This is a topic I’ve frankly gone back and forth on for years. Probiotic supplements — do you need them? Should you take them? Which ones will benefit your gut the most?
I’ve experimented on a personal level with a variety of different supplements and other options, have noted my results over time. And, I’ve done a bunch of research on the gut and what’s normal. Ultimately, although probiotics are definitely good, they are not the whole picture. And therein lies the problem with supplements (well, one of them).
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are “friendly bacteria” that are normally found in your gut in some quantity, at some point in your life. These friendly bacteria help to digest food, extract key nutrients, make and regulate hormones, and kill bad bacteria/viruses that could make you sick. Essentially, these bacteria affect whether or not your well-nourished, deal with depression or anxiety, and function as a major part of your immune system.
Of course, every year we’re finding out more about which bacteria are normal in our guts, and which aren’t. And, what else these bacteria can do for our health.
What we do know so far is that we need them, and they play a large role in our overall health.
What Does My Gut Look Like?
Everyone has some probiotics in their gut, but some have more than others, or a more diverse flora pattern. There are several things in our modern world that affect our gut flora negatively, though. Many of us are exposed to these things regularly!
These things can harm your gut flora:
- Anti-bacterial products (soaps, gels, etc.)
- Birth control pills
- Other prescription drugs
- Pesticides on food
- Fluoridated water
- Over-consumption of sugar
- Over-consumption of processed food/food additives
- Pro-inflammatory vegetable oils
- Synthetic vitamins (fortified foods)
- Environmental mold exposure
These things, and more, can either kill off healthy flora, or feed the ‘bad’ flora. Either one is bad! And of course, in our modern life, these types of things are extremely prevalent — even in the “natural” world.
Seeing as so many of us have signs of gut damage, we should probably try to be more careful about this than we are!
What Happens If My Gut Flora is Bad?
How do you know if your gut flora is disrupted?
If you’re regularly exposed to the things above, it is. It’s hard to say how good/bad it is right now, but it’s definitely not optimal.
Specific signs that your gut is messed up:
- Food allergies/sensitivities
- Constipation (frequent)
- Diarrhea (frequent)
- Cradle cap/dermatitis
- Fatigue (frequent)
- Other hormonal imbalances
- Frequent illnesses
- Long/more severe illnesses (takes forever to ‘get over’ things)
- Frequent sugar cravings
- Sore joints/muscles
- Frequent headaches
- Autoimmune disease
- Weight gain/inability to lose weight
- Acne/skin breakouts
A lot of symptoms that we’re told are “normal” or “just one of those things” are really related to gut health! This is not even an exhaustive list…there are others.
If you’re struggling with some of these, it’s not easy to fix. Not at all. (Believe me — I have been there, with fatigue, hormonal imbalances, weight gain, anxiety, and more.)
But you can. I’m going to explain it all in a multi-part series. First, though, we have to talk about why probiotic supplements are not the answer.
Why Probiotic Supplements Will Never Fix Gut Health
It’s so common even the mainstream recommends it now — “take a probiotic supplement!”
But not so fast.
While probiotic supplements aren’t entirely useless, they’re not going to be “the answer” that fixes your gut, either.
First of all, a lot of the commercial supplements contain fillers and other ingredients that are not beneficial to your gut. (This is an issue with many supplements, not just probiotics.) Why put something your body that goes against what you are trying to achieve?
Of course, better-quality (and more expensive) supplements don’t have this issue. They are pure powders that are either loose, or that are packed into capsules. These supplements have their place — which I’ll get to later — but they are not the long-term solution to fix your gut.
To understand why, first we need to understand poop….
What is Poop Made Of?
In an adult, poop is approximately 75% water, and 25% solids. The solids include fiber, undigested food (a lot of this means you aren’t tolerating certain things well), some fat, and a whole lot of “living stuff.”
That “living stuff” includes a wide variety of bacteria, viruses, yeasts, single-celled organisms, and much more. It’s an incredibly complex microbiome…and it’s the entire thing that affects your gut! This is why “poop transplants” have become a thing — because they contain so much more than just probiotics.
Reading that bit of information and piecing it together with my own experiences was my ‘ah-ha’ moment.
Your Gut Flora is Majorly Complex
That’s right — it’s not all about the bacteria. There are many other living components of your gut flora, and they are all important. Those bacteria, viruses, yeasts, and more matter to your long-term gut health.
We really don’t know a ton about gut health yet, such as what’s truly normal. Basically every population that has been studied is on a standard Western diet of processed foods and lots of sugar, which would obviously shift gut flora. All we know is that there is a lot going on in there, and that we need all these different parts in order to be healthy.
