What’s the big deal with gut bacteria? Everything! If you’re curious about probiotics and what they can do for you, here’s a rundown of what probiotics are, why they are important for your health, and what to look for in a good probiotic
Let’s take a moment to talk about your gut. Nope, I’m not talking about the spare tire around your middle (although that comes into play). I’m talking about the gut you can’t see: your intestines and the mini ecosystem (or microbiome) of bacteria living there. As anyone with digestive problems can tell you, the health of your digestive system can make or break your day (or your year)!
I have experienced firsthand the power of microorganisms in the body. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I got giardia from drinking contaminated mountain water on a camping trip. Fortunately I don’t remember much about the ordeal, but my parents said the next several weeks were pretty rough: severe stomach pain and all the other lovely things that come with intestinal parasites. Yikes.
I ended up going through 2 rounds of treatments (which includes Flagyl, and anti-parasite and antibiotic). Between the giardia and 2 courses of antibiotics, my little digestive system was damaged and nothing has been the same since then. I developed a dairy allergy a few years later and have since grown into new food intolerances and food allergies over the years.
The best medical diagnosis anyone can come up with for me is IBS, which is often code for “we don’t know what’s wrong with you” (as well as an inability to digest certain carbohydrates, but that’s another discussion).
While some doctors I have talked to disregard the connection between parasite infections and the onset of digestive disorders, I am convinced that having giardia and 2 courses of antibiotics at an early age changed my intestinal flora. Not to mention the other antibiotics and medications I’ve had to take over the years for various other ailments like pneumonia, UTIs, sinus infections, and more.
What’s so important about gut bacteria?
Your intestinal tract and body is not a void space: it is inhabited by scores of bacteria. The average person has an estimated 500 strains of bacteria in their colon. It’s estimated that we have 38,000,000,000,000 (38 trillion) bacterial cells in and on our bodies (in our digestive tract, on our skin, etc.).
There is an entire microbiome and delicate ecosystem of bacteria in almost every area of your body (except the stomach), not just your intestines. If the good bacteria is reduced or wiped out (for example from antibiotics), then bad bacteria and opportunistic fungi can multiply, causing a host of health problems.
It was once believed that an infant’s digestive system is sterile until they are born, then their bacterial ecosystem is populated with bacteria from the mother (called “seeding”). However new research is suggesting that there may be some bacteria transference from mother to baby via the placenta even before birth.
Bacterial imbalances and the microbiome of the mother can therefore be passed on to children, which is why mothers with non-genetic digestive problems often have children with similar gut problems.
Bacterial balance in the intestines can affect so many areas of the human body: vitamin production, carbohydrate digestion, and immunity. Recent research suggests that your bacterial microbiome may affect things like weight control, obesity, mental health, skin disorders, addictions, hormone balance, etc.
Bacteria in your gut also play a role in managing tight junctions and gut barriers in your intestines, which affects nutrient absorption and keeps bad bacteria out of your bloodstream.
This is where probiotics come to play: good probiotics can help add beneficial, transient microbes to your intestines that offer benefits, like enhancement of gene expressions involved in tight junction signaling (reducing intestinal permeability), triggering neurotransmitters that result in better poops, and more.
Probiotics aren’t meant to completely replace your current bacterial residents or take up permanent residence in your intestines. But rather they are meant to be transient bacteria for your colon that offers benefits. Since they are transient, they are meant to be taken daily to continue offering those benefits on a regular basis.
But not just any old probiotic off the drug store shelf will do. You need to find a probiotic that is high quality and made for the human microbiome.
What to look for in good probiotics
There is one difficult bit to our topic of bacteria: getting probiotic bacteria past the gauntlet of stomach acid and bile, which often destroy the good bacteria before it can even reach your small and large intestine to benefit you.
Our stomach acid is not only meant to break down our food, but also to protect against bad bacteria hitchhiking on our food that could make us sick. But if the good bacteria can’t get past your stomach to the small and large intestine, then it won’t do you any good.
For this reason (and others), it usually takes a team of scientists to create an effective probiotic that’s beneficial, makes it past your stomach, and is actually alive and viable before you even take it.
Here are a few things to look for when choosing an effective probiotic:
Look for strains that are stomach acid and bile resistant. Certain Bifidobacterium and Lactobbacillus bacterial strains do well for human microbiomes. Look for probiotics that have a good variety of human-studied strains.
