Probiotic Overwhelm?

The term probiotic is the combination of the terms pro (in favor of) and bios (life).  This is no overstatement.  The role of probiotics in the maintenance of overall health can be life-changing.  But the number of probiotics on the market can make your head spin.  How do you know which one is the one for you?

Now that we’ve learned about the importance of friendly bacteria, the goal is to make sure we have them, we feed them and we maintain a good balance of them in our gut.  Today we are going to cover how to evaluate probiotics.

Types of Probiotics

A few weeks back I talked a little bit about this topic in regard to digestion when we looked at the microbiome.  Last week we covered the importance of protecting the microbiome.  Today we’re going to get into the specifics of using probiotics to support these processes.  We discussed the importance of not only populating the microbiome with friendly bacteria, but feeding that bacteria as well.  So let’s start with populating and how to know what to look for.

I’ve been saying we all have different microbiomes.  This difference is based on many factors, including how we were born (vaginal vs. C-section), how we were first nourished (breast milk vs. formula), where we were born (urban vs. rural), how we were raised, what we’ve eaten and where we have lived over the course of our lives.

Our gut flora (intestinal microbiome) is populated by our environment and the foods we eat.  A diet heavy in processed foods contributes nothing to our gut flora, and aids in depletion of our good bacteria, mostly by starving it out or sterilizing it.  A diet rich in organic (as opposed to non-organic or GMO) foods, especially diets high in plant-based foods, aids in creating a strong, healthy gut flora.  Processed foods, environmental toxins, excess alcohol and antibiotic (anti life) use degrades our gut flora and leaves us susceptible to pathogens, inflammation and illness.

This difference in gut flora means most probiotics are not one size fits all.  And in some cases, they should be avoided altogether.  For example, individuals with SIBO and individuals who are immune compromised should avoid probiotics.  Those with SIBO need to address the overgrowth of bacteria before focusing on probiotics, prebiotics or fermented foods as these can be more harmful than helpful.  For everyone else, it’s a good idea to know what you might be lacking.  This will help you sort through the multitude of probiotics on the shelves and in the refrigerators.

The following chart covers the four main categories of probiotics.  Note that within these categories there are many strains.  I’ve provided examples of common issues addressed by these, but working with a professional well-versed in probiotic use is your best way of knowing which probiotics to choose.  This will save you a lot of time and money.

CategoryDetailsPotential Benefits
LactobacillusShort-term bacteria that produce lactic acid by digesting lactose, sugar and carbohydrates we eat. Found in the small intestine and move through without making a home in the gut. Lowers stomach pH, inhibiting the growth of pathogens and stimulating the immune system. Can inhibit Candida growth.Promotes regular bowel movements, helps with absorption of minerals and nutrients, encourages production of digestive enzymes, supports healthy levels of stomach acid, assists in detoxification by consuming toxins. Aids in restoration of gut flora after antibiotic therapy.
BifidobacteriumLactic acid producer like lactobacillus, but found in larger amounts in children. Breast milk promotes the development of bifidobacterium.Important aid to infant health by preventing the growth of pathogenic bacteria, may assist in lactose tolerance, prevent diarrhea, reduce risk of food allergies.
Soil Based Organisms (SBOs)Occur naturally in soil, helping plants grow. Lacking in non-organic food. Some are short-lived (transient), some take up residence (spore-forming). Those that are spore-forming are highly resilient and grow rapidly, even surviving antibiotics. One example of a spore-forming SBO is Bacillus subtilis. Don't require refrigeration (non-dairy based). Less controlled due to sourcing so may contain pathogens that could be harmful to individuals with health issues.Aid in digestion, enhance the immune system.
Spore-formingMore likely to take up residence and may even remain dormant until being revived with nutrients (take with food). Highly resilient, shelf stable and grow rapidly, survive antibiotics. Recommended to be used with lactic acid probiotics and prebiotics.Considered gut cleaners, they help weed out bad bacteria (pathogens). Enhance the immune system and can be taken with antibiotics. Support digestion and detoxification.

When selecting a probiotic, you want to consider the CFUs (colony forming units) and the number of strains.  For transient probiotics (short-lived, lactic acid producers) you should look for high CFU numbers (1 billion or higher).  As for which strains to use, this is where knowing what you’re lacking makes things easier; otherwise it becomes trial and error.  If you know what you need you can target that strain.  For example, within the lactic acid category alone, there are different strains that have been studied and shown to address specific health issues like allergies, inflammation, immune function, improving the intestinal wall and digestion.  If you don’t, you may be better off with a higher variation of strains.

Lastly, read the labels and do some of your own research.  Avoid supplements containing magnesium stearate, silica and titanium dioxide.  You don’t need to refrigerate your probiotics, however keeping them cool slows down their growth and maintains a higher CFU count.  If you have ever experimented with fermented foods you can understand why this is beneficial.  Cool temperatures slow down the metabolism of the bacteria so they don’t die.  So, although not necessary, it does maintain efficacy.  My point is, don’t panic if you can’t keep them cold on the trip home from the store.  They’ll be okay.

Supporting Your Probiotic

Keep in mind that probiotics are not the be-all, end-all.  In order to achieve the most benefit from probiotics, be sure to include prebiotics and fermented foods. This provides a well-rounded environment for your gut microbiome.  Prebiotics provide food for the good bacteria, supporting the use of probiotics.  Fermented foods have increased nutrient levels and are more easily digestible, as the fermentation process (by bacteria) has partly predigested the food for you.  Fermented foods don’t have a high number of bacteria (CFUs) and they die faster; but they do typically have a larger number of strains of bacteria.  Fermented foods also help balance intestinal pH by increasing stomach acid.  If you suffer from GERD or heartburn, tread lightly into fermentation foods to be sure they do not irritate your stomach.  Even for those who don’t have this issue, start small and work your way up.

You can read more about probiotics and prebiotics in my habits post.  You can also download my free guide that includes the post on probiotics and prebiotics.  The guide can be found on my Home page.

I hope this little talk has provided you a some helpful insight into probiotics.  Remember, it’s always best to work with your health care provider when first introducing new supplements to your diet.

Yours in Wellness,


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