“I’ve been taking a probiotic for 10 years and it doesn’t really do anything...”
I hear this (or something similar) all the time.
Most of the time I want to say:
Look it’s not your fault...
But you’ve probably been taking the wrong probiotic supplement all these years.
Let me explain why...
Let's start with the facts, probiotics are fantastic.
They do work... and we need them.
They help to fight off infection by binding to viruses, they produce anti-microbial substances, they help to produce energy for the cells in our digestive system, they protect and strengthen the lining of our digestive tract.
Probiotics are: "live microorganisms that when administered in adequate amounts confer health benefits to the host." (FAO/WHO, 2001)
They have been used in cooking for thousands of years - mostly in the fermentation of beer, yoghurt, wine, cheese, foods like sauerkraut and kimchi.
Today you can get probiotics in a supplement or food form (more on this a little later).
Research has shown probiotics to be successful in the treatment of IBS, gastro-oesophageal reflux, constipation and damage from antibiotic use (O’Mahony, 2005 & Huang et al., 2017).
But did you know that they can also help treat non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, endometriosis, anxiety, depression, and mastitis?
And that they also help in the prevention of gestational diabetes, postpartum obesity and atopic eczema (Rather et al., 2016).
You’re probably here because you're wondering how probiotics could possibly be similar to our furry friends [DOGS], right?
To explain this further I need to introduce the way probiotics are categorised and named, so bear with me.
Probiotics are scientifically labeled like this:
Genus name (large category), followed by the species name (medium category), and lastly the strain (smallest and most important category).
E.g. Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
Lactobacillus (genus) rhamnosus (species) GG (strain)
The thing to keep in mind here is, just like dogs, not all probiotics are the same.
Dogs all come from the same species... Canis familiaris... correct?
A Great Dane, a German Shorthaired Pointer, a Chihuahua, a Poodle and a Beagle.
Despite all being from the same species, these dogs vary hugely in size, strength, fur length and in many other characteristics.
This is the same with strains of probiotics.
The different strains within each species have different characteristics, sizes and traits.
This means that the benefits of probiotics are STRAIN SPECIFIC.
[If you take one thing away from this article make it this].
The reality is different probiotic strains have been studied in human trials to treat different conditions.
So when someone says they’ve been taking a probiotic for 10 years with no result.
I’m really not that surprised.
Unfortunately, it’s not common knowledge that the benefits of probiotics and their ability to treat many different health conditions are specific to the strain.
It is also unfortunate that many companies rely on you not knowing this information. It’s common for commercial companies to only label their products with the genus and species.
Leaving off the strain has lead to most probiotic consumers assuming that the species of the probiotic and the NUMBER of species in the product is what is most important (this is not true).
Some commercial companies view research on a specific strain, pick another strain from the same family (species) and include it in their final product, assuming that it will have the same benefits as the original strain because it's from the same family.
This essentially allows them to 'piggyback' off other clinical trial research, using the beneficial claims and avoiding paying for the use of the specific strain studied.
As mentioned, we know the benefits are strain-specific - so picking another strain in the same species and proclaiming it has fantastic benefits is wrong, and unfortunately, this is where a lot of consumers get tripped up (e.g. our friend taking that same probiotic for 10 years without a result).
At this point, you might be wondering what you should do now with the probiotic foods or supplement in your fridge or what you should look for in the health food store next time you go to stock up on a probiotic.
Here are 9 things to help you get the most out of probiotic supplements and foods and how best to take them:
- Talk to your Nutritionist or Naturopath, they will be able to give you information about the exact strain you need to treat your condition e.g. strains to treat IBS, constipation or endometriosis or to help prevent the condition you are worried about e.g. your baby developing atopic eczema during pregnancy.
As well as giving you access to the high-quality probiotic supplements, your Nutritionist will be able to tell you all about the food products that contain the exact probiotic strain you will benefit from.
- If you have a probiotic supplement already or you are wanting to buy one, do your research and check that the product you’re looking at has a specific STRAIN written on the label e.g. Lactobacillus plantarum 299v (the strain is always written last in a non-italicised font).
- Check the company’s website. You should be able to find information, ideally including human trial research, on the specific strain the company has used in the product you’re looking at. If this information is not readily available to you - it's probably safe to say it's not the best quality.
- Know that it is a myth that supplements are always stronger/better/contain more live bacteria than food.
Probiotic foods may have the specific strain you require and are in a more digestible form than in a supplement - so sometimes the probiotic food is actually better.
Remember it's about the strain!!
- Research shows that taking a probiotic with or directly after food is best.
- The strength of a probiotic is measured in colony forming units (CFU) per dose.
You need at least 1 billion CFU of each strain in each dose of probiotic for it to have a therapeutic effect (unless shown otherwise in a human trail) - aim for over the 1 billion of EACH strain listed on the product.
- Don't spend money on a supplement you've been taking and not seeing a benefit from - you may as well save your money from that and see a professional to get the right probiotic and see the benefits in no time :)
- If you take a course of antibiotics this wipes your gut of our good bacteria - you need to take a probiotic AT THE SAME time.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae var boulardii Biocodex
Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG
Are the exact strains that have been shown in human trials to reduce the effects of antibiotics (Hawrelak, 2014).
I.e. This should be what is written on the label of the probiotic you take!
- Including a range of probiotic foods in your diet will ensure you’re covering lots of different strains. Probiotic foods include sauerkraut, yoghurt, tempeh, kombucha, pickles, kefir and apple cider vinegar.
There you have it, probiotics are just like dogs - it's important to do your research and find out which is the best fit for you before you buy!
Send me an email today with any questions: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Or if you're interested in finding more out more about digestive health you can download my Ultimate Guide to a Happy Gut for free!
FAO/WHO (Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organisation), 2001, Expert Consultation on Evaluation of Health and Nutritional Properties of Probiotics in Food Including Powder Milk with Live Lactic Acid Bacteria, Argentina.
Hawrelack, J, 2014, 'Probiotic Advisor', https://www.probioticadvisor.com/
Huang, R & Hu, J 2017, ‘Positive Effect of Probiotics on Constipation in Children: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Six Randomized Controlled Trials’, Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology, 7, pp 153-158.
O’Mahony L, McCarthy J, Kelly P, Hurley G, Luo F, et al, 2005, ‘Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in irritable bowel syndrome: symptom responses and relationship to cytokine profiles’, Gastroenterology, pp. 541–551.
Rather, IA, Bajpai, VK, Kumar, S, Lim, J, Paek, WK, & Park, YH, 2016, ‘Probiotics and Atopic Dermatitis: An Overview’ Frontiers in Microbiology, 7, p. 507-515.