Whether or not to take a probiotic is almost as common a supplement question as taking a daily multivitamin. It’s not surprising considering the mind-blowing rate at which science is confirming the powerful role our gut health plays in nearly every aspect of our health. The connection of our gut to our overall health now stretches beyond the fringe medicine and the wellness worlds, and far into conventional medicine and our daily life through everyday advertising. And as this conversation’s evolved, probiotics have taken center stage for their potential to support microbiome health – and as you’ll see, for good reason.
The problem is – like all other supplements – not all probiotic supplements are created equal. What you choose to take can either be incredibly health supportive, or largely ineffective based on which strains of probiotics are included, whether or not the brand is reliable, and other factors. This article will help you clear the confusion and point you to how to choose reliable products so you can feel confident in the choice you’re making for your microbiome.
Why You Might Take a Probiotic
Probiotics are microorganisms (helpful bacteria and yeasts) that help support various aspects of overall health by providing beneficial strains of organisms that help to repopulate your gut flora with the “right” kind of bacteria and yeasts. Probiotics seem to have an ever-expanding list of superpowers and this may be especially true when it comes to probiotics for women. While research is still young and emerging when it comes to the cause and effect relationship of taking a probiotic, there are some really impressive studies showing use of probiotics can lead to:
- Reduced insulin resistance
- Less inflammation
- Improvements in fertility, better assisted fertility outcomes, and healthier pregnancies
- Fewer urinary tract and vaginal infections, including BV and Group B Strep (important for women in labor)
- Possible prevention of conditions like PCOS and endometriosis
- Healthier estrogen balance
- Improved HPA Axis function, reduced stress, and improved resilience and well-being
- Reductions in anxiety and depression, which may trickle over to improved premenstrual mood
- Better sleep, healthier circadian rhythm, and breaking the cycle of stress causing sleep problems
- Clearing up IBS, constipation, bloating, and diarrhea
- Achieving a healthier weight; improved weight loss
Several human clinical studies have shown that taking a probiotic can reduce stress, improve sleep quality, and improve memory. Specifically, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Bifidobacterium longum have all improved scores of anxiety and/or depression in human clinical trials. In fact, exciting research on the gut-brain connection has yielded a whole new field of study: psychobiotics – looking at the use of probiotics to improve mood and cognitive function – and studies are not disappointing. Taking a probiotic starting in your mid-30s may also be an important way to help prevent menopausal bone loss – another benefit seen with probiotics.
Does Everyone Need to Supplement with a Probiotic?
Not at all, if your diet is rich in lacto-fermented foods and you enjoy gut and hormonal health. But if for some reason you don’t enjoy or tolerate fermented foods, you’re working to repair your gut, or you have a condition which is known to be benefitted by a probiotic supplement, this is a simple way to enhance your healing process. I almost always include a probiotic while working on repairing the gut.
How to Select a Probiotic
Your probiotic should contain at least 10 billion CFUs of a variety of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, specifically Bifidobacterium infantis and B. longum, species to help restore the normal balance of flora in your gut and repair your gut barrier function. I recommend taking them daily for a couple of months, then back down to a few days each week if you feel you’re continuing to find them helpful. Sometimes if you have significant dysbiosis, taking a probiotic can cause gassiness or bloating. If this happens, discontinue the probiotic while you work on treat dysbiosis, and reintroduce the probiotic 2 weeks after you start that treatment at which time you’ll likely tolerate it without a problem. If it still causes you trouble, try another product and at the lowest possible dose.
Unfortunately, the probiotic product market is a bit of a wild west. Most probiotics don’t undergo testing and approval and not all contain the volume or quality of organisms that actually get the job done. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure they’re safe before they’re marketed and that any claims made on the label are true, but there’s no guarantee that what’s on the label is actually in the product, or that the types of bacteria listed on a label are effective for the condition you’re taking them for. Scientific and consumer watchdog company products reviews continue to turn up a consistent finding: Most of the products on the market don’t contain the strains or number of organisms they claim to, and products touting live cultures don’t always pan out to have live cultures. So, what you see might not be what you get.
You can find reliable options that I trust in my Replenish Dispensary.
Don’t Skimp on Probiotic Foods
Often far more powerful than what any supplement can provide, probiotic rich foods are not only delicious and a part of most traditional diets around the world, naturally fermented foods are an important part of rebuilding a healthy microbiome, improving natural detoxification and elimination, restoring immune system health and reducing inflammation, making weight loss easier, improving mood and mental clarity, and reducing stress. Including a variety of sources in your diet provides more beneficial organisms than any one supplement can replicate. And because we don’t know exactly what your unique microbiome needs, getting this increased variety is incredibly beneficial. Ideally include one serving of the following foods 1-2 times daily.
Probiotic rich foods include:
- Coconut yogurt or coconut kefir
- Water or brine-cured olives
- Lacto-fermented sour dill pickles
- Kimchi (get one that is not too spicy or may your own using my homemade kimchi recipe)
- Pickled vegetables
- Organic yogurt if you eat dairy; sheep milk yogurt is delicious and much easier to digest and less likely to be inflammatory than cow milk yogurt
The microbiome revolution is here to stay. It’s shown us that everything is interconnected – our planet and our health, our food and our health, and internally – the health of all of our systems. Indeed your gut is the center of your universe – so let’s make sure we’re supporting it with all the right tools – the right probiotics being one important piece of an enormous puzzle.