Despite their tiny size, probiotics have gained massive appeal in the last decade. According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), probiotics are the third-most commonly used dietary supplement, aside from vitamins and minerals. Moreover, a 2020 consumer report found that 48% of Americans are making an effort to consume probiotics for gut health, while 25% said they’d spend more on foods and beverages containing them.
Needless to say, probiotics have become incredibly popular, and for a good reason! Consuming probiotics is an excellent way to support gut health, among many other bodily functions.
But with all the popularity, there is, unfortunately, a great deal of misinformation. Let’s cut through the noise and get down to the facts. Here are six myths surrounding probiotics.
Myth #1: More Is Always Better
When searching for probiotics for gut health, you might have noticed that some brands offer products containing several different probiotic cultures instead of just one.
This is quite different from a few decades ago, when commercial probiotics were fairly generalized, and companies rarely made distinctions between different species. In other words, probiotics were probiotics.
In recent years, however, we’ve learned that different strains contain their own unique array of benefits. This has led many probiotic manufacturers to create products that each contain a wide variety of different probiotic strains. Generally the idea behind these products is that more microbial diversity is more beneficial to gut health. But are multistrain probiotics really better than single-strain products? Is “more” always better?
A multi-strain product may be beneficial if there is a scientifically demonstrated synergistic effect between the strains that are included, at the doses provided by the supplement. Alternatively, trying out a multi-strain product may allow you to see if one of the many strains in the product is helpful to you, vs. trying each strain one at a time. Keep in mind, however, that only so many CFUs (colony forming units) can fit into one capsule, so a multi-strain product will have less of each strain than a single-strain probiotic would.
More strains in a product may or may not be beneficial to you. What's most important is that the strain(s) and their unique science-backed benefits at the dose provided cater to your needs.
Quality over quantity is the key!
Myth #2: Yogurt Is the Probiotic King
As a nutritious, delicious food, yogurt is an incredibly popular snack and a celebrated source of probiotics for gut health. This reputation is so strong, in fact, that many yogurt brands will include a seal that verifies its live culture count.
However, yogurt is not the only probiotic food on the market–in fact, there are some foods out there with even higher levels of beneficial bacteria. Moreover, not all yogurts are created equal when it comes to probiotic count, and while some brands will disclose their CFU count, this isn’t always the case.
If you’re looking to get more probiotics out of your diet but you’re not a fan of yogurt, consider these probiotic foods instead:
You might know it best as a hot dog topping, but sauerkraut is actually an incredibly versatile food that’s rich in probiotics. Sauerkraut is an Eastern European food that’s made from shredded cabbage, and it’s known for having a salty, sour taste that pairs well with savory dishes. Sauerkraut is an excellent source of probiotics, vitamins, minerals, and important antioxidants, but is rather high in salt.
Kefir is a fermented, dairy-based beverage originating from Turkey, and it’s a rich source of probiotics. In fact, kefir contains a more diverse mixture of beneficial bacteria and yeasts than yogurt, making it a better probiotic food source.
If you’re looking for a plant-based beverage that's both rich in probiotics and refreshing, look no further than kombucha. Kombucha, a fermented tea drink that contains beneficial bacteria and yeast, has become exceptionally popular in recent years. With its natural fizz and unique flavor, it’s an excellent alternative to soft drinks like soda.
Tempeh is a fermented soybean cake, and while it’s particularly popular as a vegan protein source, it’s also great probiotic food. Known for its savory flavor and meaty texture, tempeh is rich in probiotic bacteria and vitamin B12.
Similar to sauerkraut, kimchi is a (typically) cabbage-based fermented food that’s known for its deliciously sour, slightly spicy flavor. Aside from its wealth of vitamins and minerals, this Korean dish is rich in lactic acid bacteria - particularly species within the genus Lactobacilli, which are known for their ability to aid digestion. If you’re looking to limit your salt intake, however, kimchi may not be the best option for you.
Myth #3: All Fermented Foods Contain Probiotics
Humans have been fermenting foods for centuries. Wine and beer are just the start. Don’t forget kefir, kimchi, kombucha, and even bread.
When a food or drink is fermented, it undergoes a process called lacto-fermentation, in which the sugars and starches of the food are consumed and broken down by lactic acid bacteria, resulting in lactic acid.
This transformation yields two results: first, it can change the taste and aroma of the food. Cucumbers become pickles, cabbage becomes kimchi, and tea becomes kombucha.
The second change is in the food’s nutrition. Typically the active cultures in fermented foods break proteins down into peptides and amino acids, while digesting polysaccharides and oligosaccharides into disaccharides, monosaccharides, and lactic acid. The bacteria responsible for fermenting are generally considered “good” bacteria, and some have been found to possess probiotic characteristics.
Does this mean that all fermented foods contain probiotics? Not necessarily.
