Until the last 5-10 years, many people did not know what “probiotics” were. I certainly didn’t. They probably weren’t familiar with “good” bacteria and “bad” bacteria. They likely did not know the term “microbiome” or what actually was in their yogurt. But thanks to science (and some healthy marketing), probiotics are now fairly mainstream, which is a good thing.
What is probably most fascinating to me is that nearly all of us were taking antibiotics during this time – but we likely never stopped and wondered if there were good bacteria, too! Since I receive questions on a daily basis from clients about fermented foods and probiotics, I hope this piece will answer some questions that you may have. The science behind probiotics is increasing by the day, and recent research is even more interesting than the original finding that there was a very important link between our gut and brain!
To start with – why should you consider probiotics? Your wallet doesn’t need to be emptied for something that won’t make much of a difference in your health. But probiotics are that rare supplement from which nearly everyone can benefit. Studies have shown that they help with a multitude of health concerns, such as healthy digestion, clear skin, healthy metabolism, improved mood, and even increased weight loss. Quite frankly, there is very little reason not to try a round of probiotic supplementation, and a long list of reasons why you may want to do so.
Going back to my earlier mention of antibiotics, think of your gut as having good and bad bacteria. And then realize that a poor diet, too much stress, not enough sleep and a lifetime of antibiotics have likely disposed of most of the good bacteria. This leaves you with the bad stuff, which may make you crave poor-quality foods, leave you depressed or even with a face full of acne — which is why you need probiotics in your life!
What Are They?
Simply put, probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are beneficial to health. Since we are talking about gut health, your digestive system is obviously the most affected by probiotics — but the benefits don’t end there! As researchers have noted, the enteric nervous system inside our stomach goes far beyond just processing the food we eat! Researchers in science are linking many different parts of the body to improved gut health, and the results go way beyond what anyone ever expected. The gut’s importance has surprised even some of the most seasoned and imaginative scientists.
Certainly we all recognize how important optimal brain health is, but the gut is often referred to in the scientific literature as the second brain! This shows the vital importance of keeping your gut flora happy – and probiotics are made to do just that. In fact, science has shown that probiotics modulate immune responses, provide key nutrients, and suppress the proliferation and virulence of infectious agents.
Can I Just Eat A Good Diet?
Undoubtedly, you can get a lot of beneficial microbes from an excellent Paleo diet. Vegetables are actually a good source of prebiotics – which help to feed our good bacteria. But fermented foods are what provide the actual good bacteria. However, unless you want to consume fermented foods like it’s your job – it’s much easier to supplement with a solid probiotic. Things to look for in a probiotic (which illustrate why fermented foods just aren’t quite as good) include strains of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, a very high count of bacteria (try to go higher than 5 billion) and a product that has been scientifically tested.
While fermented foods can be great, the sheer amount of foods you’d have to consume in order to get the same benefits from a probiotic makes this fairly improbable. One caveat to this recommendation would be if you have gotten your gut back up to an optimal level of health, and simply want to maintain that level.
Keep in mind that this means you’ll have to forego any antibiotics – unless you want to follow them up with a round of probiotics (which is what I recommend anyone do). The more we are finding out about the gut, the more interesting things become. We are also finding out that the gut has much more of an impact on our overall health than we had ever imagined!
Help For Your Brain
One of the most fascinating areas of probiotics falls into the supplement’s effects on our brain. Many studies have found that probiotics can overcome immune-mediated deficits in the gut-brain-microbiota axis. What does this mean in layman’s terms? It means that even simple, day-to-day psychological stress can impair this important axis (the signaling and interaction between our gut, brain and bacteria). And it also means that taking a probiotic can fix this problem!
So if simple everyday stress can interfere with brain and gut health, imagine how badly this axis is damaged when a poor diet, lack of sleep and many rounds of antibiotics are introduced into the picture! Interestingly, other studies have found that probiotics may help mitigate anxiety symptoms. In addition, new research shows that intake of probiotics may help reduce negative thoughts!
Help For Your Skin And Mood
Another interesting effect that probiotics can have is on skin health. In fact, three large studies linked dairy consumption and acne – but not fermented dairy and acne. Since acne is formed via bacteria buildup, balancing the bacteria in your gut is a very logical step to take if you’re looking to avoid it. Some studies have even used specific probiotic extracts and found they were successful at reducing acne!
Another study looked at the psychological benefits of probiotic supplementation. In this study, any of the 132 subjects who had more depressive symptoms at baseline saw significant improvement in mood after taking a probiotic. Interestingly, ancient cultures have been consuming fermented foods for thousands of years! Though they did not have science on their side, they saw anecdotal results, and thus continued the practice.
Scientists are clear in their writing — microbes (like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria) may also influence brain health via direct and indirect pathways. I’m not quite sure why the yogurt companies haven’t latched on to this bit of science to help them sell their product, but they may soon include this in their marketing.
If one wishes to really follow the Paleo concept, our ancestors had a wide variety of access to foods (honey, fruits, berries) that had been fermented naturally. Without microbial science, cultures still recognized how important these foods were.
Which One Should I Take?
This is the ultimate question, and one which clients will ask me on a daily basis. I personally recommend (as does Chris Kresser) that you take Prescript-Assist – which has been studied multiple times to work effectively. On top of that, Prescript-Assist offers 29 strains of symbiotic microflora, does not need to be refrigerated, is dairy and gluten free, and is made from soil-based organisms.
There was even a one-year study done on Prescript-Assist – which it passed with flying colors. That being said, the FDA does not regulate probiotics, so this is never going to be a surefire bet. As has been highlighted in the media, sometimes supplements are not what they seem. Two other good brands are Jarrow and Klaire Labs.
In The End…
Not to sound like a broken record, but a Paleo diet rich in vegetables, healthy fat and quality protein will cover a large majority of your gut health. The trick is adding back in the good bacteria that you may have lost along the way! That is part of why it is so important to have children consume a Paleo diet if at all possible – they likely will never lose their good bacteria!
I hope I have answered your questions about probiotics, and provided you with a large amount of information. Remember that the GI tract functions as a major immunological organ – don’t abuse it! A poor diet, constant stress and inadequate amounts of sleep will all harm your precious good bacteria.
Besides probiotics, you can check out the definitive guide to fermented foods, to help increase the good guys in your gut. Remember that avoiding inflammatory and disruptive foods is just as important as eating the right foods, so stay away from the gluten and processed foods! Here’s to good gut health!