Are Probiotics Really Worth Taking?

Are Probiotics Really Worth Taking?

By Stephen Brenna, Pn1, Pn2, PPSC

Are Probiotics Really Worth Taking?

At this point, most health care practitioners generally agree that gut health is a critical and foundational piece of overall wellness. As research on the gut microbiome continues to grow, connections are being made between our gut bacteria and everything from immune function and autoimmune conditions, to mood and emotional wellbeing. We aren't just talking about digestive function and bathroom regularity anymore (although that's important too). 

With the rise in research on these bugs that live within us has come a major increase in the popularity of probiotic supplements. In 2021, market research estimated the value of the global probiotics market at $61.1 billion, and it's projected to grow to $91.1 billion by 2026. Needless to say, A LOT of people are consuming probiotic fortified foods or dietary supplements.

But is that pricey yogurt or daily capsule you're taking really making a difference in your gut environment? Below we'll explore the possible limitations of probiotic supplements in particular, as well as their potential benefits.

The Microbiome is a Vast World 

In order to understand the potential impacts probiotic supplements may have on our gut health, we first need a bit of perspective. It's estimated that we have anywhere from 500-1000 unique bacterial species living in our gut microbiomes, with a total microorganism population in the trillions. In addition to bacteria, the microflora also consists of viruses (viruses are inside you all the time, scary!), fungi, and other single-celled critters called archaea.

The microbiome is an immensely complex ecosystem that we still know relatively little about. It's completely unique to the individual, and is constantly in flux. If we change our dietary patterns, the microbiome shifts. If we're under emotional or environmental stress, the microbiome shifts. You get the idea.

So when it comes to selecting probiotic supplements to fit our individual needs, we're aiming at a moving target. As a result it can be a process of trial and error to find the product that's right for you, and may require a bit of research and forethought.

How then, does one go about choosing their probiotic match? Read on for considerations to keep in mind.

Selecting Probiotic Supplements

Before we begin researching specific probiotic product options, it's important to set the proper expectations. Our microbiomes are home to trillions of organisms, but even the most potent probiotic supplement may only consist of about 200 billion CFU (colony forming units) per serving. In addition, the 8-15 bacterial strains typically found in many general probiotic products pales in comparison to the hundreds of varieties found in our guts.

Ultimately, a probiotic supplement's ability to modify our entire gut environment is limited. Does that mean there's no point in taking them? Not quite.

Clinical research findings suggest that taking probiotic supplements may be beneficial for improving the symptoms of multiple digestive disorders, including antibiotic-associated diarrhea, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn's and ulcerative colitis.

In addition, probiotic bacteria may play a direct role in shaping our immune systems, and may block the binding ability and harmful effects of pathogens in our gut.

That's far from all the possible benefits of probiotics. Various strains have been studied to investigate their potential positive effects on vaginal health, inflammation, mood, cholesterol, blood pressure, and skin health. Indeed, there seems to be probiotic products containing strains aimed at just about anything that may be ailing you.

And that's why the best place to begin when choosing a probiotic is determining if there's a specific set of symptoms or issues you're looking to address. Are you looking to improve digestive symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, or bloating? Is it cold and flu season and you would like to fortify yourself against sickness? Or is general wellness your goal? 

Many probiotic products will contain specific bacterial strains targeted at common issues, and will be labeled as such. Not all strains are helpful for all issues, so this labeling saves the consumer time spent researching what varieties may address their concerns. That said, it's always good practice to take supplement marketing claims with a grain of salt, and do some investigating on your own. 

Common Bacterial Strains to Look For

Most probiotic supplements on the market will contain different varieties of lactobacillus or bifidobacterium, two genus of bacteria. The two share some characteristics, such as the production of lactic acid. However there are some differences between the two, and different applications of specific strains of each.

This topic could get complicated quickly, so we'll keep it high level: both lactobacillus and bifidobacterium ferment carbohydrates from both plants and dairy into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). SCFAs are the main energy source for our intestinal cells, and promote a healthy gut wall.

It's important to note that the primary source of the raw material needed to create SCFAs comes from dietary soluble fiber, aka prebiotic fiber. By regularly consuming prebiotic fiber in our diets we provide probiotic bacteria with the material needed to produce more SCFAs, which fosters a healthier gut environment overall.

In terms of the differences between lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, lactobacillus is a more diverse genus with more bacterial varieties, so you're likely to run into more lactobacillus strains in probiotic products than bifido. In addition, lactobacillus strains tend to be more sensitive to the freeze-drying process utilized to produce shelf-stable probiotics (no refrigeration necessary). Try to select products that contain live strains of lactobacillus, which are best kept refrigerated.

Bifidobacterium appear to have more immune-boosting properties than their lacto counterparts, so if seasonal immune function is a priority for you, look for products containing more bifido strains.

Confused yet? The microscopic world of gut bacteria is complex, and as a result choosing supplements in this category is a bit more labor intensive than others. That said, if you’re simply looking to give your gut a general boost, look for products containing combinations of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium strains, at a dosage of at least 1 billion CFU. 

A final note: Beware of the “more must be better” fallacy when it comes to CFU dosage, especially if you’re new to probiotics. You may end up in need of spare underwear.