We know probiotics are good for us. They have been proven in studies to not only be an integral component of digestive health, but a key component of immune function and brain function as well. However, weeding through all the available options would be easier if we knew a little more about them. Fermented foods contain probiotics, but rarely state on the label how many beneficial bacteria are present. Probiotic pills claim many billions per pill. Which is better?
The answer to that question depends on what you are looking for from a probiotic.
First we need to define some terms…
Colony Forming Unit (or cfu) – Unit of measure of the number of probiotics that may live and reproduce to colonize in the gut.
Dysbiosis – Condition when the G.I. microbiome are populated predominantly with unhealthy, pathogenic bacteria and fungi. When a microbiome is “dysbiotic,” the range of species present is less diverse and is mainly made up of bad yeasts such as Candida Albicans and bacteria such as e. coli and/or clostridium difficile, which cause adverse health problems when overgrown.
Healthy Microbiome – A microbiome with a large population of beneficial bacteria and fungi as well as a diverse range of healthy microbial species.
Lyophilization – A freeze drying process used on probiotic bacteria to make them shelf stable. This process starts with living probiotics. Once lyophilized, they are no longer living. They are not dead either. Rather, they are in a dormant state – a state of hibernation. Once ingested into the body, they must go through a complex metamorphosis to “come back to life” and become viable again.
Microbiome – The collective whole of all the bacteria and fungi present in your gastrointestinal (G.I.) tract. It can also be thought of as your inner ecosystem.
Probiotics – Strains of bacteria and yeasts that are known to confer a health benefit to the host (the person who consumes them). Not all bacteria and yeasts are bad for humans; probiotic strains are good for humans.
If your objective is to populate your gastrointestinal tract with the healthiest microbiome possible, then fermented foods are your best option. Not only are the probiotic bacteria and yeasts found in these foods thriving and viable at the time of consumption, they are also swimming in a food matrix that supports them. Fermented foods are a complex “soup” of living bacteria, fungi, enzymes, and nutrients. Once ingested, the nutrients and enzymes in these foods not only help the probiotics thrive in the G.I. tract, they will also support healthy bacteria already present in the gut.
A key concept to keep in mind when thinking about probiotics is their viability at the time of consumption; this is when it really matters.
Manufacturers of probiotic supplements lyophilize their probiotics, put them in a capsule and then state the number of colony forming units (cfu) contained in the pills “At the time of manufacture.” There are two main benefits to this method of probiotic delivery: First, it increases the shelf life. This makes it easier for retailers to offer these products and makes their sale more profitable for both retailers and manufacturers because there is less waste due to spoilage. Second, they travel well. Have you ever tried to carry a liquid onto an airplane? Don’t bother unless you are taking the tiniest of bottles.
However, the big question is…How many of these probiotic cells survive the metamorphosis, once ingested, then come back to life to thrive in the gut? Certainly, many do, but how many is unknown. Also, probiotic pills do not contain the nutrients and enzymes to help the probiotics grow in the gut. Feeding and supporting the probiotics in a pill will be much more dependent on the foods consumed with them.
When choosing a probiotic, it is important to stay focused on the true goal – the health of the “host.” Overemphasizing a single piece of the decision puzzle, looking solely for high cfu counts for example, will not necessarily help you achieve your goals. Similarly, when it comes to our health, convenience doesn’t always equate to best possible outcome.
Fermented foods are a more effective way to get your probiotics, from a biological perspective – and that is the perspective that matters in this case. Isn’t it?