Probiotics. Are they all the same?

We all know that probiotics are great for digestive health, but how do you know which one your gut needs? The bottle lists the various species of bacteria (or yeasts) contained within and offers a vague description of what they do, which really doesn’t give away a lot unless you know what to look for! This article is all about what to look for in a probiotic and in addition, I will dispel some common myths about how they work.

Let’s start basic. What is a probiotic?

The World Health Organisation officially defines a probiotic as “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host” (1). Probiotics can be bacteria, such as the commonly seen Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus species, or yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii. You will find probiotics in health food stores, chemists and health clinics, sold as capsules or powders, either alive or freeze dried (alive, but sleeping). Proper storage of probiotics is essential in ensuring they are still alive and healthy by the time they reach your gut, so always follow the storage instructions on the bottle and be mindful when transporting your probiotics.

How do probiotics work?

Myth number 1 – probiotics permanently make our gut their new home. It is a common misconception that we take probiotics to replace healthy bacteria that have been lost, for example, following antibiotic treatment or during times of stress. Probiotics work their magic while they are in transit through our gut and are eventually flushed with the stool (2). They may stay in there a bit longer than our food, but it isn’t forever.

Myth number 2 – all types of probiotics fight off bad bugs. Many (not all) probiotics do have the ability to compete with bad bugs and stop them from taking over, however the beneficial action of probiotics goes far beyond (3). Additional examples of how they work includes:

  • Reducing inflammation in the gut
  • Speeding up or slowing down the time it takes for food to travel along the digestive tract
  • Reducing how sensitive our gut is to internal gas
  • Repair and strengthen the gut lining
  • Interacting with immune cells (think allergies as well as infections)
  • Influence intestinal secretions

Why are probiotics named the way they are?

As probiotics are living organisms, they are given latin names just like all plants and animals. In order to differentiate probiotics, you need to understand the terminology around their naming. I will use an example of the probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG.

  • The first word is the genus – Lactobacillus
  • The second word is the species – rhamnosus
  • At the end of the latin name is the strain – GG

The strain may be a combination of letters, numbers or both.

How important is the strain?

The strain is very important when it comes to treating a particular complaint or condition. You could compare strains of probiotic to breeds of dog – all dogs are the same species, but they come in a range of shapes, colours and designs. Likewise in probiotic species, different strains can have a different effect in our guts (1). For example, some strains of Escherichia coli cause intestinal or urinary tract infections, whereas the strain Escherichia coli Nissle 1917 is protective against infections (4).

The strain is commonly omitted from probiotic labels and left out of the discussion when talking probiotics. A good quality probiotic will always include the strain, just like a good clinical trial (a human study) will always state which strain has been tested. Unfortunately, many strains that have been studied are not yet available in Australia.

Which probiotic should I take?

If you wish to treat a specific health condition with probiotics, it is best to do your research and find some positive human studies, then use the same strain. It may be more expensive, but at least you can be sure your money is going into something that will work. There are many articles out there on probiotics, particularly in treating digestive, skin and immune issues such as IBS, traveller’s diarrhoea, inflammatory bowel conditions, asthma and eczema(5).

To give you a few examples, Lactobacillus plantarum CJLP133 can reduce the severity of eczema (6). Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG and Bifidobacterium breve Bb99 can increase the eradication rate of Helicobacter pylori, an infection that causes stomach ulcers (7). At Narayani Wellness, we use Bifidobacteria lactis HN019 to treat SIBO, just one of the probiotics that we keep in our supplement toolbox.

If you are healthy and just looking for a probiotic to support general health, my recommendation is to get stuck into some fermented foods, such as yoghurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir or kombucha. Strictly speaking, fermented foods are not considered a probiotic as the exact microorganisms are typically not known, nor can they be measured. However fermented foods that have been stored correctly are considered safe and beneficial to consume as they increase overall diversity in the gut when consumed regularly, which has been linked to a lower incidence of disease (5). Fermented foods also contain compounds that help to break down your food and keep your digestion working optimally.

If you are still unsure, take the hard work out of your shopping and make an appointment with us today to help find the right probiotic for you.

By Lucy Mason, Naturopath