Probiotics. The magical gatekeepers of our gut health. The antidote to all your ails. The magic bullet health solution.
Not quite. But today, probiotics have become an incredibly buzzy health trend. Everyone is cashing in on the probiotic train but despite what you’ve been told, probiotics alone won’t heal your gut and they won’t save you from a poor diet and bad lifestyle habits. Those will always be the foundations of your health.
That said, there can be a place for probiotics in your regular health maintenance or healing routine, but the ones you get from your local grocery store likely have more cons than pros.
For starters, they are dead before they even hit your mouth. And probiotics most definitely must be “live active cultures” in order to work. They may be low quality and sourced poorly. They may have additives and fillers and they may actually be feeding certain bad/opportunistic bacteria!
So first and foremost, it’s important that you are purchasing quality products and strains from reputable companies that hold themselves to high standards. And that you can confirm the strains are live and active, or will be once ingested. I only work with brands that have FDA-approved facilities, conduct third-party testing and don’t use any harmful fillers or additives. Quality does matter.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the various types of probiotics and understand when they can be helpful. Depending on what health issue (or issues) you are currently dealing with, then you might need one type over the other, or a combination of strains.
These have become quite popular in the last 10 years as research around probiotics and an understanding of how they influence our internal environment has evolved. If I am being honest and transparent, this is my go-to strain, and there are a few on the market that I trust and use both myself and with my clients.
Spore-based probiotics are soil-based organisms (SBOs) that are formed from spores found in dirt and vegetation, meaning they come from the external environment. Since soil-based probiotics are spore forming, you may see both of those terms on a label and used interchangeably. These probiotics are not typically derived from strains that are already colonized in the human GI tract, but instead hail from the Bacillus species (such as Bacillus subtilis, Bacillus clausii and Bacillus coagulans). Most importantly, the spores are dormant when encapsulated.
This means that when ingested, the spore probiotics remain inactivated until they arrive at their end destination in the GI tract, usually the small intestine where they become activated. So cool! This differentiates them from the common lactobacillus and bifidobacterium probiotic strains, which oftentimes have trouble surviving stomach acid and usually require refrigeration. Spore-based probiotics are shelf stable and durable.
As studies show, spore-forming bacilli are vital to our environment and our food chain, and in fact, they possess an inherent ability to produce a large number of secretory proteins, enzymes, antimicrobial compounds, vitamins, and carotenoids that are essential to our health. Some strains of the bacillus species are found naturally in fermented foods like natto (fermented soybeans popular in Japanese culture), but today in the U.S. we don’t tend to get much of that in the diet.
Now there are potential pathogenic strains of bacillus (B. anthracis and B. cereus), however, these fall into different clans, and are not the same.
The biggest benefit to me is that these are antibiotic-resistant strains, meaning they can be taken alongside an antibiotic and still do their job. In fact, I always recommend a spore-based probiotic to any client that has to take antibiotics to help prevent their internal microbiome from being completely destroyed by these harmful prescription drugs. Read about the connection between antibiotics and leaky gut here.
These strains are also incredibly smart, if you can believe that! They selectively kill only harmful bacteria with self-produced, natural chemicals, and increase our beneficial bacteria by producing nutrients that are fed only to the “beneficial resident” strains. They also help to rebalance and rebuild our terrain by boosting our keystone bacteria like F. prausnitzii and Akkermansia. These are two strains that you won’t find in a probiotic supplement but are absolutely crucial for the health of our intestinal lining (to prevent leaky gut) and to protect against irritable bowel disease (IBD) Crohn’s and Colitis. Those two keystone strains make up about 5-7% of our microbial environment, whereas lactobacillus only accounts for 1% of our good gut bacteria.
This is definitely one to use when dealing with debilitating digestive and bowel disorders like small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), IBD and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which usually stem from pathogenic infections such as parasites, candida overgrowth and bacterial infections. A word of caution — these can be pretty potent so it’s advised to start slow and low and to always seek the guidance of a holistic health professional.
