Understanding probiotics for gut health
Colony-forming units (CFUs) – The ideal probiotic will have between 3-50 billion CFUs. CFUs, or colony forming units, are the standard for measuring the amount of live bacteria present. The number you specifically need depends on your age and health status. If you are older or have some sort of gut irregularity such as diabetes, liver disease, irritable bowel disease, constipation, or diarrhea, then you are going to want probiotics with a higher amount of CFUs (closer to 50 billion). If your generally healthy and between 18-40, you’re going to want a probiotic with a lower amount of CFUs (3-4 billion). Makes sense, right?
Diversity of bacterial strains – Most probiotics these days do have a variety of bacteria in their cultures. This is what you want. Ideally, a probiotic should contain around 4 different types of bacteria. You do not want too many as some may actually be harmful using this approach, known as the “kitchen sink approach”.
Potency – There should be some experimentally tested claim for potency on good probiotics. This may be either at time of manufacture or at time of expiration. It is better to find a claim at time of expiration as this way you ensure you are consuming the live bacteria. Consuming dead bacteria will not provide any health benefit to you. Many issues with probiotics today lie in the fact that they are under-researched and at time of consumption, in many probiotic products, the bacteria are already dead. Sure it’s great that there were 4 billion bacteria, but that doesn’t mean a thing if when you’re actually consuming them they are all dead and therefore cannot colonize in the gut. Another note about potency is that a good probiotic should be “shelf stable”. This is specific for supplements in the form of pills and basically means you shouldn’t have to store your probiotic pills in the fridge. If the probiotic is not stable on the shelf, there is a good chance it was not manufactured the best way. Think about it…if the pills can’t stay stable on the shelf, what makes you think they’re going to survive when you put them in your body?
Clean label – This one can be a little tricky as most people are not familiar with reading labels for cleanliness. Basically you want to find a probiotic which does not contain any potential irritants. This may be various chemicals or synthetic substances. Use your common sense with this one – if it sounds funny, it may be irritating to the bacteria. Give it a quick google search to be sure it’s okay or just skip it all together and look for another one.
Product packaging and delivery – Probiotics are living bacteria. This means they should be treated with care. The ideal package will be stable and limit the exposure of the bacteria. A dark, glass bottle is usually best for probiotic supplements. Additionally, the digestive system is a rough and tough place to try and grow. From digestive enzymes to acidic gastric juices, it’s a suicide mission for bacteria to travel. For bacteria to have their benefit, they have to live through this process and make it to the intestines to colonize. Therefore, encapsulation is essential for the pills to make it to their mark. Be sure when purchasing a probiotic they are going to be safe on the way down.
Incorporation of prebiotics – Prebiotics are partially fermented nutritional supplements for bacteria which facilitate the colonization of good bacteria in the gut. While this is not completely essential and research is still in the preliminary stages of building for them, it certainly can help with the effectiveness of probiotics. You see, probiotics are live bacteria, so giving them prebiotics (or nutrition) to facilitate their growth in your body, will help them exert their beneficial effects. A simple way to see if it has these is if you see the term “synbiotic”. Synbiotics are just a combination of pro- and pre-biotics.
Common bacterial strains and their specificity
For the average adult in generally good health, the ideal probiotic will have some mixture of Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium, however, this does not by any means mean that other bacteria are not helpful or that these should be the definite “go to”. Different bacteria have different metabolic functions are are effective at managing different conditions. Basically, it is all very specific. This makes choosing a probiotic even more difficult. Below, I’ve listed some common bacteria and their (very general) benefits to help make it a little more clear for y’all as you start your search for the right probiotic for you. Remember, as I’ve mentioned above, this does not mean you should search for this bacteria alone – you simply want to try and find a mixture which contains your specific bacteria of interest to help you.
- Bifidobacterium bifidus – coat the inner lining of your intestines, stimulate your immune system, minimize the death of beneficial bacteria during antibiotic treatment
- Bifidobacterium infantis – naturally releases lactic acid which kills harmful organisms to aid digestion and metabolism
- Bacillus Coagulans – helpful for diarrhea or infection in the bowel by bacteria such as C.diff or H.pylori
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus – preventing diarrhea during a hospital stay and preventing traveler’s diarrhea
- Lactobacillus plantarum – produces it’s own “antibiotics” to target bad bacteria; improves digestion, enhances immunity, and improves overall health
- Lactobacillus paracasei – promotes dental health and alleviates chronic fatigue
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Disclaimer: While I have spent a tremendous amount of time researching probiotics, I am not a physician and therefore cannot provide professional health recommendations. Be sure to consult with your doctor if you have any immediate concerns regarding consuming probiotics. Probiotics are meant to supplement the diet and cannot substitute for nutritional benefit from foods nor can they cure ailment or disease on their own.