Probiotics have become some of the top dietary supplements consumed by Americans. You’ve probably seen them around your pharmacy, grocery store and online. And, you might have heard all kinds of stories and supposed facts about probiotics. But, which of these are true and which are false?
Let’s explore the 10 most common myths about probiotics.
Myth #1: Probiotics Don’t Really Have an Impact on Health and Wellbeing
Our small and large intestines (our gut) contain billions of good bacteria, also known as “probiotics.” It is scientifically proven that these good bacteria support many critical functions in the body, including healthy digestion, nutrient absorption, the immune system, skin health and even cognitive function.
When the healthy balance of gut bacteria is disrupted, you experience this first and foremost as digestive issues, including gas, bloating, diarrhea or constipation. If unresolved, over time, this imbalance in gut bacteria can lead to food intolerances, skin issues such as acne and eczema, and even mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.
There is an ample collection of clinical studies published in reputable scientific journals across the world that shows the importance of a healthy, balanced gut microbiome, and how a probiotic supplement can achieve this.
Myth #2: A Healthy Human Being Doesn’t Need to Take Probiotics
If we all still lived on farms, growing our own crops in organic soil, away from air pollution, processed foods, chemical additives, pesticides and all the other toxins that we are exposed to on a daily basis, this might be true. However, modern day life exposes us to factors that damage the gut microbiome.
We tend to eat an overly processed diet full of sugar, simple carbohydrates and food additives. We are often stressed, regularly take antibiotics, and unconsciously take in toxins with the water we drink and the air we breathe.
All these factors kill the good bacteria living in our gut, and make space for potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi to grow. Taking a high-quality probiotic supplement allows us to restore the good bacteria in our gut to repair the gut flora if it’s already damaged, and to maintain a healthy gut flora thereafter.
Myth #3: Yogurt, Sauerkraut, and Kombucha Provide Me with Enough Probiotics
In today’s world, there are many probiotic foods and drinks widely available. Examples include yogurt, fermented vegetables such as Sauerkraut, yogurt-alternatives, Kefir and Kombucha. All of these items are made in a fermentation process using live, active bacteria. However, there are several issues with probiotic foods and drinks.
First of all, the bacteria used for the fermentation process are usually not human bacteria. In yogurt, for example, the bacteria are usually cow bacteria. This means that they don’t settle down in your gut and leave your body via your stool.
In addition, fermented foods and drinks often sit on the shelf for a long time before you ingest them. As a result, the bacteria in the product may already be dead or at a life stage where they can’t deliver their full benefits any longer.
Furthermore, the bacteria have to pass through the acidic environment in your stomach. Stomach acid kills many of these good bacteria, especially if they are already at an aged stage because they sat on the shelf for a few days or weeks.
Some of these live bacteria also make it into your intestine where they may have some positive effect. However, taking a high-quality probiotic supplement cannot be compared with adding certain fermented foods and drinks to your diet.
Myth #4: All Probiotics are Created Equal
You may have been told by a healthcare professional to get yourself a probiotic for your digestive issues. You’re standing in front of a shelf of probiotic supplements at your grocery store or pharmacy—now what? You might just grab the one that looks most appealing and call it a day. A few weeks go by, you’ve been taking your probiotic religiously every day, but your symptoms persist…what’s going on?
Instead of writing off all probiotics as “useless,” let’s consider the fact that not all probiotics are created equal!
Each probiotic strain is a live bacterium with a different, scientifically proven function that it carries out in the body. And just like in life, a team composed of different species with complimentary skills works best. Studies over studies have shown that so-called multi-strain probiotic products are substantially more effective than single-strain products.
It is critically important that the bacterial strains in a probiotic supplement are combined in a thoughtful, scientifically backed way. Then, the combination of strains has to be tested as a whole to ensure that these strains work well together to ensure the product’s efficacy.
For optimal results, search for a high-quality probiotic is a multi-strain and multi-species probiotic, supported by clinical studies to demonstrate efficacy, and tailored to specific health needs.
Myth #5: Taking Prebiotics is Sufficient to Support Gut Health
Prebiotics are a particular form of dietary fiber. It’s the food for our gut bacteria. Sources of dietary fiber include leafy greens, whole grains, sweet potatoes and legumes. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet is incredibly deficient in dietary fibers. Only about five percent of Americans currently meet recommended daily intake of fiber.
We are essentially starving our beneficial gut bacteria of the foods that they need to thrive! So, increasing our fiber intake is a critical step toward good gut health.
