If you think gut health is just a fringe hippie inulgence, take a look at this stat: The global probiotics industry, comprised of supplements, yogurt, booch’, and more, is valued at $504 million, and is only projected to grow as our bacteria obsession continues. But is the good bacteria hype worth it? Is taking a probiotic supplement healthy – or just a waste of money?
What is a Probiotic?
Probiotics are friendly bacteria that dwell in the small intestine (the gut) and line the digestive tract. There, they work to absorb nutrients from food, synthesize certain vitamins, create enzymes, and produce short chain fatty acids.
Millions of these good bacteria, around ten times that of all of the cells in the human body, work to support health.
Where do these bacteria come from in the first place? At birth, an infant’s gut is sterile. Upon being exposed to maternal and environmental bacteria, the gut begins to populate with probiotics.
The types of bacteria that populate the gut depend on a variety of factors including method of birth (vaginal delivery vs. C-section), gestational age, diet (breast milk vs. formula), level to sanitation, and exposure to antibiotics, according to a 2013 study.
According to the study researchers, the intestinal probiotic composition of newborns is characterized by low diversity of gut bacteria species. By the end of the first year of life, however, the microbe makeup is distinct for each infant -- almost like a gut fingerprint. By two and a half years old, the microbiota (of the gut and elsewhere) “fully resembles the microbiota of an adult in terms of composition” researchers note.
As adults, having a diverse, hardy colony of probiotics in the gut is crucially important, as the gut plays a major role in emotional states, immune system function, energy production, and digestion.
There are several ways to support gut health through diet, taking a proper probiotic supplement if necessary, managing stress levels, and moving the body.
How Do Probiotics Influence Health?
Research on probiotics and gut health is exploding as more and more interest is being paid to the microbiome and gut’s influence on overall health.
According to Dr. Joshua Axe, multiple studies have shown that probiotics can boost the immune system, prevent and treat urinary tract infections, improve digestive function, reduce the flu and cold, heal inflammatory bowel conditions such as IBS and IBD, manage eczema and other skin conditions, and prevent depression and certain mood disorders.
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Within the gut there are both bad and good bacteria. Dr. Axe, and other gut specialists, note that the ratio should be 85 percent good bacteria and 15 percent bad bacteria, give or take. When this balance is compromised, dysbiosis, or an unbalance of bacteria, yeast, or fungi can occur. When this happens, using probiotics to restore balance just may be key.
In particular, a 2014 review of 63 studies on probiotics and gut health, found mixed evidence regarding the effectiveness of taking a probiotic supplement and altering the composition of gut bacteria.
What they did find was that probiotics seemed to work best after the gut bacteria were compromised, such as after taking a course of antibiotics, for example.
Do You Need to Take a Probiotic Supplement?
Yes and no. As every single body (and gut fingerprint) is incredibly different, there’s no right or wrong answer. A variety of factors can determine, however, if taking a probiotic supplement may be a good idea.
Chances are you may need to take a probiotic supplement if you’ve recently taken a few rounds of antibiotics, are constantly finding yourself sick or run down, or eat a diet lacking fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and fermented foods.
Consuming certain foods, such as artificial sweeteners and too much sugar, have even been shown to negatively effect the composition of gut bacteria. Of course, always speak with your doctor before adding in any new kind of supplement to your regime –- even a probiotic supplement.
When looking for a probiotic, know that not all bottles of bacteria are created equally. Shop your local health food store (Whole Foods Market stocks a bunch of great options) and head to the refrigerated case in the supplement department. Look for a refrigerated bottle with 15 billion to 100 billion organisms and at least 10 to 30 different bacterial strains.
You most likely do not need to splurge on a probiotic supplement if you consume a healthy diet loaded with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, beans, humanely raised meats and eggs, and fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut. In fact, supporting your gut with these healthy fermented foods may positively enhance the function and composition of the gut bacteria -– no pill needed.
When it comes to probiotics, do your research. Ask your doc first about supplementing and incorporate a quality probiotic into your daily vitamin lineup -- if necessary.
The bottom line: if you feel good taking a probiotic supplement – then great. If not, skip it and reach for a fork filled with sauerkraut instead!
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