various functions of your immune system, including bowel movements. They were first identified in the 19th century by a Russian scientist named Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov after studying the diet of Bulgarian peasants. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the term “probiotics” was coined, meaning “for life.” The probiotics industry grew exponentially in the recent years to nearly $37 billion in 2015. The market is expected to exceed $64 billion by 2024.
Benefits of Probiotics
Probiotics are affectionately called the “good bacteria” that can prevent the overgrowth of “bad bacteria.” Researchers believe that you can take probiotics as a supplement to help you repopulate your gastrointestinal tract during and after a course of antibiotics or just as a supplement to prevent many common diseases. Since the human gastrointestinal tract is responsible for 70-80% of the immune system, probiotics advocates believe in making sure they have a large population of probiotics to stay healthy.
Although studies on the effects of probiotics show mixed results, here are some benefits you may experience by taking them:
- ♦ Regular bowel movements
- ♦ Improved oral health
- ♦ Better skin
- ♦ Weight loss
- ♦ Prevention of leaky gut syndrome
- ♦ Relief from bloating, diarrhea, and constipation
- ♦ Relief from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- ♦ Increased energy
- ♦ Stronger immune system
Cons of Probiotics
If you are taking antibiotics, it may be a good idea to take probiotics to try to avoid antibiotics-associated diarrhea. But if you eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, it is unlikely that you’ll see any benefits from adding a probiotics supplement. There is no evidence that consistently support the claims of weight loss, oral health benefits, or immunity to cold and other illnesses.
Besides the lack of evidence, you may even experience a period of gas, bloating, and other stomach discomfort. Some strains of probiotics have not been well studied, so there is a risk of getting an infection or illness from them especially if you already have a weak immune system. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also does not regulate probiotics, since they are considered supplements, not pharmaceuticals.
What Should You Look For In Probiotics Supplements?
If you decide to add probiotics to your diet, you should know that not all probiotics are “created equal.” Every product on the market claims to have incredible benefits, but upon looking at the ingredient label, you may see that they contain different species of probiotics. So which one do you choose?
The most commonly encountered probiotics are strains of Lactobacillus, Saccharomyces, and Bifidobacterium species. Here are some other things you should look for:
- ♦ Products that state “contains live active cultures.”
- ♦ Enteric coating: This is a delivery method used to avoid degradation of the capsules by the stomach acid.
- ♦ Non-GMO: Long-term health effects of genetically modified organisms (GMO) are still unknown. Until their safety can be verified, it is best to avoid them.
- ♦ Number of organisms: Most products on the market contain 1-2 billion colony-forming units (CFU). Manufacturers believe that a higher dosage will enable more bacteria to survive their journey through the digestive system to reach the colon.
- ♦ Good reviews: Some products claim to contain several hundred billion CFU of probiotics, but results from several research studies show that their claims cannot be supported. So do your research to find out other people’s experiences with any supplement you’re considering.
- ♦ Corn-free, dairy-free, and soy-free: You want to avoid any possible contamination from the manufacturing process, and a corn, dairy, and soy-free guarantee will ensure that the process is performed at a facility that is tightly regulated.
What Are Prebiotics?
Many probiotics supplements nowadays also contain prebiotics, which are insoluble fiber that the bacteria can feed on to stimulate growth and proliferation. Prebiotics can be found in bananas, asparagus, artichokes, whole grains, garlic, onions, and chicory. The best probiotics supplements should contain a range of prebiotics to fuel the probiotics as much as possible.
What Are Some Whole Food Sources of Probiotics?
While supplementation by pharmaceutically manufactured products would likely give you the best chance of seeing benefits, some people may choose to get their probiotics from their food. Some of the best food sources of probiotics are:
- ♦ Kefir
- ♦ Natto
- ♦ Kimchi
- ♦ Apple Cider Vinegar
- ♦ Kvass
- ♦ Raw Cheese
- ♦ Tempeh
- ♦ Miso
- ♦ Kombucha
- ♦ Sauerkraut
- ♦ Pickles
If you believe that you should add probiotics to your diet, talk to your doctor or pharmacist first about what they can do for you. This is especially important if you’re currently taking medication for another condition. If your doctor agrees that you can benefit from probiotics, start with just a small portion of the manufacturer’s recommended dosage. Doing so will enable your body to get accustomed to the supplement, and you will have an easier time keeping track of any side effects. If you experience any diarrhea or mild stomach discomfort, taking the probiotics after a meal may also help.