All About Probiotics
The benefits of these powerful microorganisms go far beyond boosting your gut health.
As soon as you hear the word “probiotics,” your mind likely jumps to gut health, perhaps conjuring images of trillions of bacteria dancing around in your stomach. These live, microscopic organisms have been heralded as the savior of stomach issues over the last few years, popping up all over social media, on health sites and in ads for probiotic-fortified products.
The hype isn't for naught — probiotics can certainly help boost your gut health. But — *cue infomercial voice* — that's not all they do. Every area of your body has its own unique microbiome, a.k.a., a specific combination of bacteria that helps everything stay in balance, says Olivia Audrey, a naturopathic doctor in Dallas, TX. “That means that, for [each] person, there is a specific combination of probiotics that will help them feel their best.”
If that balance gets disrupted — whether through disease, stress, antibiotics, poor diet or environmental toxins — it can throw everything off, allowing more harmful bacteria to take hold and set up inflammatory patterns, Audrey says. This is where probiotics can save the day, helping to replenish the good bacteria our bodies may have lost while reestablishing the balance of peak health.
Today, scientists continue to learn about other ways probiotics can help improve overall health. “Emerging research suggests they could be beneficial for a wide range of conditions, including immune function, allergies, eczema and even mental health,” says Whitney English, MS, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Los Angeles.
THE "PROS" OF PROBIOTICS
Imbalances in our gut flora (a.k.a. bacterial colonies) can result from either an absence of beneficial bacteria or an overgrowth of unhealthy organisms. In turn, they can seriously mess with our digestion and gut health, with consequences such as abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea.
Supplementing your diet with probiotics can help to populate the gut with beneficial microbes. These microbes then help break down prebiotics (non-digestible carbohydrates found in foods) and convert them into fuel for colonocytes (cells in the colon) and disease-fighting compounds, like short-chain fatty acids, English says, which helps ease those tummy troubles.
Unfortunately, the future looks bleak for allergy sufferers. Not only has pollen season worsened year after year, but researchers estimate pollen counts of all varieties will double by 2040 in some parts of the country. Given more than 50 million Americans experience some sort of allergic reaction each year (it’s the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S.), there are a lot of people looking for relief.
The good news: In a review of 23 studies and more than 1,900 people, researchers found that most research shows people with seasonal allergies experienced fewer symptoms or an improved quality of life when they took a probiotic supplement or ate probiotic-containing foods. And a recent report demonstrates how close researchers are to figuring out whether food allergies can be treated by balancing the bacteria in our guts.
The connection between the two is plausible. Allergies — whether they’re food-, drug-, or pollen/pest-based — happen when your immune system thinks a substance is harmful, so it creates antibodies to try and destroy it. At the same time, histamine releases into the bloodstream, causing inflammation. That inflammation is what probiotics may be able to help treat, Audrey says.
As of now it’s tough to know what really works. Studies have used different strains of live bacteria, dosages and formulations over varying periods of time, so it’s hard to make conclusive recommendations. Still, if your typical allergy treatments aren’t working, talk with your doctor about whether taking a probiotic is worth exploring.
Improved Mental Health
Researchers are analyzing more and more the connections between gut and mental health, and studies have found probiotic supplements may help improve some mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
Case in point: A review of 15 human studies found those who took probiotic supplements with the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains (two of the most popular forms; the former colonizes in the colon, whereas the latter in the small intestine, reports UAS Labs) for 30 to 60 days experienced improved symptoms related to anxiety, depression, autism and OCD.
Another study followed 70 chemical workers for six weeks, noting those who ate 100 grams of probiotic yogurt each day (that’s less than a single-serve container, BTW) or took a daily supplement reported experiencing better general health and fewer symptoms related to depression, anxiety and stress.
And in a study of 40 patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder, those who took probiotic supplements for eight weeks experienced significantly decreased depressive symptoms. They also noted lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation, and higher levels of glutathione, an antioxidant that protects the body from oxidative stress.
While many of these studies were small — meaning more research needs to be done — the results are promising. And with so many suffering from mental health issues like crisis fatigue and reemergence anxiety in light of the coronavirus pandemic, incorporating a dose of daily probiotics may help provide some relief.
Between the stress of living through a pandemic, “mask-ne” and dry hands thanks to consistent washing, it’s no shocker our skin needs some extra help. Probiotics can provide that, as supplements containing Lactobacillus have been shown to improve skin hydration and provide other skin benefits, says Heather Woolery-Lloyd, MD, a dermatologist in Miami.
Proof: Recent research shows probiotics may help prevent and treat conditions like eczema, acne, and UV-induced skin damage. They can also improve the production of ceramides, which are fats that help hydrate skin and reduce acne-causing bacteria.
It’s unclear if probiotics taken orally affect your skin’s microbiome directly, but Woolery-Lloyd says there is a strong connection between the skin and the gut. Think of it as a domino effect: “A healthy gut may reduce systemic inflammation, and therefore have beneficial effects on the skin,” she explains.
While there’s been a surge of probiotic-laced skincare products on the market, Woolery-Lloyd notes most don’t contain probiotics — a live bacteria — and instead have prebiotics, aka nutrients that feed and encourage the growth of good bacteria. It’s not quite the same as taking an oral probiotic (or getting your daily dose through food), but Woolery-Lloyd says research does show prebiotics in skincare can improve skin hydration and reduce eczema flares, so it’s worth a shot if you’re having a lot of skin scares.
CHOOSING A PROBIOTIC SUPPLEMENT
While it’s optimal to get your probiotics through your daily diet — fermented foods like yogurt, miso and kimchi are good sources — a probiotic supplement can also help, Audrey says. But you shouldn’t pop just any old pill: Whatever supplement you choose should have “evidence of clinical efficacy for the specific strain and dose [needed for] a specific health condition,” English says.
Translation: Check the supplement labels. Not all strains of probiotics are scientifically proven to provide significant health benefits — so you'll want to select a probiotic that contains rigorously studied strains that are proven to survive, adhere and function in the GI tract. For instance, THE WELL Essential Probiotic contains 10 of the most well-researched probiotic strains – each with a specific, functional strength that collectively enhances and maintains immune and digestive health.
Many commercial probiotics are unable to survive the harsh journey to the intestines, so you want to be sure that your probiotic can withstand the highly acidic stomach juices and the harsh bile salts they encounter in the small intestine — as ours can.
But don't get caught up over which ones are refrigerated versus which ones are shelf-stable — it actually doesn't mean that much. While live probiotics are fragile organisms, THE WELL probiotic is created with the latest state-of-the-art technology that ensures the strains remain alive and effective after packaging and storage for up to 24 months, without the need for refrigeration. Our production process also guards against any potential loss of probiotic strains by adding extra quantities of each probiotic to guarantee you'll receive the stated number of strains in each dose.