The Truth About Probiotics

Microbiome research continues to blossom to the great delight of the curious, constipated, and the bloated.  Anyone suffering from gut dysbiosis and microbiota imbalances revels in the new knowledge that points us all closer to a realm of relief.

Since the initial dive into the human microbiota back in the 17th century, researchers and bowel-enthusiasts alike continue unmasking links between the biome of our guts and how both the diversity and certain key strains modulate seemingly every process within us. From the digestion and assimilation of our food, our libido (or lack-thereof), our sense of joy, misery, creativity, rigidity, to the production of necessary vitamins, our ability to sleep deeply, think clearly, fight off infections or welcome others, process toxins, and even maintain proper mucosal growth and gut-barrier function.  Backed by studies, specific overgrowths now correlate with specific disease patterns, such as heart disease, colon cancer, schizophrenia, and obesity, to name a few.   

As we seek explanations regarding the microscopic wonderlands within us, we realize that we are just beginning to graze the tip of the microbial iceberg.  We now know that the gut is home to the largest part of our immune system (housing about 40% of our immune cells) and 95% of the serotonin within us.  We have a specialized gut-based nervous system that can regulate gut function seemingly independent from our brain, controlling peristalsis and the movement of fluids.  The surface area alone deserves admiration, covering about 450 square feet if laid flat.

The more we understand, the more we appreciate the intricate impact our microbiome has on just about every facet of life, thought, and function.  It is time to join the juicy conversation on probiotics as it relates to gut health and our microbiome.  Let us dabble in the research regarding the roughly 100 trillion micro-organisms and over 1000 species (about three-pounds worth!) that inhabit our GI tracts.

Even people without any GI distress  find themselves chatting about the critical importance of probiotics for overall metabolic and neurobehavioral health.  I see humans of all ages and shapes guzzling kombucha and fruity kefir while loading up their plates with kimchi, sunchokes, and cooled potatoes with the attempt to get their daily dose of pro and prebiotics (the preferred food of the buggers).

According to Dr. Emeran Mayer, “the health of the microbiome is determined by the diversity and abundance of its species.  The greater the diversity, the more resilient it is and the more resilient to disease.” The gut microbes not only communicate with each other, but directly to our immune cells, mucus and hormone-producing cells, and nerve cells regulating gut-function.

Accompanying these gut-based discussions is a resurgence of how-to’s of traditional foods like sourdough, sauerkraut, raw cheeses, buttermilk, and even fermented eggs and liver.  Holistic and western doctors alike emphasize encouraging diversity and the growth of specific beneficial strains while pruning back others, emphasizing diverse sources of fibers and polyphenols from organic plants; everyone in the wellness sphere seems to casually toss around buzzwords like “leaky gut”, “short chain fatty acids,” “microbiome,” “prebiotic fiber”, “good bacteria,” and “dysbiosis.”

The grocery stores have jumped into the bacterial gathering,  inundating us with options of trendy, locally crafted fermented treats promising to improve our “GI health” and improve our moods.  

We keep hearing how important probiotics are for gut health and how a lack of bacterial diversity gives way to pathogenic overgrowths like H. pylori, E. coli,  C. difficile and salmonella. Cutting edge research might even point us towards specific strains for treating certain conditions, inspiring hope for targeted bacterial therapies. 

Exciting times, my friends!

Yet, muddy claims circulate in the sphere of microbiome research when it comes to what probiotics are ideal, necessary, and how/if we can effectively add them to our own GI tracts.  

We collectively wonder: 

  • Why do certain strains correlate with say, anxiety and constipation, while others line up with obesity and aggression?
  • How do certain strains impact our immune system, for better or for worse?
  • Why do studies on germ-free mice that lack probiotics in their guts entirely show significant reduction in anxiety-like behavior, and even enhanced playfulness? 
  • Why do pathogenic strains, like C. diff, cause death in some, while others remain blissfully symptom free? 
  • Can certain probiotic brands have more potent bacterial blends than others?  How do we choose from all the options?
  •  Is refrigeration necessary?  What about special enteric-coated capsules that promise to survive our stomach acid?
  • How do we know how much probiotic power we are really getting from the capsules?  
  • Would it be more effective and cheaper to make our own pickled beets at home than purchasing a probiotic encapsulated blend?
  • How did our ancestors get probiotics from the foods they ate?  
  • Do we even need probiotics to be well?

To add to the pile of questions, many probiotic brands claim potency and effectiveness levels that are not backed by clinical trials. What we think we are buying might not be as much bang for our buck as we so trustingly hoped! 