Probiotics should be freeze dried and sealed well to prevent moisture from getting in the package. Proper storage during production and shipping is crucial as well since extremes in heat or cold can damage bacteria in the probiotic.
Good probiotic brands (like Seed or VSL3) will also make sure that their product is packaged in a container that protects the bacteria from UV light that could damage the bacteria.
Minimal added ingredients
If you have multiple food allergies, make sure your probiotics don’t have added ingredients or fillers that could harm rather than help. Things to watch out for are fillers like wheat or corn starches, dairy or soy culture bases, capsule ingredients, etc.
Many probiotics are cultured in dairy, and some of that dairy ends up in the final product. If you have severe dairy allergies, make sure to check that your probiotic is completely dairy free!
Typically probiotics are measured in CFUs, colony forming units (CFU’s). It’s a measurement of live bacteria at the date of manufacture. Some bacteria won’t survive the production and storage process, so you need to make sure that there is a significant amount of confirmed live bacteria in your probiotics.
Some companies (like Seed) are using AFUs instead of CFUs. AFU stands for Active Fluorescent Units that’s measured through flow cytometry.
Flow cytometry It is a faster and more reliable way to measure bacteria and bacterial viability in samples (including probiotic test samples), but it’s still not the standard measurement for probiotics being sold on the shelf, so for now you’ll still see probiotics labeled with CFUs.
New research suggests that our gut bacteria is transient: it changes daily based on what you’re eating, your stress levels, sleep, exercise, etc. And the makeup of our microbiome can change over the years of our lives as well.
It’s important to be able to take probiotics daily to maintain a healthy and balanced microbiome, so make sure that what you’re taking for your gut health is something you can take daily.
What about foods like yogurt and kombucha?
The scientific definition of the word “probiotic” is:
Live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.Dr. Gregor Reid, World Health Organization
According to this definition, fermented foods can’t necessarily be considered probiotic since it is difficult to prove that the cultures in the food are live and active, what their strains are and if those strains have been studied, and if the food has adequate amounts to provide benefit.
A product needs to satisfy all of those requirements (live, adequate, and proven health benefit) to be truly defined as a probiotic.
I’ve been working with a new probiotic company called Seed that has made pretty amazing progress with their research and development of a really effective probiotic that they call their Daily Synbiotic.
The Seed Daily Synbiotic is completely gluten free, preservative free, vegan, allergen free, and free from corn, soy, binders, fillers, and excipients. Their proprietary formula is bio-fermented in Europe and free from all 12 allergens under the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Seed’s Daily Synbiotic comes in a double, nested capsule design that ensures that the good bacteria makes it to your colon. Plus it also contains a beneficial prebiotic from Indian pomegranate that is nonfermenting and low FODMAP so it’s IBS friendly for people who are on a low FODMAP diet.
The packaging for Seed Daily Synbiotic is sent in UV resistant glass bottles (no plastic!) that are reusable and recyclable. The shipment packaging is also made out of biodegradable foam made from mushrooms, not plastic. Pretty neat!
The team at Seed is made up of scientists, microbiologists, physicians, and researchers, and the bacterial strains included in the Seed daily synbiotic are all validated in 23+ clinical studies to be effective in humans (the strains are not animal or soil derived).
The Daily Synbiotic is shelf stable for 18 months and doesn’t have to be refrigerated at all, so you can take it with you wherever you go with their handy travel vial made of the same UV resistant and recyclable glass as their storage jar.
The Seed company is also working on some microbiome projects outside of probiotics for humans: the research team at SeedLabs is working on creating a probiotic to protect honey bees from disease, soil bacteria for healthy plants and farming, bacteria strains that can degrade plastics, and bioplastics that will degrade in soil.
The Seed website has a wealth of resources available to read about the human microbiome and their research in these non-probiotic bacterial research, check them out if you love geeking out on science!
Check out our other nutrition posts:
- Refuel The Right Way: What To Eat After A Workout
- Nutrition Tips For Bakers
- How To Pack Healthy Lunches For School
- 4 Ways To Improve Your Diet TODAY
Sarah Jane Parker is the founder, recipe creator, and photographer behind The Fit Cookie. She’s a food allergy mom and healthy living blogger based in Wyoming. Sarah is also an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, ACE Certified Health Coach, Revolution Running certified running coach, and an ACE Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist