The human digestive track is home to more than 500 species of bacteria that equal out to 100 trillion or so bugs busy working. To remain healthy, we need probiotic bacteria or the “good” bugs to perform their daily tasks. We trade housing (our digestive track) and food (prebiotics and other food sources) in return for services on their part.
Probiotics play a role in our immune defense system, they synthesize certain vitamins (B and K for examples), secrete little bits of anti-biotics and anti-cancer substances, and produce important short-chain fatty acids to keep the gut lining healthy. They help to break down and digest food so that we can absorb the nutrients they contain. These are just a few examples of the role probiotics (and pre) play in our health.
So, what are these bugs and what do they need to eat to do their job well?
The good bugs need specific types of food or substances to flourish and maintain a healthy gut environment. This is where “Pre-biotics” come in: they are the food for the good bugs (probiotics). Notice that prefix is “pre” for the food, and not “pro”. This is an important distinction that is often confused. Prebiotics are the soluble fiber food sources we provide through our diet or supplements for the Probiotics to feed on to help them survive and flourish.
A prebiotic is a soluble starch or fiber that the human digestive system cannot digest on its own, but instead is fermented by gut bacteria. All prebiotics are classified as fiber, but not all fiber is a prebiotic. Insoluble fiber does not get broken down at all, by either our digestive system or gut bacteria. Insoluble fiber acts as roughage and to help bulk up our stool.
Prebiotics, however, are digested via fermentation by the microbes or “bugs” in both our large and small intestine as they pass through. Much in the same way we convert macronutrients like fat, protein, and carbs into energy for our muscles, brains, etc., the good bugs use prebiotics for the energy needed to function well at their job and fulfill the role they play in maintaining a healthy “microbiome” in our gut. Because of the role probiotics or the “good bugs” play in our health, if we don’t have enough probiotics, or they don’t have enough prebiotic food to eat, it is impossible for “us” to be healthy without “them”.
Wait, back up. Did you say something about a microbiome? Yep, sure did. It’s a term that most people have heard of at least once by now but stop short at understanding. Trust me when I say it’s important, so allow me to give you a quick snippet.
From the lining of the inside of your nose, mouth, lungs, genitourinary tract (the private lands south of the border) your entire digestive system, essentially on every epithelial surface of our body (type of body tissue that forms the covering on all internal and external surfaces of your body, lines body cavities and hollow organs, and is the major tissue in glands…whoa, that’s a lot of stuff!) a microbiotic world exists.
It is an “unseen by the naked eye” densely populated miniature world of an interactive network of microbes, viruses, and in some cases parasites that functions much like our world does currently: good guys vs. the bad guys where everyone plays a role in who ends up as the winner monopolizing all the resources. Peace, freedom, and overall wellbeing with happiness; or dictatorship with death, starvation, and destruction.
Our microbiomes have a direct impact on our hormones, brain and mental health, digestive health, endocrine health, skin health, metabolic health… the list is vast. Healthy microbiomes are a big deal, and it starts in the gut.
We have 5-6 basic types of microbes that can exist in this microbiotic world that we currently know of: Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, Protozoa, Helminths, and Prions.
Probiotics are specific strains of bacteria or a yeast (one that we know of) that have KNOWN HEALTH BENEFITS FOR HUMANS. Therefore, they are considered the good guys. There are also bad bacteria, or pathogens, that can make you sick and disrupt the microbiome if they are allowed to flourish. The Putin and his henchmen of the microbiome if you will.
We also have commensals. Research is still ongoing to try and understand the role they play in our microbiome, but one role they have found is to potentially help regulate our metabolism. Our goal for our microbiomes should be to have optimal numbers of probiotics and commensals and minimize the number of pathogens as much as possible.
So how do we do that?
Welp, firstly, it’s important to understand that probiotic supplements that we take are transient employees in our digestive system. They have contracts for up to 2 weeks. If well fed and housed, they bust their butts doing odd jobs in our intestinal infrastructure to build new roads and housing, repair old roads, borders, bridges, plumbing, etc. They replenish, restore, and create vital nutrients desperately needed by all our other systems. They supply weapons to our immune system. Then, after about 2 weeks, we literally poop them out. This is an ongoing process, which is why it is important to not only continually take in probiotics through our food sources, but also through supplements. We need to keep the good guys out numbering the bad guys.
Ideally, we should try to get in pre & probiotics from food as much as possible. However, for some folks (such as myself) with certain food allergies, that might not be possible. We also must consider the current state of agricultural practices (toxic) and soil composition(depleted), that are growing the foods available to us. Honestly, its not pretty. This is where supplementation comes in.
It’s not just the allergy prone that need help with daily supplementation. Folks with leaky gut or autoimmune conditions (except for people with severely depressed immune systems), or that are sick from random funk floating around. Remember, probiotics help to bolster your immune system.
If you are taking antibiotics, and after finishing a course of antibiotics, consider probiotic supplementation. The type of probiotic you use depends on whether you are currently on antibiotics or if you are finished with treatment. The whole point of antibiotics is to eliminate the bad bacteria or pathogens that are causing infections and making you sick. However, antibiotics do not discriminate between good and bad bacterial microbes. They wipe out both throughout the course of treatment. Supplementation with probiotics can help to replenish the supply of the good bacteria. This can then help increase your immune systems’ ability to heal.
