It’s weird when you think about it… taking a probiotic means that we’re consuming billions of tiny live organisms that are going to make our body work better.
It’s even weirder to discover that there are more of these microscopic organisms inside us than there are cells of our own body.
This collection of microorganisms is known as our microbiome and it contains a rich mixture of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea (a kind of single-celled organism). It is also known as our gut flora.
We’ve been trained to think that these types of microorganisms are dangerous to us because they cause anything from common colds to anthrax. But in fact many are on our side. They’re our buddies!
These little critters inside our microbiome help our bodies to perform tons of important functions such as digesting food, manufacturing vital nutrients, fighting off invaders and balancing our metabolism.
That’s why our microbiome is sometimes described as the ‘forgotten organ’ of our body. Take a look at Five Surprising Things Our Microbiome Does For You
Obviously our microbiome isn’t really ‘magic’ but it helps us in so many ways that it almost feels like magic.
Our microbiome is SO IMPORTANT that when it gets damaged, we get sick. Food that we used to enjoy suddenly gives us diarrhea or constipation, we get fat and can’t lose weight, we catch every cold and flu going around.
Our immune system can turn on us, attacking our own organs, in what are known as autoimmune conditions (which can show up in just about any part of our body). Even our brain suffers and we get anxiety, depression, dementia and autism.
It’s not just us humans that have a squillion microbes inside us, it’s every multicellular creature, from ants to elephants. This is how Mother Nature gets sh*t done! We’ve evolved together with these microorganisms in a symbiotic relationship. They depend upon us and we depend upon them.
What’s more, there are many, many species and strains of microorganisms in each of us. We don’t yet know how many but we know that a richly diverse collection makes for a healthier human.
Each of us has a unique combination of different microorganisms and in that sense it’s like our fingerprint, except that it’s not fixed but always in flux. Factors like the food we eat and the chemicals or stress we’re exposed to have a direct effect on the amount and types of different microbes.
Some of these microbes are more helpful to us than others. Some are just opportunistic chancers that will move into a space created by a helpful species dying back.
This is when the bad guys get the upper hand, and the result is that we get sick, sometimes immediately, sometimes gradually. Take a look at Why Your Gut Is Broken
When symbiosis goes wrong, it’s known as ‘dysbiosis‘. It means that once there was a helpful, co-operative relationship between organisms but now it’s broken down.
It’s generally a mix of elements that come together in a perfect storm to tear down the balance of our microbiome but one of the single biggest factors is the use of antibiotics.
At the other end of the scale are probiotics, which help us to reintroduce or top up the useful microbes. They’re like the cavalry riding in to save the day!
Benefits of Probiotics
The result of taking probiotics is a huge list of potential health benefits from a smooth, happy digestive system to better weight control, clearer skin, a properly functioning immune system and a happier mental state.
Despite all these benefits the mainstream medical community has been slow to embrace the value of probiotics. The principal reason for this is the focus since the time of Pasteur on the ‘germ theory of disease’ and the damage perceived as done by microbes. But we’re now learning that many are not harmful and are in fact vital to our health.
Another reason is that scientific studies of the human microbiome and probiotics are still in their infancy. The role of different species and strains is still barely understood, let alone how they work in different combinations in each of us.
At this level it’s still difficult to set up studies across the population that give reliable results, especially as each probiotic effects each person slightly differently.
One point to be clear about is that probiotics are not a magic bullet to cure all gut and health problems. When our gut is in a bad state, we often need a combination of diet and lifestyle changes, supported by personalised supplementation and lab testing. Check out Dude Where’s My Magic Bullet?
But there is no question that probiotics play a vital role in gut healing, and therefore in our overall health.
How To Choose A Probiotic
When buying a probiotic look for:
- multi-strain not single strain (a ‘strain’ just means a species of bacteria). I recommend a minimum of 8 to 10 strains or more. Some brands contain 30 or more strains. One thing that’s clear from scientific studies is that diversity of strains in our microbiome goes hand in hand with good health and vice versa. Lack of diversity of different species goes together with all the health problems mentioned above.
- a high CFU (Colony Forming Unit) content. Anything from around 8 billion CFU’s upwards is a good therapeutic dose.
If you’ve never taken probiotics before, you may experience some digestive upset initially, especially if your gut is currently struggling. Therefore start with a low-dose and work upwards very gradually.
Avoid any product that has extra additives such as sugar or sweeteners. These additives do nothing but detract from the potency and effectiveness of the probiotic.
Many probiotics require require refrigeration but not all. Some very good ones do not.
Here is probiotic ranking that I find useful:
And if you’re ready to take more action to fix your gut, you’ll find lots of useful posts on this site including:
In the future I’m sure we’ll see much more sophisticated probiotics becoming available, designed specifically to work in tune with our unique microbiome as it is on any given day, and targeted with laser precision at our particular ailment. I look forward to that day but in the meantime probiotics are still supremely useful!