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Getting the facts on probiotic supplements and knowing what to choose can be difficult. Advertising can be misleading and frequently imply that a particular symptom 

could be treated with a specific probiotic strain. Despite the considerable impact (gut) microbes have on our health, from mood to immunity and the expression of our own genes, this could not be further from the truth.

One of the misconceptions about probiotic supplements is that the bacteria they contain will implant and eventually replace our own resident colonies.images bacteria So far the research has shown that strains not intrinsic to our own body will usually pass through within a few days to a few weeks. If you look at a probiotic supplement the strain is what comes after the family and the type i.e.Lactobacillus (family) acidophilus (type) NCFM (strain). This is because our bacterial colonies are formed in our childhood years, in particular the first 2 years of life. We inherit a hefty dose from our mother while going down the birth canal and from her milk and skin. As we grow so do our bacteria diversity and we pick up a few more strains from our early environment and food. Once our gut microbes have established themselves, fought for their territories and organised their colonies, resident strains will tend to remain. What changes is the delicate equilibrium of this complex “bug-scape”. Diet, medication, stress, alcohol, sugar can tip the balance towards certain types of microbes at the expense of others leading to various levels of dysbiosis (when our gut bacteria are causing symptoms and eventually disease). If we are birthed naturally and breast fed our gut flora tends to be healthier and our immune system stronger. Incidentally, rubbing a Caesarean section baby soon after birth with a sponge that has been inserted in the mother’s vagina and left there for two hours during labour has been proven to improve the baby’s immunity and digestive health.

Our resident colonies can be weakened significantly by chemo-therapy and other immuno-suppressants. Antibiotics have even been shown to modify gut flora for up to a year after taking them (depending on type). The appendix and gut associated lymphatic tissues provide our stock bacteria with useful hiding nooks in case of diarrhoea. Appendectomy (removal of appendix) can also reduce our resident flora’s ability to bounce back to health after illness or/and medication.

This doesn’t mean that probiotic supplements are useless but probably not for the reasons you’d expect. Fermented foods together with pre and pro-biotic supplements can make positive changes to our gut flora either by changing the gut environment or/and by feeding our resident friendly microbes. A probiotic supplemental strain may not implant long term (unless it is already one of our resident strains) but regardless, acidophilus bacteria create additional lactic acid and favourably strengthen those types of lactic acid resistant bacteria already dwelling inside us. Similarly a bifido-bacteria supplement will deliver bacteria that produce an abundance of short chain fatty acids and favourably support our gut tissues and existing bifido-bacteria colonies. There is also conclusive evidence showing that a diet rich in fibre and pre-biotic (the fermentable sugars that friendly bacteria favour) increases the bio-diversity of our gut. Fibres can be found in vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses and whole grains. Specific pre-biotic can be taken as food supplement. The pre-biotic FOS (fructo-oligosaccharide) is widely available as a supplement or as part of a probiotic combination. Onions, leeks, garlic, artichoke and asparagus are foods rich in pre-biotic sugar and can be helpful to our existing friendly flora.

If you are going to supplement with probiotic here are a few things to look for:

  • Is the strain specified? This tends to indicate that the strain has been well researched and therefore selected to survive both the packaging process and the gut.
  • Is the amount of individual bacteria specified? More is not always better. Numbers should be between 5 and 30 billion CFU (colony forming unit)
  • Is there a specific instruction for storage and a sale by date? This will ensure some quality control
  • How many strains does it contain? 5 to 7 strains is a good average; too many and you will not get enough of any one strain, too little and you may not get the particular strain that will do well in your gut and on your diet

Once you have established that a probiotic supplement is a quality one you can look at individual types and strains. Some have proven track record and you may favour them for specific symptoms bearing in mind that how they will do in your gut is entirely individual. Be prepared to try different brands and different combinations to find one that presents benefits to you. How long you take a probiotic supplement will vary with the strength of your own flora and the level of dysbiosis.

If you are taking antibiotic

take saccharomyces boulardii three times daily for the duration of your course. It is a probiotic yeast and will not be killed by the antibiotic but will protect your flora. Follow with a daily probiotic supplement containing Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG  for 3 to 6 weeks.

If you have eczema

Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 and Lactobacillus fermentum VRI-003 PCC have been shown to help treat itchy, scaly skin rashes — especially in children.

If you have a cold 

Bifidobacterium animalis lactis Bi-07 and Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM may stimuate antibody production and help reduce the duration and severity of the common cold and flu.

If you have bladder or vaginal infection

Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 have been shown to help prevent and clear up bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections in some individuals. Researchers point to Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 and Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 as the most effective stains to protect against yeast infections as they’re especially adept at colonising the vaginal environment and fighting off other undesirable microbes and yeast.

If you have bad breath, gingivitis or periodontitis 

Lactobacillus reuteri LR-1 or LR-2 promote oral health by binding to teeth and gums. Research has also demonstrated the ability of Weissella cibaria to freshen breath by inhibiting the production of sulfur compounds in the mouth.

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