This is extremely important because it can take anywhere from 6 weeks to a year for your body to build back up a balanced microbiome after just one course of antibiotic treatment. Yikes! Furthermore, replenishment only happens if you are doing all the necessary steps to have that occur, including a diet that provides the appropriate nutrition targeted to your needs. How many people do you think are out there doing that? Yea, not many. What does your nutrition look like, hmmm?
If you are currently on antibiotics, then you would want to take a probiotic that is not bacteria based. Instead, look for one that contains the yeast probiotic Saccharomyces Boulardii commonly listed as S. boulardii. Because it is based on yeast rather than bacteria, it can be used while on antibiotics and it won’t be wiped out.
This keeps some of the good guys in play doing good work while you are being treated. It can also help with the diarrhea that commonly arises from antibiotic use. Post antibiotics you would resume a mixture of yeast and bacteria-based probiotics. Yeast based probiotics S. boulardii favor prebiotics with Mannan-Oligosaccharides (MOS) and beta glucans. If you have a yeast allergy or are currently on an antifungal medication, then S. boulardii is not for you.
Other things to think and speak to your medical provider about are the various types of bacteria probiotics available and which ones would be best for you to take. The two main probiotic bacteria that reside in the digestive track are Lacto bacilli and Bifido bacteria, but there are others that we need. If you are going to take supplements, don’t be brand loyal. Mix it up from month to month to be certain that you are replenishing with various strains.
Each product has different microbes even if it contains the L. bacilli you usually take. However, there are various types of probiotics available, and you may or may not need the types they contain. Perhaps you already have an abundance of L. bacilli but are depleted in another type. Like in all things, variety is the spice of life!
Bacteria based probiotics could cause significant issues if you are someone that is sensitive to histamine. Histamine is a fermentation byproduct of many types of probiotics as they feed on prebiotics. An option could be yeast-based S. boulardii or a single strain bacteria-based probiotic such as lactobacillus plantarum in very low doses. Always speak with your provider to get an informed recommendation based on your medical history.
Which brings me to another important point to consider: Be MINDFUL of how quickly you increase your intake of pre and probiotics. As a reminder, prebiotics are the food that probiotics feed on, which in turn allows the probiotics to flourish and do their jobs. As a result, how much and how many microbes we have in our gut is based on what we eat all the time.
Different foods contain different microbes (probiotics). Different soluble fiber foods (prebiotics) feed the microbes (probiotics). So, if you haven’t been taking in a lot of prebiotics for the probiotics to feed on, then the likelihood of you having a robust army of probiotics in your gut is slim to none. Essentially, you gave them shelter but no food.
Slow and Steady wins the race.
You might think the answer is to just eat a crap ton of prebiotic type foods to correct this. DON’T DO THAT. Your stomach and gut will hate you, and then you’ll probably hate me. Nobody wants that, right? It’s a terrible plan because there needs to already be probiotics in the gut to eat and ferment the prebiotic. In decent numbers. Prebiotics without probiotics = painful, bloaty, gassy belly. Not cool.
Remember that prebiotics are soluble fibers that cannot be broken down by OUR innate digestive system. However, this fiber source is a fine cuisine that the probiotic microbes love to feast on. It is the probiotic microbes that break it down and use it. First, build up your good guy transient work force by offering shelter (eating probiotic food sources or supplements), and then slowly offer enough food for them to eat without leaving leftovers to stink up the place. GO SLOW, feed according to need.
Now you might be thinking, heck Carly, I’ll just take in a high dose of daily probiotic supplements. Bring in a whole country all at once to go to work and war. Again, DON’T DO THAT. When replenishing the stores of the good guys, most folks will find that they feel worse before they feel better. Sometimes horrible and flu like. Also not cool, and makes it unlikely for you to continue to use probiotics. We don't want that to happen, we want happy gut to happen.
Lots of things can get broken down and displaced when the good guys start to overpower the bad guys. Bad bacteria are not gracious losers and might kick and scream on their way out the back door. Sometimes this is referred to as the “die-off”. Ever hear of "too much of a good thing"? Yea, that. Everything in moderation.
If you find probiotics are causing you discomfort, pain, or ill feelings, back off of the dose. Instead, increase it in slow increments, along with the slow increase in the prebiotic soluble fiber to match the need of the feed. This might look like taking ½ of the capsule or serving size of the probiotic for several days or a week, mixed in with your food. If you are feeling okay, then start slowly increasing your soluble fiber or prebiotic supplement in the same way. As always, talk to your medical provider about what would be best for YOU.
None of the above information is to be taken or understood as medical advice. Instead, it is simply educational information in one area about an important topic that many are interested in. I hope that you found it helpful and that it sparked some thoughts about conversations you can have with your medical provider or dietitian about your current gut health and wellbeing status. My next blog entry will be discussing the different types of fiber and food sources of pre and pro biotics. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles!