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What are Probiotics?

Digestive health relies upon a complex community of bacteria and other live microorganisms, archaea, viruses and fungi, also known as gut flora, or the microbiome. We often refer to the healthy bacteria as probiotics.

The World Health Organization (WHO) offers this definition:
Probiotics are live microorganisms that when conferred in adequate quantities provide a health benefit.
This means that to be technically considered a probiotic, a particular strain of an organism must be tested and shown to be effective for a specific purpose.

Benefits of Healthy Bacteria

Maintaining balance in our digestive systems with healthy bacteria is important for:

  • Proper digestion
  • Metabolism
  • Controlling levels of harmful bacteria
  • Supporting the lining of the digestive tract
  • Supporting the immune system barriers present in the gut

How Do Probiotics Work

Probiotics are shown to have many important functions within the digestive tract. Several theories about the roles they play are described here. Probiotics:

  1. Feed on and ferment the fibers in our gut. This helps generate food and energy for the cells lining the lower digestive tract.
  2. Build up the mucosal lining of the digestive tract, which helps our immune system and defend against toxins coming into the body.
  3. Lower the acidity within the digestive tract, minimizing growth of harmful bacteria that might generate.
  4. Compete against harmful bacterial for space within the gut, thereby reducing their ability to take hold and cause harm.

Who Needs Probiotics?

Probiotics may be beneficial for several indications:

  • Supporting immunity and preventing infection by helping to balance good and bad bacteria
  • Managing digestive symptoms such as gas, constipation, etc.
  • Helping restore “good bacteria” when taking antibiotics

Make sure that you read labels for the clinical efficacy of a probiotic. If needed, consult with a healthcare professional.

Food and Supplements with Probiotics

Start by creating an environment to support a healthy gut flora:

  • Foods with probiotics/or probiotic supplements can help re-populate the good bacteria.
  • Prebiotic foods are those that pass through the digestive tract undigested (think: fiber), providing food for the microbes (good bacteria) in the lower digestive tract. Feeding the microbes helps increase the numbers of these good bacteria.

Including these foods is a great place to start, but you may need a boost to get you to the number of bacteria shown to be effective in clinical trials.

The quantity of bacteria in probiotic supplements are measured in Colony Forming Units (CFU), or the number of live bacteria in one serving. These counts are usually in the millions or billions.

CFUs in foods with probiotics are variable, and are generally not listed on food labels. For example, you may have to eat several cups of probiotic fortified yogurt to equal the number of live cultures found in a single probiotic supplement dose. In general, probiotic supplements offer far larger doses, and are labeled with efficacy information and live CFU counts.

Choosing the Right Probiotic for You

Naming System

Probiotics are named using the following system: genus. species, strain, but are generally written in short-form. For example, the probiotic B. lactic is short-form for the following:

  • Genus: Bifidobacterium
  • Species: animalis
  • Strain/sub-species: lactis

What is Important to Know When Choosing Your Probiotic?

Today, there are so many different probiotic options on the market that it can be hard to know which one is right for you. All probiotics may support the digestive system, though some strains have a larger body of clinical evidence to support other roles in the body and the benefits they may provide. Read the labels, looking for the following information:

  • Clinically proven: An effective probiotic strain is one that has been shown to deliver the health benefit of interest (for example to help regularity) in a well-controlled clinical study.
  • Higher vs. lower CFU count? It might seem obvious to aim for the product with the highest CFU count, but this may not lead you to the better-quality product. What is important to understand, is what has been clinically studied and proven. For example, if a clinical study was done with a probiotic containing 1 billion live cultures, its efficacy has been measured at that level (potency) and not necessarily more or less. Experts agree that taking an amount greater than what shows a benefit in clinical studies would not necessarily provide any additional benefit.
  • Additives: Additives or other ingredients might give you unwanted symptoms so look for a product without additional ingredients.
  • Multiple vs. single strain probiotics: Take caution with products that offer a whole cocktail of probiotics claiming greater effect. Take multiple probiotic strains together, only if they have been shown through clinical trials to support the outcomes you are looking for, and clearly state that on their packaging.
  • Refrigerated vs. shelf-stable supplements: Both shelf stable and refrigerated probiotics are now commonly available and can be equally as effective. Certain strains are shelf stable at room temperature and certain strains need to be refrigerated, so use as instructed.
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