The easy answer….it depends. Probiotics have become really popular in the last few years and are used to help with a number of conditions including antibiotic associated diarrhea, IBS, and even allergies. However, not all probiotics are created equal.
It’s important to realize that we know relatively little about the use of probiotics supplements as they are being used today. There are certainly studies which are promising and can guide use. I predict as research continues to evolve we will use probiotics much like we use antibiotics, with a guided approach based on desired outcome (no more, “just pick up a probiotic, any of them will do”).
The human microbiome (gut bacteria) is made up of hundreds of different species (~500+ species), most probiotics contain 1-10 species of bacteria which is a drop in the bucket. Those with the greatest diversity in their gut bacteria are the healthiest.
Tip: When buying a probiotic supplement make sure you are taking an adequate dose. Probiotics should be dosed in BILLIONS of colony forming units (CFU), not millions. A typical dose for an adult is 3-30 billion CFU depending on the strain of bacteria and indication.
Taking probiotics has a transient effect. They work while you are taking them and for about 3 days after, but without dietary changes your microbiome will return to its previous state once your stop.
What has the biggest impact? As I mentioned dietary changes have the most impact on your microbiome.
My 3 Favorite Probiotic Foods
- Yogurt…and I’m not talking about the sugar filled type…organic, pasture raised (ex. Organic Valley) or non-dairy (my favorite is Cocoyo), unsweetened or lightly sweetened, with live and active cultures.
- Fermented Veggies (ex. sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, etc.) the important thing to look for is that it is not pasteurized (not found on the store shelf). You will find these fermented veggies in the refrigerator section or it’s super easy to make your own! Recipes coming soon!
- Kefir, there’s milk kefir (similar taste but thinner than yogurt) or water kefir (fizzy, like a less sweet soda). Kefir often contains more bacteria than yogurt and is very easy to make at home as long as you can keep up with it (Cultures for Health). I have made both water and milk kefir (from cow’s milk and homemade coconut milk, cow’s milk worked better) and like them equally although I appreciate that milk kefir does not require the addition of any sugar.
There are many other foods that contain good bacteria such as miso, tempeh, buttermilk, certain cheeses, and sourdough bread. Diversity in your diet is key!
Another great way to get exposed to good bacteria- get your hands dirty GARDENING!!! Healthy soil is full of tons of great bacteria! Eating garden fresh raw produce (no need to peel your carrots, beets, etc.) with just a rinse helps make lasting beneficial changes to your microbiome and nourishes your body with so many good phytonutrients, prebiotics, fiber, and of course the Vitamin D, exercise, and fresh air you get from being outside! This is a great book on the subject “The Dirt Cure” if you would like to learn more. I also love this article “Breathing soil bacteria makes you smarter.”
So, if you’re looking for a probiotic supplement to treat a specific indication I think there are times that this is justified (ex. during and after use of antibiotics, antibiotic associated diarrhea, etc.) and recommend working with your medical provider or pharmacist to help determine which one is best for you. However, if you are looking to take a probiotic for general health I recommend eating probiotic rich foods with each meal instead of taking a supplement for the greatest most long lasting impact!