When do the small things become the things that have the biggest impact?
When we’re talking about the probiotic bacteria located within your gut!
Recent research is showing that the bacteria located within your gastrointestinal tract— referred to as your gut for short—have a much bigger impact on your overall health and athletic performance than previously thought.
Although this is a relatively new area of research, there are several factors that may influence the bacterial makeup of your gut that are beyond control. But one major variable we have almost total control over, is diet.
THE GOOD BACTERIA MATTER
Probiotics are tiny, living organisms, like some bacteria and yeast that reside inside our gut. Not all bacteria are probiotics, though. The "pro-" part marks the ones that are thought to provide a health benefit.
Probiotic organisms are found in a wide variety of fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, some aged cheeses, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha.
Supplementation is also a popular route to increase probiotic intake.
An intricate relationship exists between diet, microbes, and the gut.
While a basic similar ‘microbial core’ is common among humans, each person has a distinct and variable individual gut makeup, influenced by factors such as genetics, lifestyle, diet, and environment.
When bacteria are out of sync in the gut, things stop working like they should - much like a machine that has a part missing or doesn’t have the right oil in it. We inadvertently create an environment prone to disease when a few potentially harmful bacterial species outnumber more favorable strains. This state is called "dysbiosis". Diet-induced dysbiosis has been identified as a contributing factor for the development of a range of very serious health conditions, such as: cardiovascular disorders, colorectal cancer, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune diseases, Crohn's disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and ulcerative colitis.
If you want to improve your gut health, the best way to do this is to optimize the ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria in the gut.
When this happens, several health benefits have been shown, including:
- Improved tolerance to lactose in those with lactose intolerance
- Enhanced immune functioning
- Improvements of blood lipid levels
- Reduced muscle damage and improved muscular recovery
There is also promising and ongoing research linking gut health to everything from cognitive function to emotional health, but this research is still in its early phase.
So how do you maximize the good guys and minimize the bad guys?
Upping the number of good guys with both food and supplements is a start. So is giving your good gut bacteria their food of choice.
WHY PREBIOTICS MATTER
In order to thrive, probiotics need a consistent food supply. Enter prebiotics, or prebiotic fiber. Prebiotics are indigestible food ingredients that act as a food source for probiotics.
In other words, you can't digest them, but your gut bacteria can!
The image of a bacterial buffet in your innards may seem a little like a bad sci-fi movie, but the benefits associated with increased prebiotic fiber intake are real.
- Improved mineral absorption and bone mineral density
- Improved insulin sensitivity and markers of insulin resistance
- Increased satiety and reduced appetite
- Improved body weight management
Some natural sources of prebiotic fiber are: chicory; Jerusalem artichokes; a wide range of fruits and vegetables, particularly roots and greens; seeds such as flax and chia; some nuts, particularly with the skin on; and psyllium husk.
A good idea in general is to increase your fiber from all sources—and you'll be getting more prebiotics in your diet. But it can be a battle, because most foods only contain trace levels. This is when a supplement can help.
The most popular prebiotic-rich supplements include inulin, insoluble corn fiber, and potato starch.
HOW TO GET THE MOST OUT OF YOUR PRE- AND PROBIOTIC
There are no clear-cut recommendations when it comes to using probiotic supplements. The dose will largely depend on the product and the bacteria used. You'll find products containing a wide range of strains in amounts ranging from a billion CFU (colony-forming units) to upwards of 50 billion.
Typically, a probiotic should contain several billion microorganisms to increase the likelihood of benefit so it may be worth your while to take a dedicated probiotic supplement for a while if you haven't before.
When it comes to prebiotics, dosages range from 2-20 grams per day. The amount you decide to consume will depend on the ingredient, your tolerance, and the desired effect. Remember, prebiotics are indigestible, similar to fiber. Too much too soon can leave you feeling bloated. Start on the low end of this range and gradually increase your intake.
1 SHOULD I TAKE PROBIOTICS ON AN EMPTY STOMACH?
Some probiotic supplements advise taking them with food and others recommend taking them on an empty stomach. You'll find arguments online for both approaches, usually focused on helping bacteria survive the acidic environment of the stomach and arriving intact in the intestines.
TAKE YOUR PROBIOTIC ACCORDING TO THE LABEL'S RECOMMENDATIONS AND WHATEVER IS MOST CONVENIENT FOR YOU.
2 SHOULD I REFRIGERATE MY PROBIOTIC SUPPLEMENT?
Many probiotic bacteria are naturally sensitive to heat and moisture. Heat can kill the bacteria and moisture can lead to premature "activation" from the pills, only to see them die shortly after due to a lack of nutrients.
Ideally, you want to store your supplement according to the instructions on the label. Some supplements contain freeze-dried bacteria within capsules and tablets and do not require refrigeration; however, if ever unsure, storing in the refrigerator is your best bet.
3 ISN'T FOOD ENOUGH?
The advantage of supplements is that they can provide substantial numbers of bacteria without requiring you to drastically change your dietary preferences. So consume fermented food if you can, and definitely aim to get more prebiotic fiber in your diet. But based on current knowledge, it's definitely a good idea to boost your ratio with strategic supplementation as well.