What Are Probiotics… and Does Your Gut Need More of Them?


Enjoyed what you learned in my last article about the microbiome? Here’s a follow-up article explaining how you can promote the health of your friendly gut bacteria with probiotics!

Next time you walk into a health food store or pharmacy, notice the vast array of probiotic products exploding from the shelves. Today, these health-supportive bacterial concoctions are getting a lot of attention. But what’s all the hype about? Interestingly enough, probiotics are not a novel phenomenon. They have actually been used as digestive aids for thousands of years! For instance, Roman Pliny the Elder utilized fermented milk to help treat and heal a gastrointestinal infection. Even though these products have historical roots, they are still quite a mystery to many who see them lined up on grocery shelves. So, we’d like to demystify and answer the question, “What are probiotics?!

The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization both define probiotics as “live microorganisms that confer a health benefit on the host when administered in adequate amounts.” Practically speaking, they are “friendly” bacteria that we can ingest via a range of fermented foods. The following familiar foods are good sources of probiotics:

  • Kimchi (fermented Korean vegetables)
  • Miso- soup, paste etc.
  • Kefir (fermented milk drink)
  • Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage)
  • Kombucha (fermented tea)
  • Yogurt (especially thicker varieties, like Greek or Icelandic)
  • Fortified foods or supplements

Probiotics can be good for us for a variety of reasons, including improved digestion and absorption, but the benefits go even further.

By consuming “friendly” probiotics, we thereby maximize and improve the bacterial status of our own microbiome, so it’s no surprise that people are interested in consuming probiotic supplements. But choosing the probiotic that’s best for you is not necessarily an easy decision. It’s important to remember that this is an emerging science, and we still have so much to learn.

To begin with, all varieties of probiotics are not created equal. These live products are identified by their genus, species, and an alphanumeric designation, like lactobacillus rhamnosus GG. You may be familiar with the product Culturelle, the brand name for lactobacillus rhamnosus GG. This particular probiotic has been proven to mediate the symptoms of diarrhea associated with antibiotics. Probiotic research is strain specific, which just means that purchasing any run of the mill lactobacillus product without the rhamnosus GG is not the same.

Other than taking note of the strain, you should ensure that a product is safe, alive through expiration date and resistant to stomach acid. There is no general recommended dose because they will vary by strain and product.

For these complex reasons, making the choice to purchase a probiotic is certainly not easy. But on the bright side, you don’t have to spend copious amounts of time scouring the research to determine what, if any, probiotic is right for you. Instead, make an appointment with a gastroenterologist or GI nutritionist to discuss your particular issues and condition(s).

Many of my recommendations are based on real-time clinical experience, and I have seen specific probiotics considerably help my patients, especially those with irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis and a history of antibiotic use.


Want more? You might also like:

Before You Buy Probiotics, Learn About the Friendly Gut Bacteria You Already Have

Tummy Troubles? 3 Surprising Steps to Great Gut Health

Want to Feel Good? Do These 4 Simple Practices Daily

Pickled Versus Fermented Foods: Which Is Better for Your Gut?

I Was the Mum to Whom Strangers Stopped and Said “What’s Wrong with Your Baby?”

Note: PLEASE consult with  your doctor before making any changes to your diet or medications. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only, and is not to be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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