This post was first written for the Mommypotamus blog.
There are at least 5 – 10 different probiotic supplement options in your average health food store, a zillion more available for ordering, and more coming on the market all the time.
They all claim something. Is it real? Or is it shiny advertising?
With all the media reporting on the human microbiome right now, it’s almost impossible not to hear about all the studies that show the incredible importance of caring for our “second genome,” or the microbes that live in our digestive tracts and profoundly influence our health.
However, there’s often a gap between these informative studies and the mom who is juggling both the immediate needs of her children (clean soccer shorts? breastfeeding multiple times a day?) with the ever accruing this-is-going-to-matter-to-their-overall-health needs.
It’s a big job to be ultimately responsible for the health and well-being of the children under your care.
Today I want to help you with the job of weeding through some information that can directly apply to your health choices. We’ll talk about the most common myths and misconceptions regarding probiotics. I would also like to let you know about my more in-depth guide that includes real and honest probiotic information for your family.
6 Probiotic Myths Everyone Should Know
There are six common myths that tend to circulate in regard to probiotics. We’ll talk a little about each one so that you’ll have the most up-to-date, research-backed perspective.
Myth #1 – Strain specificity is not important
It has been proven in multiple ways that strain specificity counts in a very big way. “Strain” is what comes after genus and species. For example, in the case of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG:
Genus – Lactobacillus
Species – rhamnosus
Strain – GG
Here are a few examples of how this strain specificity plays out:
- Of 90 strains of Lactobacillus fermentum tested, only 4% showed useful tolerance to stomach acid and bile…all probiotics need to journey through the harsh environment of the stomach and upper small intestine, viably, to do their intended tasks.
- Of 31 strains of Lactobacillus plantarum tested, only 5 showed that they could stick to the mucosal lining of the GI tract.
- Of 2 strains of Bifidobacterium bifidum tested, both of which were of human origin and could stick well in the GI tract, only one protected against Salmonella, while the other did not.
- Of 16 strains of Lactobacillus paracasei tested, only 2 worked against all the Clostridium difficile species.
- There are even strains that denote whether a bacterium is pathogenic, neutral, and even beneficial, as in the case of E. coli strains.
So, in general, make sure you are using a probiotic that shows not only genus and species, but also the strain, like this: Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (strain is often denoted by a combo of numbers and letters, such as GG). If not labeled, the company you inquire of should at least be willing to tell you the strains. (And if you need help matching up strains with your specific objectives, the Mother’s Guide To Probiotics covers many of the ones often considered top priorities.)
Myth #2 – You can’t use probiotics during an antibiotic treatment
This is the very time TO be taking probiotics! The common thinking used to be that antibiotics would kill probiotics if taken together, and thus were of no use to take alongside probiotics. In reality, taking probiotics on the same days that you are taking antibiotics is very important, and can reduce side-effects like antibiotic induced diarrhea, and can also reduce and soften the damaging effect that antibiotics have on the GI tract in general. For example in this study, supplementing with Lactobacillus casei Shirota while treating for Clostridium difficile infection “reduced the antibiotic-associated decrease in the diversity of microbiota.”
Note: Not ALL probiotics are effective during antibiotic treatment. There are specific probiotics that are especially effective during antibiotic treatment (please reference the A – Z section in the Mother’s Guide To Probiotics for these specific strains).
Myth #3 – It’s best to take your probiotics on an empty stomach
When probiotics are taken on an empty stomach, they get the full action of the stomach’s powerful gastric fluids…which are meant to be a first line of defense in killing food-borne pathogens, and have other tasks like cleaving B12 and breaking down proteins.
It’s actually been proven more beneficial to take probiotics with food, as this reduces the full action of the stomach acid on these helpful little critters.
So help yourself to a nice meal, then take your probiotics!
MYTH #4 – Probiotic supplements can set up camp and stay permanently in the gut
Like you, I found this myth difficult to accept! It has been proven that lactobacillus and bifidobacteria strains, supplied externally, cannot permanently colonize, or recolonize, the GI tract.
Some damage to the gut microbiota can’t be undone (similar to how we can’t bring back animals after they have become extinct due to deforestation). Essentially you develop your core microbiota in the first couple years of life and one round of probiotics is not a “lifetime fix” because they are transient.
To take advantage of their benefits we have to take them consistently.
This is even more important if your gut has been damaged — probiotic supplements need to be a piece in your basic supplement toolbox. If you are one of the lucky few to not have a compromised gut, then daily probiotic foods will help you keep it that way!
The good news is that high quality probiotic strains can stick around for a little while, a couple of weeks or more, and they can help your own beneficial bacteria recover while suppressing pathogenic bacteria.
MYTH #5 – Babies need “baby” labeled probiotics
With a few exceptions, this is generally a marketing tactic used by supplement companies. Here’s why:
1. Infants (even very young) house quite a diversity of bacterial species, such as – b. longum, b. animalis, b. catenuatum, b. breve, & b. adolescentalis, l. gasseri, l. fermentum, l. plantarum, l. brevis, l. oris, l. animalis, enterococcus, streptococcus, pediococcus, staphylococcus…and more. Far more species than are normally included in a “baby probiotic”.
2. What really needs to happen is that if baby has a particular issue, you match the issue with a probiotic that has the strain proven to help. In my probiotic guide I list many common health concerns and the specific strains proven to help them.
The optimal scenario for the populating of baby’s gut is to be born vaginally to a healthy mother, who has been prenatally preparing her vaginal canal with probiotics, followed by breastfeeding. Mom’s microbial mixture is taken in by the baby as it passes through the birth canal, beginning the colonization of the baby’s gut, and in addition, mother’s milk is full of important immune messages and living probiotic microbes.
However, what is optimal is not always possible. Studies are ongoing, in which C-section born babies are being swabbed with their mother’s vaginal microbes, inoculating them in the critical post-birth period.
As early as one week old, the baby has a variety of different microbes that will be with them into adulthood. Babies need probiotic help for various reasons. However, their little ecosystems are not made up of just “baby strains”, such as B. infantis and neither do their probiotic supplements need to be.
One caveat – If you think your baby or child may be a sensitive “detoxer” you may want to consider probiotics that are low on, or contain no d-lactate producing strains of bacteria. See Heather’s post for more information on this. There are several brands in my favorite category that fit this criteria.
MYTH #6 – Probiotic supplements are superior to probiotic foods
Cultured foods are hugely beneficial to be consuming every day. “Medicinal yogurts” and kefir are chock full of beneficial microbes. It’s possible for a tenth of a gram of sauerkraut to contain a therapeutic dose of probiotics. However, for the purposes of using strains for specific purposes with clinical efficacy, I recommend including supplemental strains while still eating the fermented foods that are so good for you.
If you need help with:
- selecting a good brand
- matching probiotic strains with specific health needs
- dosing for kids and adults
I recommend you pick up a copy of my ebook, The Mother’s Guide to Probiotics.
- GI Masterclass, by Dr. Jason Hawrelak, N.D.
- Hawrelak, JA. (ed). Probiotic Advisor. Illuminate Natural Medicine, 2015. https://www.probioticadvisor.com. Accessed June 2015.
- Gut Check; Exploring Your Microbiome Class, by University of Colorado, Boulder
- Gut & Psychology Syndrome by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride