A search for 'healthy gut' renders about 1,190,000,000 results on Google. These days, it seems everyone is concerned with taking care of their stomach health and the bacteria—both good and bad— inside of it.
In recent years, probiotics have emerged as a star player in the gut game, with dozens of brands offering various strains for varying issues as well as medical research and endorsements. It's a good time to be probiotics, you might say.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are "live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host," according to the World Health Organization.
Despite these dazzling reviews, up until a month ago, I hadn't joined the bandwagon. I am, by nature, dubious of supplements. I don't take vitamins, I don't mix protein into my smoothies, I don't take fish oils. I rarely even take Advil. But after a year of chronic yeast infections (yes, as aggravating as it sounds) my doctor recommended I give probiotic supplements a try—so here we are.
Ahead, I speak with experts on the potential benefits of probiotics, how to go about choosing the best bottle for your needs, and what 30 days of probiotics has really done for my gut.
What Are Probiotics?
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as "live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host." Essentially, we have trillions of bacteria in our digestive tracts and approximately 500 species—some good, others bad. When your body is functioning well, the two balance each other out. However, when an imbalance occurs, so can uncomfortable symptoms and illness.
Enter probiotics: these microorganisms found in food and supplements can promote gastrointestinal wellbeing. However, the WHO also asserts that "the current state of evidence suggests that probiotic effects are strain-specific. Strain identity is important to link a strain to a specific health effect." In other words, the probiotic I might take for vaginal health is different from what another person might need for irritable bowel syndrome.
Why Should You Take Them
For Jules Miller, the founder of The Nue Co., good health starts in the gut. "The complex ecosystem of good and bad bacteria is known as the microbiome. A healthy microbiome has been proven to impact everything from skin to mood to weight and digestion," she tells MyDomaine. "Probiotics help to support your overall health by repopulating and rebalancing your microbiome."
For me, after countless months of dealing with the same issues and visualizing bad bacteria in my stomach being defeated by a pill packed with probiotics, I had to admit—the whole idea was appealing.
Who Should Take Them
Our gut health impacts our mental and physical wellbeing in a wide range of ways. From a brighter complexion to more energy, there's much to be gained from working on a happy gut.
Because probiotics are found in foods and as supplements, you may be wondering which approach is best for you. "I may not emphasize probiotics for the general person in good health, however, it is wise to include probiotics as part of a sustainable, nourishing diet," Sydney Greene, a registered dietitian nutritionist, tells MyDomaine. "For the average person, I would suggest consuming probiotics naturally found in foods first before recommending a probiotic."
Naturally occurring sources of probiotics include fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and most yogurts contain live bacteria as well. Supplemental probiotics are usually best for those that need a higher dose than they can get from food or who have a specific health issue they are dealing with, according to Greene.
For the average person, I would suggest consuming probiotics naturally found in foods first before recommending a probiotic.
A few examples of health issues that probiotics treat include yeast infections, irritable and inflammatory bowel syndromes, constipation, lactose intolerance, gum disease, and eczema. Like the WHO explained, probiotics are strain-specific, so it's important that you are taking a supplement that's targeted to your issue (this is a helpful tool for finding out which specific strains you should look for depending on your health needs).
Greene adds, “Tests are still new and research is still emerging, so I try to recommend probiotic genus and species that have been well researched. Most probiotic supplements list the bacteria genus and species on the bottle, not the specific strain.”
A Brief Note On Prebiotics
"Put simply, prebiotics feed the existing good bacteria in your gut," Miller explains. "If you think of probiotic bacteria as a seed, the prebiotic is a fertilizer: it encourages the good bacteria to grow and multiply, giving it the best chance of survival in your gut."
The Nue Co. offers both pre and probiotics, which is known as a symbiotic. "Rather than using live strains of bacteria, which tend to die off, our formula works with bacteria spores," she says. "These lie dormant until they reach our small intestine, where they begin to multiply and 'activate'. We use a 15 billion spore dose probiotic and prebiotic inulin derived from 100% organic chicory root, which has been proven to help treat symptoms of IBS."
If you're curious which foods prebiotics exist naturally in, you'll want to reach for produce like garlic, onions, leeks, and asparagus (among several others).
How Can You Tell If It’s Working
Ah yes, the question anyone who has ever taken probiotics has asked: how long does it take to work? Unsurprisingly (and annoyingly): it varies.
“The time that it takes for one to feel positive effects from a probiotic differs between individuals and the symptoms that are being addressed,” Greene explains. “It is important to consider other factors of one's lifestyle including sleep, diet, hydration, and stress when assessing symptom changes. Not all probiotics are created equal.”
She adds that if your symptoms become worse (or new symptoms emerge), stop taking the probiotic and consider a different brand or type of bacteria. “In general, I recommend rotating between two or three different supplements that are well tolerated in order to consume a variety of bacteria.”
Miller notes that a healthy gut will aid in better digestion, support your stress response, boost energy levels, lower obesity, and address skin concerns. However, she also emphasizes that it’s not always easy to track your results.
If you’re using a probiotic for gut issues, then keep a bathroom or bloating diary. If you’re using it for skin support, take weekly progress pictures. When you put all of these together, you can really start to see how something is working for you.
“I always recommend that people get specific about what they’re looking to address since taking a probiotic can support so many facets of our health and track their progress,” she says. “For example, if you’re using a probiotic for gut issues, then keep a bathroom or bloating diary. If you’re using it for skin support, take weekly progress pictures. When you put all of these together, you can really start to see how something is working for you.”
What Probiotics Did For Me
After digging around on the internet, I found that the L. reuteri (Lactobacillus reuteri, if you'd like a tongue twister) strain was best-suited for addressing my needs related to yeast infections. I ordered a 30-capsule bottle from Garden of Life that's a once-daily probiotic targeted specifically to women.
A month later—and in the spirit of honesty—I really don't have much to report on. Thankfully, I haven't had a full-blown infection return, but subtle symptoms and triggers remain (if you know, you know). The only change I did observe was a slight redness reduction on my face (according to Miller, “interesting studies have shown that people suffering from digestive issues often have a high prevalence of acne or other inflammatory skin conditions).
I don't plan to throw in the towel on my probiotic journey. Good things come to those who wait, and several experts recommend giving your probiotics a few months before expecting significant results. I’ll also be adding more foods with natural prebiotics and probiotics to my diet. Here’s to having a healthy gut.