When it comes to Things We’re Told Are Good For Us, most of them, thankfully, are pretty straightforward: drink water, sleep eight hours per night, hug cute animals. Then, there are probiotics. What are they? Do we really need to take them? And, if so, how the heck do you pick one? There are pills, tablets, gummies, drinks – some refrigerated, others not. Millions of CFU versus billions. And what about kombucha, kimchee, and kraut!? Trying to navigate the wide world of good gut bacteria is enough to make anyone’s stomach hurt.
At SmartyPants, we’re on a mission to simplify health, so we sat down with Dr. Pamela Peek, M.D., to get the dirt on probiotics and how to pick a good one.
WHAT ARE PROBIOTICS?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts naturally found in our bodies. We usually think of bacteria as bad or something that causes disease, but our bodies are full of bacteria – both good and bad. In fact, research shows that for every human cell in our body, there is at least one bacterial cell. These trillions of living organisms make up what’s called our microbiome.
Probiotics are often called “good” or “beneficial” bacteria because they have been shown to help support optimal health, especially in our digestive system, says Dr. Peeke.
You can find probiotics almost everywhere in our environment, from the food we eat to the dirt on our hands. Edible good bacteria are most plentiful in fermented foods, such as unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchee, yogurts that contain “live active cultures,” and kombucha, a bubbly tea that’s kind of like an all-natural soda. You can also get probiotics in the form of supplements.
HOW CAN THEY HELP?
Probiotics are most commonly associated with digestive health. You may have seen commercials for probiotics promoting relief from occasional gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal issues you hope never befall you on a first date. However, probiotic research is constantly evolving and we’re learning more and more every day.
Recent studies show that gut bacteria play a significant role in many other areas of our overall health, from our immune system to our metabolism.
The trillions of microbes that populate our microbiomes have been shown to help contribute to multiple functions, says Dr. Peeke, including (but not limited to):
- Promoting oral health
- Supporting mood
- Metabolizing food to release energy
- Producing vitamins and neurotransmitters
- Boosting immune function
- Supporting normal fat metabolism
DO WE REALLY NEED MORE?
If probiotics are naturally found within our digestive systems, then why go out of our way to eat more? “Our present-day gut microbiome is under constant attack,” says Dr. Peeke.
Chronic stress, food additives, too little fiber, and even overexposure to anti-bacterial products are just a few facts of modern life that can alter the balance of our gut bacteria.
If you happen to be a Zen monk living on top of a mountain, subsisting largely on kale, your microbiome is probably on point. But, for those of us who live in the real world, and have to deal with dirty subway railings, last minute deadlines, and the occasional fast food craving, probiotics can give our good bacteria a little extra support.
WHAT ABOUT PRE-BIOTICS?
In addition to all the hype around probiotics, you may have heard some talk about PRE-biotics. What’s the difference? Prebiotics are substances found in certain foods that humans can’t digest, says Dr. Peeke. They pass through your stomach and wind up in the small intestine where they act as food for bacteria.
PRE-biotics feed PRO-biotics.
Foods that are high in prebiotic fiber include:
- Legumes, beans, and peas
- Jerusalem artichokes
- Dandelion greens
Some foods, like sauerkraut, and supplements, like SmartyPants Probiotic Complete, pull double duty because they contain both beneficial bacteria and a prebiotic source of fiber for the bacteria to feed on, says Dr. Peeke. These twofers are known as “synbiotics.”
By now, perhaps you’re intrigued. You’ve got a bottle of kombucha in the fridge, and you even seriously contemplated that $9 jar of raw sauerkraut. But supplements are another story. Why do some products contain millions of bacteria, while others have billions? What is a CFU? And what’s the deal with refrigeration?
CFU stands for colony forming unit, and it is used to estimate the number of live bacteria inside a certain supplement.
Outside of the body, many types of probiotic bacteria are easily killed by exposure to light, heat, air, and time. You may have even heard some people say that there is no point in supplementing with probiotics because the bacteria are killed by your stomach acid. This is partially true.
A majority of probiotic bacteria will die – either on the shelf or in your stomach – IF the bacteria are not protected.
Survivability is why some probiotic products need to be refrigerated and contain huge amounts of CFU – to ensure that at least some of the bacteria survives and makes it to your gut alive.
Other types of probiotic products do not need to be refrigerated and may contain a lower CFU, typically because the bacteria have been protected, either naturally, or through a manufacturing process. Because the bacteria are protected, fewer CFU are needed to achieve similar benefits.
DR. PEEKE’S TOP TIPS FOR CHOOSING A PROBIOTIC:
1. COUNT: Optimally, probiotics should contain anywhere from 5 to 10 billion colony-forming units (CFU). Dr. Peeke notes that higher doses of CFU should be monitored by a healthcare professional.
2. STRAINS: Look for different strains, says Dr. Peeke. The bacteria in our gut has been categorized into over 10,000 different strains that work together to provide optimal health. No one bacterial strain can do it all, so choose a supplement with some variety, and try to incorporate different probiotic foods into your diet.
3. SURVIVABILITY: Probiotic bacteria is live, but it needs to be protected, as it can be killed easily by exposure to light, heat, air, and the harsh conditions of your stomach. SmartyPants Probiotic Complete gummies include bacteria strains in spore-form, which are naturally protected by microencapsulation and have proven 99% survivability. Other products use time-release or chemical coating mechanisms to protect their bacteria. Refrigerated products are usually not protected, but include very high CFU counts to ensure that at least some bacteria make it to your gut. Regardless, a quality probiotic supplement will include information – either on its label or website – about survivability.
4. PREBIOTICS: This isn’t a must, but some probiotic supplements also include prebiotic fiber to feed the beneficial bacteria, helping it grow and multiply. A double bang for your probiotic buck.
So there you have it, everything you need to boldly step into Whole Foods as Master of Good Gut Bugs. Now we’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you take probiotics? If so, are you all about the ferments, stick with supplements, or do a little of both?
If you’ve still got questions, let us know in the comments below!
Pamela M. Peeke
MD, MPH, FACP, FACSM
Dr. Peeke is an internationally renowned expert in integrative and preventive medicine. She is a Pew Foundation Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, Assistant Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland, and Fellow of the American College of Physicians and American College of Sports Medicine. Dr. Peeke is host of the popular HER radio show on RadioMD and iHeart, medical commentator for the national networks, and acclaimed TEDx presenter.
Posted on October 17, 2016