Plus, there are preliminary studies showing long-term health benefits from certain probiotic strains — so yes, probiotics are definitely beneficial! Here are some of the studies:
- Lactobacillus treats IBS
- L. rhamnosis helps prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea
- Probiotics help prevent bacterial vaginosis
- Lactobacillus helps to prevent recurring UTIs in women
- Bifidobacteria promote normal gut function, especially in infants
- Bifidobacteria promote overall gut health
- B. longum may help with allergies
- B. infantis may alleviate IBS symptoms
That’s just a small sample of the studies that are currently available! So obviously, probiotics matter a lot. And, these strains — because they are well-studied — are included in the higher quality probiotic supplements. (They’re not necessarily included in cheaper probiotic supplements, and if they are, in very low potencies — another reason why cheap supplements aren’t worth it.)
But all of these supplements have only probiotic strains. Only very few have any of the beneficial yeasts (typically saccharomyces boulardii, if any). So, they’re just not complete, in terms of what your gut needs long-term.
What You Really Need
What you truly need is fermented foods!
Most of these haven’t been thoroughly studied, which is one reason that the mainstream doesn’t like or recommend them. They don’t like things they don’t know a lot about. But let’s remember, “we haven’t done the research yet” is not the same as “there is no benefit.”
Fermented foods are the way that people have historically gotten their probiotics. And, these foods contain far more than just probiotics…they are a combination of different strains of bacteria, yeasts, and most likely other “things” we don’t even know about yet. They produce beneficial acids and bioavailable vitamins and minerals, too.
There is no way to replicate a true ferment in supplement form. A true ferment is far too complex.
Fermented foods include:
- Milk kefir
- Water kefir
- Fermented pickles
- …and more
There are many other ferments you can make at home; most of these are available commercially. Brands include Kevita (water kefir); GT Dave’s (kombucha); Lifeway, Maple Hill Creamery, Redwood Hill Farms, Siggis and others (milk kefir); Stonyfield, Redwood Hill Farms, Annie’s, Brown Cow, and others (yogurt — look for plain); Bubbies (sauerkraut and pickles).
There are others, but these are the brands I know of and have purchased or researched.
Brewing/fermenting foods or drinks at home is not hard, it just takes a little bit of time. It’s also much cheaper, and you can include flavors you really love! Many ferment salsa, fruits, spicy cabbage, and lots more.
On a Personal Note…
From my own experience and from talking to many others who have used both supplements and foods, most see more benefit from fermented foods than from supplements. Supplements are certainly easier to take — swallow a couple pills a day rather than eating/drinking some quantity of food — but in the long run they’re just not as beneficial. They can’t help the problem from multiple angles the way that fermented foods can!
In the years I took supplements, it certainly helped some. It took the “edge off,” so to speak. It was absolutely better than nothing. But I didn’t see real healing until I regularly incorporated fermented foods in my diet. And I am not the only one!
Are Supplements Ever Beneficial?
There are times to use them. These include:
- If you can’t/won’t consume fermented foods
- When just starting a new diet and need something to get started (go slow!)
- If you have been on antibiotics and are looking for specific strains to prevent side effects
In these cases, supplements may be beneficial. If you are going to opt for a supplement, I would look into brands like GutPro or Seeking Health. I do not recommend most that are found at grocery stores. I cannot recommend Garden of Life since they were acquired by Nestle.
If you are choosing a supplement, look for one that has a wide variety of strains (6 – 12 at least) and is a fairly high potency (10 – 50 billion CFU). In my opinion, a powder is better because you can easily adjust potency by taking a larger or smaller dose, and because it tends to have fewer fillers and be more cost-effective.
Key strains include:
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Bifidobacterium infantis
- Lactobacillus casei
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Bifidobacterium bifidum
- Lactobacillus reuteri
- Bifidobacterium longum
However, if at all possible, do include fermented foods in your diet, too! And vary them, because each has their own unique composition and they’re not interchangeable.
How Many CFUs of Probiotics Do I Need?
As with any supplement, the amount you’ll take — but not really absorb or use — is much higher (usually) in a supplement vs. foods.
A lot of supplements will estimate their potency at 5 billion CFU (colony forming units) to 100 billion CFU. If you’re completely new to supplementing, you may start with just 1 – 2 billion CFU per day to see how it goes, especially if you suspect a lot of gut damage. Too much at once can cause side effects. Others who are very used to supplementing may take 50 – 100 billion CFU daily with no issues.
Honestly, if you can regularly take 50 billion+ CFU per day, then the supplement you’re taking is pretty useless. Switch strains/types or just go for fermented foods. The supplement has done all it can for you.
Many supplements will be killed by the stomach acid, and only some of the bacteria will really make it to the gut. Lots of companies claim to have “new technology” that keeps pills intact until they reach key parts of your gut, so you get “more benefit,” but I have not found these products to really make that much difference vs. other types of supplements. There’s not really a lot of research proving these claims, either.
When it comes to fermented foods, counts may be estimated at only a few million CFU to a few trillion CFU, depending on the food. Most are on the lower end. But, it’s not all about mega-doses. It’s about the wide variety of different components that are so beneficial to the gut.
Start slow with fermented foods, from just a teaspoon or two if you suspect real gut damage, and adding more over time. Listen to your body, and don’t worry about the “counts.”