What are probiotics?
There are about 100 trillion microorganisms living in the gut that have a variety of important roles: helping you absorb nutrients from the food you eat, improving your immune system’s response to infection, and producing hormones that are essential for your emotional well-being. Many of these microorganisms are probiotics, otherwise known as the good bacteria that provide health benefits for your body.
Stemming from the Latin word pro meaning “for” and the Greek word biotic meaning “life,” probiotics provide a host of life-enhancing benefits to the body, such as promoting lymphocyte (white blood cell) production to fight infection and inflammation, improving digestive health and nutrient absorption, and preventing bad bacteria from taking over in the gut.
Whether you choose to get your probiotic in supplement form or from eating fermented foods, like yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, good bacteria are necessary for the overall balance of your gut flora to facilitate great health.
Common species of probiotics we consume
Found in yogurt and other fermented foods, this produces enzymes that help the body break down lactose (the sugar in milk), creating lactic acid that stops pathogens from colonizing in the gut, and feeds other bacteria to produce butyrate, which your cells need for energy.
Added to many dairy products and supplements, Bifidobacterium can strengthen the immune system by producing antimicrobial chemicals that deter pathogens from multiplying in the intestine. It also helps obtain nutrients from the lactose that you consume and aids in digesting dietary fibers (many of which are prebiotics).
3. Saccharomyces boulardii
This yeast found in probiotics improves the digestive system by strengthening the function of the intestinal barrier. It is known to treat diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other issues in the gastrointestinal tract.
Supplements and food products in your local grocery store will typically contain a genetic combination of these species, otherwise known as a strain of probiotic. For example, Lactobacillus acidophilus – commonly found in yogurt and soy-fermented products like miso –fights off vaginal infections and stimulates nerves that allow the gut to better carry out food digestion. Another common option is Bifidobacteria longum, a strain that colonizes in the gastrointestinal tract and works as an antioxidant to break down carbohydrates.
A daily probiotic supplement multiplies good bacteria in the microbiome, making up for bacterial imbalances that can occur when you experience emotional or physical stress or take antibiotics, which destroy both good and bad bacteria. The goal is to reach a healthy balance in the microbiome, typically consisting of 85% good bacteria and 15% bad bacteria.
Taking too many probiotics
Taking a higher dosage of probiotics is not necessarily better for your health, and the good effects can actually be cancelled out if you overload on probiotic-rich foods and supplements too quickly. Your body will need time to adjust to a higher dosage, as the new microbes are just beginning to settle in the gut. Tamara Duker Freuman, a registered dietitian in New York, explains, “Different bacteria feed on different dietary compounds in the gut, and they produce gas as a byproduct.” An overload of probiotics may cause an interaction with the fiber, starch, and sugar in the gut, leading to gas, bloating, nausea, or diarrhea.
There are other factors that may cause a probiotic to produce negative effects, such as if it's made of poor-quality cultures or stored improperly (in a humid temperature). It’s important to be intentional when it comes to choosing the right strains for your body and making sure you follow the supplement directions.
Probiotics, just like any other type of supplement, are meant to support an otherwise healthy diet and lifestyle. Adding lots of bacteria into your gut environment, even if they’re “good,” may negatively impact those who suffer from small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO occurs when there is an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine that don’t belong there, causing a host of symptoms, such as severe bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, and increased flatulence.
For some people, such as those with underlying health issues or compromised immune systems, it may be best to avoid taking a probiotic supplement altogether, since research has indicated that taking too many probiotics could increase the risk of infection.
What is the right dosage?
The dosage of probiotics is measured in colony-forming units (CFUs), which represent the number of bacteria or fungal cells in the sample that can form their own colony. An average probiotic supplement will include anywhere from 1 to 10 billion CFUs, however, the right dosage of probiotics looks different from person to person and depends on diet, age, weight, and the body’s tolerance for probiotics.
A healthy adult will generally consume about 20 billion CFUs daily through food and supplements, so it’s unlikely you will overdo it on probiotics by simply taking one daily supplement along with a balanced diet. Nevertheless, it’s best to determine the dosage that you need by consulting with your personal healthcare provider or nutritionist. They can best evaluate your current diet and medical needs and make personalized dosage and strain recommendations that will prevent bloating or other discomfort.
The gut will let you know when something isn’t right.
When it comes to the gut, emotional and external stressors can play a huge role in the health of the digestive system and gastrointestinal tract. Rather than relying primarily on supplements and added probiotics to address gut dysfunction, it may be best to start out by addressing these issues from a whole-person perspective.
For example, not getting enough consistent, quality sleep can disrupt digestion, as can feelings of high stress and anxiety. Before buying a supplement that could also be expensive, a discussion with a Health Coach could illuminate some key areas of your well-being that might be affecting your gut health, and a conversation with your healthcare provider could explore the physiological factors that might be causing you discomfort. Through this integrative approach, you can get to the root of your health concerns and address them head on with a holistic approach.
Interested in learning more about the inner workings of a healthy and flourishing gut? Check out our Gut Health Course for a deeper look into the physical, emotional, and mental components of the health of your gut.