However, if you’ve been starving your gut bacteria and stressing them via external lifestyle factors for months or even years, it’s quite likely that you don’t have a healthy balance of gut bacteria.
In fact, you probably even have some bad bacteria or fungi growing in your intestines. To restore a healthy gut microbiome, you first and foremost need a high quality, multispecies and multistrain probiotic.
As a next step, make sure to increase your fiber intake via a healthy, balanced diet or a prebiotic supplement.
Myth #6: I Only Need Probiotics if I’m Taking Antibiotics
Taking probiotics when you’re taking antibiotics is a must! Antibiotics kill the bad bacteria that are making us sick as well as many of the good bacteria that live in our gut and support many critical functions of the body. By taking a probiotic supplement with antibiotic treatment, you are replenishing these important good bacteria in your gut, and with that reducing your risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea, as well as secondary infection and longer-term health challenges.
However, antibiotics are not the only thing that disrupt the good bacteria in the gut. Other factors include stress, an unhealthy diet and alcohol, to name a few. Modern lifestyle poses many threats to our good gut bacteria. Therefore, taking a high-quality probiotic supplement is a good idea to support your overall health and wellbeing at all times.
Myth #7: Probiotics Give Me Digestive Discomfort
A high-quality probiotic is meant to help you optimize your digestion, rather than create digestive discomfort. Probiotic bacteria naturally occur in a healthy human intestine and you should not have a negative reaction to it. All you are doing by taking a probiotic supplement is adding more good bacteria to your gut.
If you experience digestive discomfort when starting a new probiotic, consider two things:
First, does the probiotic contain any additives, such as gluten or dairy (lactose) that you might be reacting to? Up to 65% of adults worldwide are lactose intolerant. If your probiotic contains lactose, you might be reacting to this with gas and bloating, rather than the probiotic bacteria.
Second, digestive discomfort may occur when the probiotic bacteria are fighting any bad, potentially harmful bacteria and other pathogens in your gut, and are flushing them out of your system. If this is the case, the digestive discomfort should get better and go away within a few days.
Myth #8: All Good Probiotics Need to be Refrigerated
Probiotics are not grocery items, where refrigeration often signals freshness. Probiotics are living bacteria that are sensitive to temperature, light and moisture, and they require food to survive.
Simply putting probiotic bacteria in a capsule and storing them in the fridge doesn’t keep them alive very well as they quickly run out of food. Fortunately, there are newer technologies such as “freeze-drying” the bacteria that help preserve them over long periods of time without any need of refrigeration.
Once you want to bring them back to life, you simply dissolve the freeze-dried powder in water. Ideally, the powder also contains some prebiotic nutrients that serve as an immediate food source for the probiotic bacteria. This way, the freeze-dried bacteria get the chance to rehydrate with water and fill up on “food,” safely pass through the acidic stomach environment, and arrive strong and viable in your intestine.
Myth #9: Probiotics with Higher CFU Counts are Better
CFU stands for “Colony Forming Units.” It’s a measure for how many viable bacteria are in your probiotic. However, a higher CFU doesn’t mean it’s a better probiotic.
As described already under Myth #4, the combination of bacterial strains in the product is much more important. Keep in mind the right mix of different strains allows them to work well together as a team. And, you would want some proof for this by seeing study results testing the specific combination together. It’s not at all useful to you if you are ingesting billions of one bacterial strain that doesn’t work toward your health goal or a few strains that don’t work well together.
Another important factor is the delivery mechanism! The probiotic bacteria have to survive the journey from the manufacturer, to the store, to your house and eventually into your large intestine. This poses many challenges including changes in temperature and moisture, and exposure to the acid in your stomach.
Unfortunately, in many probiotic supplements, the bacteria die before you even get the chance to ingest them. Even if they make it into your mouth, probiotics in capsules and chewables often don’t survive the passage through the acidic environment of the stomach. Once again, they die before they can benefit you.
Instead of focusing on CFUs, focus on the efficacy of the delivery mechanism of your probiotic supplement, and whether there are clinical studies backing up this product.
Myth #10: If I Take Probiotics for Too Long, My Body Will Get Used to Them
While it is true that the body can get used to some medications or hormones (e.g., thyroid hormones), this is not the case for probiotics. Remember, probiotics are the good bacteria that naturally occur in a healthy human intestine.
Unfortunately, many of us don’t have a healthy intestinal tract and need these little probiotic helpers to support our body from its core. Your body does not produce probiotic bacteria, so your best approach is to regularly supplement with a probiotic that is designed to address your personal health goals.