Should You Be Taking a Probiotic Supplement?

Who hasn’t heard or seen some article or advertisement about keeping your gut healthy or taking a probiotic supplement to support the gut microbiome? For the last several years, it has been at the forefront of nutrition and health studies relating to chronic disease, obesity, colon cancer, and even mental health and depression.

The sale of probiotic supplements and products that claim to contain them has quickly become a multibillion-dollar industry. Probiotics have become one of the newest trends in wellness stressing the importance of maintaining a healthy gut is one of the most important aspects of good health.

First, let’s define what the microbiome is and why it’s essential. The human microbiota consists of the 10-100 trillion collaborative microbial cells within each person, primarily bacteria in the gut; the human microbiome consists of the genes these cells harbor. It is incredibly dense and houses trillions of various bacteria. For this article, we will be referring to the microbiome of the intestines located in your gut. Many factors can affect the microbiome and what it consists of, including stress, diet, where you live, and genetics. All of these cells play a role in various bodily functions such as digestion, immunity, and brain and mental health. Abnormalities or imbalances to the microbiome may result in disease and may be linked to conditions such as obesity and irritable bowel disease.

Research is continuing to be performed to analyze the microbiota in infancy. It appears that the mode of delivery affects the microbiota with a vagninally delivered infant, resembling the microbiota of the mother’s vagina and a child delivered via C-section resembles the microbiota of human skin. As an infant grows and life continues, the gut bacteria continue to develop depending on diet, stress, and genetics with it resembling an adult microbiota within the first year. We already know the importance of feeding an infant a high-quality diet starting with breast milk or formula, but once solid foods are started, studies have confirmed the importance in developing the gut microbes which may have future implications in terms of health as one ages.

We also know that the microbiota is continually changing. All is not lost if you were fed a substandard diet as a small child. Eating well into your teen years and beyond also is a significant factor in future health. Probiotics are essential; I have no doubt. However, sensational claims are outpacing research and evidence. Marketers have seized the opportunity and have put probiotics in many foods you see at the grocery store. The average consumer, interested in promoting their health, believe they’re buying something good for them and their families. However, not all claims are accurate, and there’s still so much we don’t know and are trying to validate through studies.

In one study in the publication Cell, the evidence is lacking as to the effectiveness of taking a probiotic for nonspecific health improvements like the quality of life or disease prevention. What researchers found was that probiotic supplementation and the subsequent benefit was individualized. Some had a more positive effect on the gut than others, which means that it required a personalized approach.

Probiotic usage may help someone with irritable bowel syndrome, for example, but it is strain specific. Blindly purchasing isn’t going to help the majority of people. It doesn’t mean they’re all useless, but it does indicate that the appropriate probiotic must be chosen to exhibit benefit. One probiotic item is not the right fit for a mass number of people and probably has little to no benefit.

Unless you have been instructed by your doctor to take a specific probiotic strain to improve symptoms of a particular illness, my recommendation would be to forgo the general probiotic supplement and eat foods that have probiotics and prebiotics as a natural component.

Probiotic foods are what fuels your gut with good bacteria. The two main types of microbes in probiotics are lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. The most common are in dairy products that have some sort of fermented live bacteria and include yogurt, cottage cheese, kefir, and some soft cheeses. Tofu, tempeh, sauerkraut are also on the list. Although a product may say it contains “live bacteria,” it may not be the correct strain and in adequate amounts to exhibit a health benefit.

Additionally, prebiotics are an equally essential component to a healthy gut and are naturally occurring, non-digestible and in several plant foods. Foods that have high amounts of prebiotic fiber include garlic, onions, asparagus, artichokes, and chicory. Bananas, whole wheat, and sweet potatoes have them in smaller quantities. We don’t have a defined number of prebiotics one should include in the diet, so it’s best just to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables with an emphasis on the ones that have the highest amounts of prebiotics. All fiber is not the same, but all fiber is an essential component for gut health. Prebiotic fiber is selectively fermented by the good bacteria and not the harmful bacteria in the gut. That’s why it’s necessary to include both prebiotic and other types of fiber.

Statistics indicate that the majority of people don’t eat enough fiber and subsequently don’t get an adequate amount of prebiotic fiber in their diets. On average, Americans only include roughly 15 grams of fiber per day, with the recommended amount for adults being 25 to 38 grams per day. This is why I commonly advise people that if they wish to improve their diet, the first and most crucial component is to increase their intake of fruits and vegetables. Fresh, frozen, or canned varieties are all healthful, positive choices to improve health.

According to this study, prebiotics can aid in calcium absorption, possibly reduce duration and incidence of diarrhea, alleviate symptoms associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, improve weight maintenance, and decrease appetite by increasing satiety. We look forward to upcoming research into the world of the microbiome and how pro and prebiotics can play a part in maintaining gut health.

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