Some studies suggest that survivability past the hydrochloric acid of our stomach is low.  Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains can withstand passage through the gastrointestinal tract better than other species, but even then, they significantly decline in population within a week after we stop ingesting them.   

The bacteria in yogurt, kefir, and other fermented dairy products are transient creatures, barely making it past the small intestines; they sometimes do not even reach the colon (also known as the large intestine)  to colonize and produce the anti-inflammatory short chain fatty acids as they feed on certain fibers. Unfortunately, so many of the products offered in the refrigerator section aren’t even able to re-populate the gut in the way their clever marketing has fooled us to believe.  

Furthermore, some strains show that in order “to obtain a continuous exogenous probiotic effect, the probiotic culture must be ingested continually.” Following that logic, it seems we might be indefinitely tethered to our supermarket-procured probiotic capsules.

What do our guts really want?

Research results urge us in the direction of increasing diversity to crowd out the pathogenic, inflammation-driving strains.  It also supports the importance of using certain fibers and safe “disinfectants” to sweep through the colon, pruning back the quantity of bacteria in the small intestines to limit production of gas, endotoxin, and irritation.  

As most people with SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth) are well aware, bloating and belly aches can even result from overgrowth of good bacteria in the small intestines.  This discomfort is commonly caused by the same lactobacillus bacteria abundant in yogurt.  

Some claim that our food supply used to overflow with soil-based, spore-forming bacteria.  Nowadays, these critters are much more rare, as their populations dwindled against the rampage of industrial pesticides and chemicals.

How are spore-based strains different?

  • Spore-based probiotics function to recondition the gut by actually increasing microbial diversity.  As the critters colonize overtime, they gently crowd out problematic strains, making conditions more favorable to the growth of even more beneficial, commensal strains of bacteria.
  • They survive in dormancy, until they are in dark, warm environments, like our guts.  This inherent survivability results from their bi-phasic life cycle.
  • Bacillus spores can transition interchangeably from their dormant form to their active form, depending on the environment. 
  • In its dormant spore form, bacillus strains surround themselves with an endospore, which is a tough, natural outer shell that protects it from light, heat, pressure, acid, lack of oxygen, and other environmental factors. This key feature allows them to easily survive through digestion–unlike most probiotics found in fermented foods–without the need for enteric-coated capsules or refrigeration.

What do the spore-based strains do for our health?

The research continues unfolding and unravelling the mystery, but currently we have studies showing myriad, profound implications of these spore-based creatures: 

Bacillus Licheniformis

  • Produces proteases needed for protein digestion
  • Produces full spectrum of B vitamins
Bacillus Indicus HU36
  • Produces RDA levels of antioxidants in the digestive system, like lycopene, astaxanthin, beta-carotene, and lutein
  • Produces quinols and vitamins
Bacillus Subtilis HU58
Bacillus Clausii
  • Maintains efficacy during antibiotic treatment
  • Reduces side effects, like nausea, diarrhea, and pain, associated with anti-biotic treatment of  H. Pylori 
  • Can reduce SIBO
Bacillus Coagulans

Other studies indicate how spore-based probiotics can lower endotoxin by as much as 42% and therefore reduce leaky gut syndrome, which I write about extensively in why I appreciate carrots so much and how to use fiber as a therapeutic, functional tool.  This same study demonstrates a significant reduction in serum triglyceride levels after supplementing with spore-based probiotics.  Inspiring news indeed, given how when triglycerides circulate in the body, “they can contribute to plaque formation in arteries, fatty build-up around the liver, and systemic inflammation.”

How do spore-based probiotics impact the gut?

The three fundamental pillars of gut health include: the microbial population and its percentage of beneficial bugs, the junctions comprising the gut lining, and the immune function.  The spores reach the intestines and come out of dormancy, stealthily increasing microbial diversity by changing the pH, crowding out unwanted pathogens, and increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids, which then provide fuel for mucosal cells.

If these bugs are so special, why haven’t humans always been eating them?

We have! As mentioned earlier, soil-based probiotics used to flourish with abundance in our food supply.  Raw, organic, fruits, roots, and vegetables, covered in a little bit of dirt, used to be engulfed in a wonderful web of these spore-based scoundrels.  Given how impactful they are for the functioning and thriving of our human meat-suits, I think we could all benefit from adding these into our functional food routine.  Instead of purchasing strains that are typically found in the refrigerator section of your health food stores, simply enjoy your fermented foods and opt for the capsules that contain the spore-based strains that are hardy enough to withstand the elements, survive your stomach acid, and actually take root in your gut.

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