Probiotics are all over the health and wellness markets and sold in a variety of forms. To understand if they actually help the body, we must first look at how our gut functions. The digestive tract is incredibly efficient at absorbing and metabolizing food and nutrients. As good as it is, much of the energy from food is not processed and metabolized in the body. The undigested food moves through the gastro-intestinal tract and is mostly fermented and metabolized by the microscopic organisms that make up the gut microbiome.
The microbes in the microbiome digest and metabolize food that we cannot and release nutrients, metabolites (such as vitamin K), and waste products that are indigestible. Each of the thousands of species of microbes have a direct impact on our mental and physical health.
The digestive tract is lined with nerve cells and fibers that are known as the enteric nervous system, which connects the brain and the central nervous system to the gut. The vagus nerve, a major cranial nerve, connects the brain and the gut and is also impacted by our microbiome. The gut microbiome and what we feed it produce and have metabolites that communicate with the brain and the central nervous system though the vagus nerve and other routes, such as the circulatory, endocrine, and immune systems. Over 60% of your immunity begins in our gut microbiome.
Your diet has profound impact on our microbiome. The microbes rely on our diet to get their nutritional needs. There is also evidence that microbes can affect human behavior, including appetite, cravings, depression, and anxiety. When we are looking at improving our gut health we must first start with our diets to make sure our microbiome is at its healthiest.
Now that we have a brief understanding of the microbiome, we can look at probiotics and see if they are necessary or not. Before taking a probiotic supplement it is important to remember that each individual has a different body and thus has different needs. There is a lot of variation from medical history, genetic makeup, environmental factors and existing microbes that affect the need for probiotics. There is a lack of research on what the optimal microbiome is for each individual. Therefore, it is hard to say if they will work for everyone or are good for everyone.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recognized a few probiotics that are beneficial to humans. These are Lactobacillus (acidophilus, bulgaris, fermentum, lactis, casei, reuteri, rhamnosus), Streptococcus (thermophilus, cremoris, lactis), and Bifidobacterium (lactis, longum, animalis).
While these are the only regulated probiotics, there are 5,000 different species that have been identified. Some scientists expect that the number might be over a million when the counting becomes more complete.
The problem we have found is that due to these being the only regulated probiotics you are getting millions of often these few types. The true key to the healthiest gut is having maximum diversity in the gut bacteria. The overwhelming presence of only a few species found in many commercial probiotic supplements doesn’t necessarily aid in a diverse microbiome.
Probiotics can be needed if having to take antibiotics. They can help give a boost of good bacteria when the antibiotics strip the gut of good and potentially bad bacteria.
The probiotics that offer the best benefits are dependent on each person’s unique mix of genetics, diet, environmental factors, and any illness or disease. The probiotic marketing can often be “one size fits all.” Ayurveda does not advocate or believe in this. It should be “your size fits you.” The best way to find the best probiotics for you is through testing and trial and error. However, if our gut is healthy through diet and lifestyle there should be no need for probiotics. They can aid in healing and rejuvenating your gut health to bring it back to a healthy and diverse microbiome, but long term use is not recommended unless in certain medical cases.
The probiotic industry is a huge marketplace with thousands of products with steep prices. Be aware when purchasing products that companies benefit off of consumer demands for better health. The large doses of probiotics in supplements can even disrupt the normal balance of the microbiome if taken in high doses. More does not necessarily mean better and could potential impact your gut negatively and certainly hurt your wallet. There is not enough research and evidence yet on the potential risks associated with probiotic usage.
Other ways to get probiotics is through fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, and pickled vegetables. They can be a great way to boost your microbiome. However, we similarly run into similar issues of only certain probiotics being used in market-based products. For more diversity it is best to buy these from a local company at a farmers market or make these yourself.
Ayurveda teaches us that the best way to improve your gut microbiome is through diet and lifestyle. Probiotics can help bring your body back into balance, but focusing on diet and prebiotics, such as fiber, can help bring your gut to optimal health. Our gut is our second brain and can change physical and mental health issues through what we feed them. For most individuals, the best approach is to consume a well-balanced, seasonal, and diverse diet that includes fermented foods and high fiber.