Quick Tip: For fast recommendations without reading all the "science," skip ahead to the BOTTOM LINE RECOMMENDATIONS at the end of this article. However, I'd strongly encourage you to read the article in its entirety for context.
The most popular question we receive at The Accidental Purist is whether you, your children, or your pets should be taking a daily probiotic supplement.This is such a loaded question, and one that science (as recognized by mainstream allopathic circles) is currently and actively pursuing. However, in the holistic or "alternative" health world, probiotics have been drastically reversing autoimmunity, previously labeled "incurable" conditions, softening the blow of chemotherapy, supporting the recoveries of autism, and instrumental in the fight against Lyme, and many other highly controversial diagnoses. Daily supplementation has also been linked to less respiratory, urinary, and ear infections in children, as well as less incidences of depression, anxiety, and ADHD.
However, "where is the SCIENCE in all this?" you may ask. And isn't that always the question. We disbelieved that the world was round; we disbelieved in the existence of atoms because we could not see them. There is a long pattern in humanity of questioning and inquiring until we see the PROOF, even though the answer lay in front of us 50-100 years before Pub Med and mainstream circles say "this exists."
With that said, there are have been incredible breakthrough studies regarding the efficacy of probiotics. Most profoundly, the Human Microbiome Project, funded by the NIH (yes--the NIH!), is showing that autoimmune disease, depression, autism, anxiety, bipolar, cancer, and Lyme are HIGHLY correlated with low diversity of gut bacteria in our microbiome, overgrowth of pathogenic species, and deficiencies in beneficial bacteria species. It is theorized that disease begins (in the mind, in the body) when our bacteria (good and bad) are out of alignment.
The idea that bacteria could dictate so much of who we are and how we feel is such a contradiction from our previous 20th-century fixation on antibiotics and destroying invaders and pathogens. In the 21st century, we are slowly coming to understand that bacteria--good bacteria--is the greatest offensive player you want on your team!
This is what scientists know now: your body houses hundreds of trillions of bacteria, many of which reside in your gastrointestinal tract. Of those gut bacteria, 90 percent appear to be system-supporting or “friendly” – those are the probiotics. The root of the word probiotic comes from the Greek word pro, meaning “promoting,” and biotic, meaning “life.” The discovery of probiotics came about in the early 20th century, when Elie Metchnikoff, known as the “father of probiotics,” had observed that rural dwellers in Bulgaria lived to very old ages despite extreme poverty and harsh climate. He theorized that health could be enhanced and senility delayed by manipulating the intestinal microbiome with host-friendly bacteria found in sour milk. Since then, research has continued to support his findings along with suggesting even more benefits.
Plenty of evidence shows that a diverse population of gut bacteria aids digestion and immune health. Two bacteria strains in particular, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, seem to be supportive. One recent U.K. study found Lactobacillus may combat the type of insulin resistance that contributes to obesity and the development of type 2 diabetes. If the tight junctions between the cells in the lining of your gut break down, the gap allows “inflammation-causing agents” to get into your bloodstream and cause trouble. But probiotics appear to seal those junctions and prevent this “leaky gut” situation.
Maintaining the correct balance between these bacteria is necessary for optimal health. Age, genetics, and diet may influence the composition of the bacteria in the body (microbiota). An imbalance is called dysbiosis, and this has possible links to diseases of the intestinal tract, including ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, celiac desease, and Crohn’s disease, as well as more systemic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.
Google the scientific literature on probiotics, and you’ll see hundreds of similar statements. The power of probiotics is infinite. What everyone is trying to figure out now is how to get the right types of bacteria to perform in your body. This is where current research is heading, but what is known is that taking probiotics does not harm us. Consuming beneficial or "pro-life" bacteria on a daily basis - yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and taking a probiotic supplement on a daily basis – give your body a chance to decide which bacteria it needs to be repopulated with.
Professor Mark Lyte and associates at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center have come up with a radical concept: that you may be able to fine-tune your mental and emotional states by the right combination of probiotics. “There is already evidence to suggest that the connection between gut microbes and the nervous system represents a viable route for influencing neurological function. A recent study in mice, for example, showed that the presence of neurochemicals such a serotonin in the bloodstream was due to direct uptake from the gut.” Professor Mark Lyte continues: “Neurochemicals such as GABA may be viewed as a common shared language enabling interkingdom signaling between prokaryotes (e.g., probiotic bacteria) and eukaryotes (e.g., vertebrates),” Lyte said in a BioEssays paper. For example, lactobacilli and bifidobacteria produce GABA, which is known to reduce stress and anxiety (GABA may also reduce inflammation in colitis and intestinal bowel disease), he said.
So what is the bottom line with all this? What does it mean for us as humans and parents and pet owners? Should we all just start taking probiotics?
In the past, I would say YES--everyone should be taking probiotics. But in the last six months of my own health journey, it has become increasingly clear that the STRAINS and amounts we take of probiotics are unique to each body. For example, if a person has Small Intestinal Overgrowth (which around 70% of Americans have--and don't even know it!) consuming probiotic foods that are strongly fermented or taking probiotic supplements with Pectin or Inulin can really make things much much worse. Or, in a person who has hypermobile joints, strains such as Lactobacillus GG can make a huge difference in collagen regulation, rebuilding, and metabolism. Also, everyone has their own unique genetic wiring that is built to process and manage different strains and nutrients differently. We are as unique as the fingerprints on our thumbs when it comes to our genetic and metabolic makeup, and our microbiome--and its needs--changes every minute of everyday, and with every experience, encounter, and acute illness.
In other words, the type, amount, and stains we need is a hugely complex science, and one that scientists are working hard to decode.
So where does that leave the everyday person who does not have time to acquire a Ph.D. in biochemistry? Here are a few next steps, I'd highly encourage.
- If you have the money to spare, I would strongly consider testing to see what, exactly, your microbiome is doing by taking a GI Effects Comprehensive Stool Test (yes, it will involve your poop). Not all doctors know or give these tests, but you can ask your primary doctor if he/she could open an account (no cost) and order one for you. Or, if they look at you with strange eyes, you can go to a functional or intergrative doctor, OR you can order one yourself. If a doctor orders this test, it will cost $99. If you have to order yourself, it will cost you $500. Note that these tests are not 100% accurate. But they do provide an overall picture.
- If you do not have money to spare for testing, then the safest rule of thumb with probiotics is to work with single strain supplements and two basic building blocks that orchestrate all other strains--Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. The basic rule to follow here is that "less is more." Taking less, can benefit you hugely.
- So where does one find these single-strain "mother of all probiotics"? There are so many brands on the market, but the only brand with scientific case studies and backing (and one that I use for my family and can vouch for) are made by Natren. Check out Megadophilus (dairy-free capsules or powder) and Bifido Factor (dairy-free capsules or powders)
- For babies and toddlers, I would strongly encourage a very gentle probiotic powder made by Natren as well, called Life Start.
- Natren also provides recommendations for pets!
- If you and your children do well with this daily supplementation, then you can explore other probiotic sources, such as kefir, yogurt, and homemade ferment foods (to be detailed in another post).
- If you notice any side effects or dramatic worsening of preexisting conditions while consuming these supplements, then it is STRONGLY advised to seek out the care of a functional or integrative doctor for further testing and observation. Often, strong reactions indicate an underlying immune condition that needs greater supervision, care, other probiotic recommendations, and diagnosis.
For now, it is clear that probiotics play a HUGE role in immunity, and that doing the basic supplementation can go a long way in nurturing your microbiome.