What's the Deal with Probiotics?

Bacteria, Bacteria Everywhere!


"Probiotics" is a current health buzzword. Probiotics specifically encompasses the bacteria found in our guts. Broken down to it's etymological components, pro- meaning "in favor of" and bios- meaning "life." So, probiotics are "life-favoring." That's pleasant, isn't it?

But what exactly are the little buggers? Why would you want to ingest billions of little bacteria? Is there any validity to taking probiotics or is just another fad?

Let's look at some stats and facts.

1. Scientists estimate that the amount of bacteria living in and on our bodies is roughly 10x the number of cells that compose our bodies. And if we're composed of billions of cells... well, that's a lot of bacteria.

2. The good guys in our gut perform a number of vital functions for us including:

  • helping digest food ( you thought you did it all on your own didn't you?)
  • enhance digestion and nutrient absorption
  • synthesize vitamins B and K (both of which are involved in countless metabolic processes)
  • enhance gastrointestinal motility  and function ( keeping everything moving, if you know what I mean)
  • obstruct bad bacteria and other pathogen's growth
  • produce coagulation and growth factors
  • help regulates intestinal and mucus secretion and utilization
  • Gut bacteria is also heavily involved in immune system function.

What can disrupt their cozy intestinal environment?

  • Medications- particularly antibiotics (which will kill off the good and bad guys)
  • Stress (lots of it)- stress hormones may encourage bad bacteria growth
  • Crappy diet- one bereft of whole foods and laden with processed junk
  • Poor gut motility- meaning stuff just sits around, a product of not enough fiber.

Symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas, bloating, diarrhea, reflux, allergies, and nausea are indicators that something might be wrong internally. Ingesting probiotics help nourish and replenish our infinitesimal friends and can relieve those symptoms (more on that later).


Given how involved our microscopic friends are to our overall health and function, we would do well to keep them happy and robust. For example, research found probiotics to help restore the protective lining of the intestines (which may help reduce symptoms of IBS and IBD). So, probiotics are not just a fad. 

It's also easy to see how having a happy gut leads to better performance- be it athletic or otherwise. 

Where to Find Probiotics

Typically, fermentation provides a home for all these little guys so food sources such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, and tempe contain probiotics.  (Just make sure the yogurt label says “contains live cultures”  or “active cultures” for maximal benefit.) The current recommendation for healthy individuals is to eat 2-3 servings of fermented food per day. 

But if that's not feasible, for whatever reason, supplements are perfectly ok too (as long as it's from a reputable company). Most supplements contain bacteria from two families: lactobacillus and bifidobacterium. For example, bifidobacterium bifidum (Bb-02). The first name is the genus, the second is the species, and the parenthetical are the strain of that particular species.

A reasonable starting dose is 3-5 billion-- yes, billions of those little guys. 

On a personal note- since I'm undergoing treatment for Lyme disease and the primary modality is antibiotics, my doctor has me taking a plethora of probiotics to attenuate any negative effects in my gut. The same should apply for anyone taking a course (or two) of antibiotics. Those meds don't distinguish between the good and bad guys; taking probiotics will help replenish the lost bacteria.

Here is a list of reputable brands of probiotics to try.