If you ask me to pick one supplement I would with no hesitation pick the best probiotic I could find. Why? Let’s slow down and first see what exactly probiotics are?
1908, Elie Metchnikoff wins a noble prize for his work “Prolongation of life”. He observed a certain population of Bulgarian peasants had higher quality and expectancy of life. Upon further investigation, he found that this population was consuming high amounts of lactic acid bacteria in form of fermented dairy products. He later demonstrated that these same bacteria seem to aid digestion and improve human immune function.
The same bacteria are known as probiotics today. Across cultures, fermented foods have been a part of the human diet for centuries. Kimchi in Korea, Dhai in India, Sauerkraut in Germany, Kefir in Eastern Europe and of course yoghurt across cultures. Unfortunately, we have lost touch with our traditional diet which used to take care of our gut health through the introduction of such fermented foods. Modern day versions of such products lack effectiveness due to the presence of added sugars, preservatives and pasteurization processes. Which means we may be killing the exact same bacteria which are beneficial for us.
In a 2015 meta-analysis consisting of 23 studies and 1919 patients, it was concluded that probiotic consumption may lead to improving allergic symptoms and quality of life in patients suffering from hay fever (Zajac, Adams, and Turner 2015). For readers who are unfamiliar with meta-analyses, it is simply a review of previously done research to test the reliability of the results from the chosen studies.
According to an article on examine.com (https://examine.com/nutrition/erd–is-out-and-heres-your-exclusive-sneak-peek-/) multiple human and animal studies have shown a reduction in the signs of depression and anxiety with probiotic supplementation. Furthermore, a diverse set of probiotic strains seem to work better than a single culture probiotic. This suggests a symbiotic effect of the probiotic cultures on human health.
Along with scientific research, there exists a great deal of anecdotal evidence supporting the probiotics in different forms. It has shown improvements in digestion, allergic symptoms, mood disorders and even athletic performance. People also report the reduction in the frequency of flu symptoms, gut and respiratory infections.
According to Professor Robert Knight, the co-founder of the American Gut project, we can now predict with about 90% accuracy, if a person is lean or obese just based on the gut microbiome. Furthermore, by introducing bacteria from healthy individuals into patients with chronic diarrhoea, Professor Knight was able to cure the symptoms within one day and keep them stable for over a period of six months.
Knowing all this, the question remains. What can you do to improve your gut microbial health?
The Natural Way
As I mentioned before our ancestors figured this out pretty well. The evidence is in the fermented foods prepared by various cultures across the world. All these preparations contain some form of Lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria and Streptococci. I have included a list of all the important strains in the supplements section ahead. On the same note, here are a few products along with the recipe links you should consider including in your diet.
|Yoghurt / Dhai||https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w02pX4_QYAs|
|Chass or Buttermilk||https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9g7Z4zU_4bY|
Of course, there are plenty more fermented foods you can prepare but the above are easy to make or readily available in supermarkets. But please be aware that making them at home is not only cheaper but also guarantees the presence of microbes, which is not the case with packaged, pasteurized products. So please look for an „alive culture“ sign on the products before you consider buying them.
For the people who don’t mind spending a bit more money and are looking for convenience, probiotic supplements are a good option. You need to be careful when you buy them as not all the probiotics have what they claim. The things you have to pay close attention to are as follows.
- CFU count (Colony forming units): Please make sure any supplement you buy provides at least 20 Billion CFU per day. Any dose below this level will most likely not give you results you are looking for.
- Bacterial Strains: As a rule of thumb, the greater the number of strains the better the supplement. But please make sure that the probiotic contains the following strains without exceptions. (Key: L = Lactobacillus, B = Bifidobacterium & S = Streptococcus)
- L. Acidophilus
- L. Rhamnoses
- L. Plantarum
- L. Casei
- B. Lactis
- B. Longum
- B. Bifidum
- B. Breve
- S. Thermophilus
Things to Avoid
Apart from introducing probiotics into your gut, you must take active responsibility for preserving them. Use of antibiotics although very useful at times has shown to be harmful to the beneficial gut microbes. Full and long-term effects are still unknown. Processed sugar, soda and birth control pills change the pH of the gut, thus changing the balance of the gut microbiome which may lead to skin and digestion issues. So, for the most part, you are better off avoiding them.
There are plenty of things still unknown on this topic but nonetheless, it points us towards a very profound insight. The cells of the bacteria in our gut outnumber the human cells in your body by almost 10 to 1, which means you are more bacteria than human. We know now that the brain-gut axis is greatly affected by our gut microbiome (O’Mahony et al. 2015). There is evidence suggesting that a lot of mental health, ageing and neurodegenerative diseases may have a link to your gut microbiome.
All the evidence suggests that the way we interact with the bacteria in our surroundings, including the ones inside our bodies, has effects on our thoughts and emotions. The next question in the same directions would be, does our external environment also play a similar role? Experience and anecdotal evidence suggest it does. Your surroundings have a great influence on your physical and mental health. For example, people with pets show lower rates of depression than people who have no pets (O’Mahony et al. 2015; Cheung and Kam 2018). Same can be said about family and human interaction. Please take a look at the blue zones project which provides insights about the habits of centennial populations if you are interested in this topic. (https://www.bluezones.com/).
From the available evidence, it is not a long shot to say that the sustainable development movement may be hitting the right notes. In a struggle to save the planet, we are inevitably pushing to save ourselves. Our health is innately related to the way we interact with other beings as we saw from the evidence about pets and gut microbes. Extrapolating these findings to plants we eat and animals we consume is a sensible next step. There is more need than ever before to preserve our internal and external environment for not only the sake of our planet but for the sake of our own health at a very selfish level.
By -Ashwin Phatak
Zajac, Alexander E., Austin S. Adams, and Justin H. Turner. 2015. “A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Probiotics for the Treatment of Allergic Rhinitis.” International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology 5 (6): 524–32.
Image credits: TLFurrer