What are probiotics?
“According to the 2001 WHO/FAO definition, probiotics are ‘live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amount, confer a health benefit on the host’. They are commonly consumed as part of fermented food, e.g. yogurt, or as dietary supplements.” 1 This same source explains that the term “gut flora” has been used in the past to describe the beneficial inhabitants of our gut, such as bacteria, but more correctly they are now referred to as “gut microbiota” or the microbiome—the community of microorganisms inhabiting the length and breadth of the mammalian gastrointestinal tract. 2 Significantly, while the average adult human body is made up of more than one hundred trillion cells, only tens of trillions contain human DNA. The rest are ‘guests’, part of the “human gut bacterial ecosystem”. A cautionary tale is that observations of humans after taking a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics (such as Cipro®) for a week or so, may result in reduction, and even elimination of beneficial bacteria and especially reduce microbiome species variety for at least 15 months. In turn, many reports have linked this decimation of competing bacteria with antibiotic-resistant “C. Diff” infections, that can last for months and can cause serious damage to the intestinal tissues. 3 The takeaway is this: our body, and especially our intestinal tract, is an ecosystem of (mostly) friendly organisms and what we do and do not do can help them or hurt them.
How can we improve probiotic health?
But wait, there's more to increasing beneficial bacteria in the gut than PRObiotics. Also important are PREbiotics, POSTbiotics and SYNbiotics. Here are some great definitions for these terms from a NIH published Clinical Review:4
- • Probiotics are supplements or foods that contain viable microorganisms that alter the microflora of the host
- • Prebiotics are supplements or foods that contain a nondigestible ingredient that selectively stimulates the growth and/or activity of indigenous bacteria
- • Postbiotics are non-viable bacterial products or metabolic byproducts from probiotic microorganisms that have biologic activity in the host
- • Synbiotics are products that contains both probiotics and prebiotics
For better probiotic health: Eat more soluble fiber foods (read plants) and eat probiotic fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, etc. The presence of these types of foods will feed and benefit your existing bacterial colonies. Additionally, take a multi-species probiotic supplement from a reputable manufacturer.
Choosing a probiotic supplement
Dr Michael Murray N.D. suggests these guidelines for selecting probiotic supplements:
The quality of probiotic supplements depends on two main factors: (1) the characteristics of the strains contained in the supplement, and (2) adequate viability, so that sufficient numbers of bacteria are viable at the point of consumption. Viability at consumption depends on factors such as proper manufacturing and the “hardiness” of the strain, as well as packaging and storage of the product in the right amount of moisture and at the correct temperature (most need refrigeration.) Each species of bacteria comprises a multitude of strains. Some probiotic strains are resilient and strong, able to survive passage through the upper gastrointestinal tract and inhibit pathogenic bacteria, while others are weak and can’t survive or kill pathogenic bacteria. Better brands tell you details on the strain, usually indicated by an alphanumeric code. With probiotics, as with other supplements, be a smart consumer and read up on the top manufacturers. The dosage of probiotic supplements is based solely on the number of live organisms present in the product. Using products that list the number of live bacteria at expiration versus at time of manufacture is recommended. Successful results are most often attained by taking between 5 billion and 20 billion viable bacteria per day, measured in CFU (Colony Forming Units).5
1. Gut Microbiota for Health, see Probiotics
2. Defining the Human Microbiome,
NIH Human Microbiome Project defines normal bacterial makeup of the body,
Omics of the mammalian gut—New insights into function
3. The gut microbiome modulates colon tumorigenesis
4. Therapeutic use of prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics to prevent necrotizing enterocolitis: what is the current evidence?
5. Read Dr. Murray's article: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Probiotics