My favorite spore-based probiotic is MegaSporeBiotic from Microbiome Labs, and more recently, a new product from CellcoreBiosciences, CT-Spore. Others are Just Thrive and Biocidin’s ProFlora4R. You can shop probiotics with me in my online supplement store — it’s free to sign up!
This is another favorite strain of mine that I often use alongside a spore-based probiotic for clients dealing with chronic diarrhea (especially conditions like Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis). S. Boulardii is actually a tropical yeast (surprise!) that functions like a probiotic. But it won’t cause yeast infections and it won’t irritate you if you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac’s disease — in fact, it will likely help you. It is known officially as Saccharomyces cerevisiae boulardii, and is a subspecies of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker’s yeast).
Research has proven time after time that S. boulardii has amazing health benefits for our gastrointestinal tract, and can help with conditions like IBS, IBD, diarrhea, including traveler’s diarrhea, and diarrhea associated with clostridium difficile (c. diff), a very contagious and dangerous bacteria that is usually contracted by unsanitary conditions and contaminated medical instruments like colonoscopy scopes in hospitals.
Traveler’s diarrhea is also known as food poisoning from traveling abroad where you are more susceptible to bacterial overgrowths on food and parasitic infections due to poor food storage and sanitation. You can read about my history with parasites here, learn more about identifying a parasitic infection here and then read my blog on how to beat “Bali belly.”
Pro tip: make sure to have some of these probiotics with you when you travel abroad, especially to tropical climates like Mexico or Asia.
This is another strain that can be taken with antibiotics (just make sure it’s 2 hours away from the prescription) and can help with diarrhea associated with antibiotic use, according to studies.
Lactobacillus is a genus of gram-positive, lactic-acid producing, non-spore forming bacteria that you probably recognize. It’s one of the most common probiotic strains on the market, however as mentioned above, it only accounts for a small percentage of our overall gut bacteria.
Some of the common human colonizing strains you’ve likely seen are lactobacillus acidophilus, lactobacillus casei, lactobacillus casei subsp. paracasei, lactobacillus plantarum and lactobacillus rhamnosus.
These are commonly found in many over the counter probiotic supplements, and while there is nothing necessarily “wrong” with these strains, studies are showing that they aren’t as effective as we once thought at positively colonizing our upper and lower GI tract (small intestine and colon, or large intestine).
In fact, researchers did a study where for four weeks, they gave mice a cellulose placebo or a probiotic supplement containing a total of 5 billion colony-forming units (CFU) from 11 different human-associated strains, including those listed above. At the end of it, they found that the probiotics did not colonize in the gut, rather they altered the gut community dynamics and modulated the immune system while in transit. In layman’s terms, they did not stay in the gut, but they did influence a shift in the microbiota while they were present before being eliminated.
Another study showed that in some instances, lactobacillus significantly reduced the diversity and altered the gut community structure — not in a necessarily beneficial way for some people. Basically, it could prevent the gut microbiota from recovering after something like antibiotics. The study showed that the lactobacillus affected levels of prevotella and clostridiales in the body, which are opportunistic bacteria that can indicate certain autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis as well as inflammation and metabolic disorders.
But are there benefits? There can be. For instance, lactobacillus acidophilus is a popular strain that may positively influence the urinary microbiome and there’s evidence to show that this strain may be helpful for those dealing with a painful urinary/bladder pain condition, interstitial cystitis. But counter to that, studies also show that some lactobacilli strains, for example Lactobacillus delbrueckii may in fact cause urinary tract infections and that in some instances, a reduction of lactobacilli coincided with reduction of symptoms.
There’s also evidence that those who have or have had small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), have an overgrowth of lactic acid producing bacteria like lactobacillus acidophilus, which can exacerbate their symptoms. This strain is also commonly found in fermented foods, which many people must initially avoid when eradicating SIBO.
This is really where bioindividuality comes into play and why it’s important to work with a professional who can assess your symptoms and make the best recommendations based on your unique health issues.
