Good health begins in your gut, according to no short number of new probiotic foods and products at the grocery store. Yogurts, fermented vegetables, gummies, tonics, and even ice creams promise consumers a payload of millions of different strains of live active cultures. But what are these cultures, and how many of them do you really need? What’s the deal with probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria and yeast strains that your body relies on to aid in the process of digesting food as it passes through your body. These are the so-called “good germs” your body needs to function properly. When you are in perfect health, these colonies of bacteria self-regulate, and maintain optimum levels of themselves within your stomach and intestines. But perfect health homeostasis is difficult to maintain, and your gut biome can wreak havoc upon you when it is thrown out of whack.
Bouts of diarrhea, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, urinary tract and vaginal health issues, allergies, and even eczema can all be traced back to misalignment of your gut biome. An invasion of bad bacteria when you’re sick, or even the antibiotics used to fight off the bad guys can in turn deplete your good bacteria, leading to longer recovery times from illness, or the continued experience of the symptoms of sickness.
Replacing these good bacteria after a bout of sickness is where probiotic foods and supplements come in. Unfortunately, not all probiotic foods are created equal. Understanding the differences between the various strains of bacteria in different products is critical to weighing their impact on your health. After all, probiotic-enhanced foods often carry a premium price tag.
The two most common strains of beneficial probiotic bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Lactobacillus is one of the primary cultures found in yogurt, making it one of the primary active cultures consumers encounter. Unfortunately, the probiotic properties of grocery store yogurt have at best been inflated. You see, while Lactobacillus is prominent in yogurt upon digestion, it tends to die quickly upon encountering the acidic conditions of the human stomach. Very little of this bacteria survives by the time it reaches the gut.
A related strain called Lactobacillus acidophilus DDS-1, however, is acid- and bile-resistant, and can live for eight days in your body’s harshest digestive nooks and crannies. The difference between strains of related bacteria can seem inconsequential when grocery shopping, but has enormous implications on the efficacy of what you’re actually consuming.
Lifewise Kefir, for example, is a pretty prominent probiotic player in grocery stores at this point. I don’t know if I would call it a household name per se, but if you’re into kefir and probiotics, chances are you recognize this brand in the refrigerated section. A bottle of Lifewise Kefir contains at least 15 Billion Colony Forming Units (CFU), made up of these twelve different strains:
- Lactobacillus Lactis
- Lactobacillus Rhamnosus
- Streptococcus Diacetylactis
- Lactobacillus Plantarum
- Lactobacillus Casei
- Saccharomyces Florentinus
- Leuconostoc Cremoris
- Bifidobacterium Longum
- Bifidobacterium Breve
- Lactobacillus Acidophilus
- Bifidobacterium Lactis*
- Lactobacillus Reuteri*
Confusing? Yep! But consider this: Leuconostoc Cremoris bacteria are predominantly found in fermented vegetables like cabbage, and possess natural antibiotic properties that prevent pathogens from growing in your body. Bifidobacterium Breve, on the other hand, supports healthy skin and respiratory health, and can prevent yeast infections from forming in the vagina. Lactobacillus Casei is a powerful antihistamine, and can offset the effect of stress-inducing cortisol on the body. Each of these good bugs support your health and body in a host of different ways.
Outside of the dairy section, probiotics can be found in foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, ginger beer, miso, and kombucha. But knowing that a food possesses a probiotic boost isn’t enough. To guarantee that you’ll actually experience the beneficial halo of a particular food on your health, sometimes the best advice is to just get Googling.
Whether or not a particular touted strain of bacteria is offset by a product’s sugar content – or if another strain must be taken via protective pill in order to survive on through to deployment within your intestines – is usually just a quick click away, assuming you take the time to actually ask the right questions.
All probiotics aren’t created equal. If you want to avoid flushing your money down the toilet, you’re going to have to put the work in.