Gut Health Week 3: Probiotics & Supplementation

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This week I’m talking all about supplementation for gut health!

The supplement world can be so confusing, especially when it comes to probiotics. There are so many different brands, price points, colony forming units (more on what that means below!), and strains of bacteria. It can be very confusing when you are trying to decide what brand to buy and what strength you need.

I’m hoping this post will clear up some of that confusion and answer some of the most common questions I get about probiotics and supplementation. If I’ve missed anything or you’re still feeling confused, let me know! You can leave me a comment or question at the bottom of this post, or you can click here set up your free 15-minute phone call to discuss any other questions you have!

What are probiotics?

Probiotics are live, beneficial bacteria that, when taken in supplement form, help to populate your gut. Interestingly, we actually already have bacteria covering our entire body!

The 'microbiome' is the term used to describe the collective bacteria our gut. Our microbiome is crucial for digestion, mental health, inflammation regulation, stress balance, hormone balance and sleep regulation, to name a few. There have been so many studies on the importance of our microbiome and how it is implicated in the development of disease. There have also been studies that are investigating how to use different strains of bacteria in the treatment of various health conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and autism. 

More than ever we understand how important it is to preserve the health of the good bacteria in our gut to support overall health. 

What do they do?

The bacteria in the gut act independently from our body’s physiology. Good bacteria in the gut are important for ensuring harmful bacteria, pathogens and yeasts don’t take over. 

Rich bacterial diversity also means that your digestion and absorption of nutrients will be functioning optimally. We need the good guys to help us turn our food into energy but also to help us synthesize vitamins crucial for overall health. 

There are some studies that even show that certain populations of bacteria are more prevalent in overweight or obese individuals. This has caused some researchers to conclude that certain bacteria will actually promote weight gain and inflammation, while others will be better at using food for energy. 

The connection between the mind and our gut is also very strong. They are connected with bidirectional signaling, which means the communication goes both ways- the brain talks to the gut and the gut talks to the brain. I could do an entire blog post on this topic alone! I likely will touch on this more in the future because it’s an area of research that I find very exciting. To sum it up, our gut and our brain are directly connected, they communicate beyond just the normal physiologic functioning that other organs do. If you’ve ever had “butterflies” in your stomach, or had a “gut feeling”, you’ve already experienced this communication. The same thing goes for a “nervous stomach”- the digestive changes that so many people can relate to when they feel nervous or stressed about something. 

The status of our microbiome can influence how our mind feels and how we manage stress. What’s even more interesting is 90% of serotonin in the body is produced in the gut! That’s truly amazing to consider. Especially when you think about the treatment of depression and anxiety: the brain and hormone signaling are usually the first areas that are treated, not the gut.  

Serotonin and the rest of the hormones that are produced in the gut are also important for sleep regulation. There is even some research that shows our gut bugs have their own circadian rhythm that can actually influence our own sleep cycle. Again it’s amazing to think about what this could mean for the treatment of another debilitating chronic health concern. Thousands of people suffer from insomnia and the gut is definitely not the first area of the body that gets considered. 

Who should be supplementing with probiotics?

I could generally say that everyone should be supplementing with a probiotic. Primarily because the bacteria in our gut are sensitive and so much of what we do and eat in our daily lives will affect them in a negative way. Antibiotics, medications, inflammatory foods, stress, chlorinated water, processed foods… the list goes on. The main issue is that most people don’t take the necessary steps to help heal and support their gut and microbiome on a regular basis. 

More specifically, if you have ever been on antibiotics you should be taking a probiotic to help repopulate what the medication wiped out. Similarly if you are currently experiencing digestive issues like bloating, cramping, gas, constipation and/or diarrhea. 

There’s a famous Hippocrates quote that says “all disease begins in the gut”. Many practitioners still believe this to be true. The reality is our health begins in the gut. Starting with the gut is the foundation to any effective healing protocol. 

While everyone can benefit from being on a probiotic, it doesn’t mean that you have to be on high doses for the rest of your life. Therapeutic doses can be beneficial when health imbalances are involved, but for most a maintenance dose will be effective. Keep reading below to find out the dose that will be right for you!

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How do you choose the right brand? 

Choosing the right brand of probiotic is similar to how you should pick your other supplement brands. It’s important to choose reputable brands that invest in research and produce quality products. When it comes to supplements you are paying for quality so it is worth it to invest in a good brand with higher quality products. The good news is, once you do your research on the supplement companies you’ll get a better sense for those brands that you can trust to deliver quality products. This makes it easier in the future when you are choosing new products to try.

Particularly when it comes to probiotics, it’s important to realize that they are live bacteria and so much can affect the quality and potency of them. It’s not worth it to save some money and pay for a product that contains very little live bacteria. Good brands actually include more bacteria than what is listed on the package to ensure that the correct numbers of bacteria are present when you purchase the product.

Here are some of the brands I’ve used and recommended to my clients:

Genuine Health
Lorna Vanderhaeghe
Renew Life
Garden of Life
Mega Food
Genestra
AOR

How many strains of bacteria & CFU do you need?

I recommend looking for a product that has at least 8 strains of bacteria. The strains of bacteria will always be listed on the side of the package. The number of strains that a brand uses will depend on the formulation. Each brand typically has their own formulas for children, women’s health, men’s health, immune, pre-natal/maternity etc. The strains they use will depend on what the product is being made for. Certain strains of bacteria are known to support areas of the body and health concerns. 

CFU stands for colony forming units. This number equals the amount of bacteria that are present in each capsule or serving. Typically the higher CFU will be reserved for those more severe health concerns or imbalances. If you’ve recently been on a bout of antibiotics, it’s best to go with a higher dose as well. 

For my clients with relatively healthy digestion and who are looking more for wellness support, I will usually recommend a 10-15 CFU capsule. I’ll use 30-50 billion for more serious issues or imbalances. Some brands even make 80-100 billion, but that would be a temporary therapeutic dose in the case of severe infection, disease or dysbiosis (an imbalance in bacteria in the gut).

Refrigerated vs. shelf-stable

This is one of those very dividing topics in my industry. Some practitioners are dead set that probiotics must be refrigerated. Since they are a live bacteria and very temperature sensitive, some people believe there is no way a shelf-stable probiotic can be effective. 

I’m more concerned with the brand than the refrigeration, to be perfectly honest. Good brands will ensure that however they produce and store their probiotic- whether it’s refrigerated or not- it will be effective. 

My most used and favourite brand is Genuine Health’s “Advanced Gut Health Probiotic” (pictured above)- and it’s shelf-stable. Actually they recommend keeping it in the fridge, but it’s safe to keep it on the shelf. They also package their probiotics in a blister pack, which helps prevent the exposure of all capsules to temperature changes and humidity. I trust Genuine Health’s products and I know that they make a high quality probiotic. That’s what matters the most to me.  

Should I buy delayed release capsules?

Delayed release is important as the bacteria need to reach the gut. Without delayed release or enteric-coated capsules, the bacteria are susceptible to being destroyed by stomach acid during digestion. 

Brands will indicate on their package if their capsules are delayed release. If it doesn’t say on the packaging, it’s likely that the capsules will be digested in the stomach and the bacteria will be destroyed. 

When should you take them?

I like to recommend taking probiotics at night or before bed. This helps ensure delivery to the gut and is also helpful in case of any side effects. Side effects with taking a probiotic should be minimal. I’ve had clients tell me they feel a bit of “action” in their gut or maybe some mild bloating. But the side effects usually only happen within the first few days of taking the probiotic, and they don’t last long. Taking your probiotics at night can help prevent any discomfort since you’ll be asleep as your body is processing them.