Let’s look at one other strain, lactobacillus rhamnosus, which has been touted as beneficial for GI tract issues like IBS and upper respiratory conditions in both children and adults.
Bifidobacterium is another popular genus of gram-positive anaerobic bacteria that usually inhabit the GI tract, vagina and mouth of humans. It’s suggested to be more abundant in our guts than lactobacillus and is also found in many fermented foods.
Research over the years has shown that this strain is again helpful for a wide variety of gastrointestinal disorders like IBS/IBD, diarrhea, colorectal cancer and necrotizing enterocolitis.
Bifidobacteria may also help with carbohydrate and sugar metabolism, and are especially beneficial in the infant gut, where they are likely responsible for metabolizing human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) from the mother’s breast. The genomes of B. bifidum and B. longum subsp. infantis are suspected to be two strains tailored toward HMO metabolism.
But again, as the above study showed, while certain strains like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium can influence our microbial diversity, they don’t always necessarily colonize, which means in the absence of a supplemental probiotic or fermented foods, you might be hard pressed to find an abundance of these strains in the human GI tract.
Side note: our fecal microbiome (what is excreted via the stool and seen in a stool test) isn’t necessarily reflective of our internal terrain for this very reason.
There are of course many other probiotic strains out there such as Enterococcus, Lactococcus, Streptococcus, and Clostridia, however I’ve covered the most popular and widely available supplemental strains.
I get a lot of questions from my clients about the “form” of probiotics. Is capsule best? Does it need to be refrigerated? Are gummies still effective? What about liquid probiotics?
I think this largely depends on where you are at in your healing journey and what is going to work best with your body. Encapsulated probiotics are the most “protected” and have the best chance of getting to where they need to go (small intestine, colon, etc.). But if you are using a spore-based probiotic and you have trouble swallowing pills, then you can actually take it out of the capsule and add to a smoothie, water/juice or soft food like apple sauce or yogurt.
That isn’t necessarily true for some of the other types. And I think the verdict is still out for liquid-based probiotics. While liquids are more bioavailable because they are absorbed immediately and can bypass the digestive process, that may not be a good thing when it comes to probiotics. What people don’t realize is that water activity and moisture can be worse for the stability of probiotics than heat, in some instances. And so this calls into question the efficacy of some liquid-based probiotics and whether or not the strains are in fact active/alive and can get to where they need to go.
As for refrigeration, think twice about that. Yes it can potentially slow down the loss of live active cultures, but a shelf-stable strain is more durable. If a culture can’t survive at room temperature on store shelves, then how can you expect it to survive the 98.6 degree internal temperature of the human body, and a pH of 1.3 in the stomach? More research is needed here for sure.
Because I know it’s going to come up — prebiotics are not the same as probiotics, but they are complementary and can actually help boost the effectiveness of probiotics.
Probiotics are living organisms whereas prebiotics are non-digestible fiber compounds found in foods. Prebiotics are fermented by the beneficial bacteria in the gut and used as a source of fuel to help enhance gut flora health. Basically they feed the probiotics.
Common types of prebiotics are raw garlic, onions, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, dandelion greens, leeks, asparagus, jicama, acacia gum, and even green (unripe) bananas.
Now because these ferment in the gut, they are not always an option for people dealing with conditions like SIBO or parasites, but can be used to rebuild the microbiota once the overgrowth and infections have been eradicated.
If you are looking for a passionate, experienced and knowledgeable holistic practitioner to help guide you through a gut healing protocol, I encourage you to schedule a free discovery call today, and check out my “work with me page” to see my services, access my pricing & packages and learn more about me
I specialize in gut health and hormone balance because those are two areas where I have previously struggled for over seven years! I’ve suffered from leaky gut, SIBO, IBS, parasites, adrenal dysfunction, hormonal imbalances, and anxiety and depression so chances are, I know exactly what you are going through. And I can promise you this: you CAN find healing. You don’t have to suffer alone. All you need is someone on your side, looking out for your best interests. I’d love to be that person!
And if you prefer to learn and heal on your own, check out my online gut healing course, Gut Smart Restart!