Improve your gut feeling with the right mix of healthy bacteria.
With celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Madonna, and Reese Witherspoon touting the benefits of probiotics, the idea of ingesting bacteria has become much more commonplace. Although many celebs are enthusiastic, is quaffing these microorganisms a healthy choice for you?
It seems so. The World Health Organization defines probiotics as "live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health beneﬁt on the host."
Los Angeles-based celebrity nutritionist Lisa DeFazio, MS, RD, helps her clients get their appropriate doses of probiotics through the foods they eat, as is done in traditional cultures. “Some of the best probiotic containing foods are yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, miso soup, kombucha, pickles, tempeh, and kimchi.” Meanwhile, the medical community is still catching up on proving probiotic’s efficacy in clinical trials and standardizing use. That said, an overview of 16 studies (including 3400+ patients) examining probiotic use for gastrointestinal side effects from antibiotics has shown significant help for patients. Preliminary results for boosting immunity, reducing cold and allergy symptoms, and alleviating digestive ailments are also promising.
As far as strains go, all probiotics support gut health. But preliminary studies show that some of the most common have these additional features:
Lactobacillus rhamnosus: Helps prevent urinary tract infections by limiting bacteria adhering to the urinary tract.
L. Acidophilus: Inhibits E. Coli growth, and increases immunity.
Bifidobacterium bifidum: May help with eczema, candida, and reduce flu-like symptoms in children.
Streptococcus bulgaricus: Excretes natural antibiotics and blocks adhesion sites within the mucosal lining of the intestines.
L. Casei: Good for constipation and reduces gut inflammation.
L. Plantarum: May prevent soy-related allergies, and reduce bloating in Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
L. Helveticus: A 2004 University of Helsinki study showed that when added to fermented milk, it increased calcium absorption in post-menopausal women.
“I believe that probiotics will soon be personalized based on an examination of the patient's gut flora,” predicts Ventura, California-based acupuncturist Stace Nelson-Hicks, LAC, whose clients range from the hallowed, spa-laden hills of Ojai to downtown Los Angeles. “Someday we will be able to understand which strains a patient will need for their biome to be in the best of health.”
While all of us could be consuming fermented foods to improve gut health, the reality is most modern American diets do not meet the gut’s needs for building good flora, according to Nelson-Hicks. We lack sufficient intake of soluble fiber from plants, which contain the friendly sounding inulin and oligofructose—prebiotics that feed probiotic bacteria in the gut. Raw onions, garlic, dandelion greens, chicory root, and Jerusalem artichokes are all are full of prebiotics, but if they’re not staples in your diet, supplements can help.
As far as what supplemental probiotic could be right for you, one probiotic does not fit all needs. Just like the rest of your healthcare, a little research can help to determine your body’s requirements. Nelson-Hicks recommends looking for supplements that contain different strains of bacteria and high CFUs (colony-forming units: the amount of live bacteria) count, in the 20-30 billion range. But it’s most important to find a brand that guarantees a stable shelf life and live cultures.
Probiotic supplements come in liquid, powder, or pill form because of people's preferences (children and the elderly—or pill averse—may be better with liquid, chewable or powder formulas. Freeze-dried probiotics are shelf stable (until the expiration date) and don’t need cold storage, but if you purchase your probiotic in the refrigerated section of the store—many liquid formulas are stored in the fridge—you must keep that probiotic cold for the cultures to stay active. Some folks will say that liquids are easier for the body to absorb, but there is no science to support this claim, For those who can stomach pills, new capsules cover the probiotics in a protective sheath that doesn't degrade until it passes through the alimentary canal, thus delivering the probiotics exactly where they need to be—the gut. These new pills tend to have lower CFUs because they don't lose as many bacteria on the trip down, but older probiotic formulas make up for this by upping the CFUs in each dosage to ensure enough end up in the gut.