In order for a bacteria species to be deemed a probiotic, it must provide some sort of health benefit when administered in adequate amounts, such as aiding digestion. However, in the case of many fermented foods, the bacteria only make the food tastier and more aromatic.
Moreover, some fermented foods undergo processes that remove bacteria, including the beneficial kind, as with beer and wine. Additionally, some fermented foods are meant to be baked or cooked, which kills off any bacteria to begin with.
Still, many fermented foods are delicious and rich in gut-loving bacteria, such as yogurt, kimchi, kefir, and more. If you’re curious about whether or not a fermented food contains probiotics, check for the phrase “live cultures” on the label.
Myth #4: All Probiotics Are Created Equal
As probiotics for gut health have surged in popularity, many brands have started offering their own blends.
This has led to an abundance of probiotic products hitting store shelves. For those new to probiotics, these products can start to blur together, which can make it feel as though all probiotics have virtually the same effects.
However, this is not true. Probiotics feature a broad range of different strains, each offering unique functions and benefits. Many studies of probiotics have focused on strains from two genera: Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
In the Bifidobacterium genus, there are some strains that are known for producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which play a massive role in managing inflammation in the gut.
Meanwhile, there are some Lactobacilli that produce lactic acid in the small intestine. It’s been suggested that some strains within this genus can help kill off harmful bacteria in the gut, which can help maintain a healthy gut barrier.
It’s important to note, however, that we say some strains of bacteria. This is because ultimately, the benefits behind a probiotic are strain-specific.
That’s why it’s important to choose a probiotic with a strain that caters to your own individual needs rather than simply grab whatever is available at the pharmacy. The most effective probiotic is one with strains that work for you!
Myth #5: You Only Need Probiotics for Digestive Health
When you start adding a probiotic to your daily regimen, you might notice a wide range of positive changes to your body - particularly digestion. And as you can see in our blog on the best probiotics for gut health, this is one of the most prominent benefits of using a probiotic.
This change is attributed to the fact that probiotics work to balance the microbiota in your gut, which can help support bowel movements and digestion.
However, there’s a bit of a misconception that probiotics are just for gut health.
When your gut’s microbiome is healthy and balanced, it can strengthen the gut barrier. And this is important because the gut barrier protects against “bad” bacteria and other pathogens. When the gut barrier functions well, your immune system doesn't have to work as hard to protect your body from illness, which can help manage inflammation.
While an inflammatory response is a vital function in the body when healing from a wound or infection, if it doesn't turn itself off, it can lead to skin problems, brain fog, difficulty concentrating, and fatigue.
From gut health, to immune health, to mental health, the microbiome can play an important role.
The link between the gut and the immune system is largely mediated through molecules moving through the blood. Meanwhile, gut and brain are linked through a connection known as the gut-brain axis, and it’s largely orchestrated through the vagus nerve and neurotransmitters like serotonin.
While there’s much to learn about this gut-brain connection, experts have determined that stress can have an impact on gastrointestinal health, and vice versa. Consequently, supporting a healthy gut can indirectly support mental health, and probiotics are an excellent way to do so.
Myth #6: Probiotics Aren’t for Everyone
Some might tell you that you only need probiotics for gut health, and that they are only for those who deal with gastrointestinal issues like bloating, cramps, and gas.
And while it’s true that people with these issues can greatly benefit from probiotics, they aren’t the only ones who can gain something from taking them.
On top of a more balanced gut, probiotics offer something for everyone. For men, a combination of prebiotic and probiotic foods may help with testosterone levels. Interestingly, one 2021 article demonstrated that some human gut bacteria can synthesize testosterone.
Meanwhile, women can also benefit from probiotics. For women, Lactobacillus is the most abundant genus of bacteria in the vagina, and certain probiotics have been found to contribute to vaginal health even when taken orally. Moreover, women who take probiotics during pregnancy may find relief from certain digestive issues and may even reduce the risk of their child developing atopic dermatitis later in life.
There is also some evidence that children with acute gastroenteritis can benefit from probiotics. Additionally, there’s research demonstrating the benefits of probiotics for autistic children, particularly the L. plantarum PS128 strain.
For example, one clinical study observing 131 autistic children found that those taking PS128 showed fewer coping behaviors such as limiting social communication and interaction, and engaging in repetitive activities. Additionally, a double-blind placebo-controlled study with autistic boys age 7-15 found that those taking PS128 were less likely to be hyperactive or engage in disruptive behavior.
Seniors may benefit from probiotics, as well. In addition to supporting gut health at a time of life when gut microbiome diversity tends to wane, certain probiotics may help support brain health as well. One study found that probiotics may improve memory for seniors with Alzheimer’s, while one randomized controlled trial found that the probiotic Bifidobacterium breve can help improve mild cognitive impairment in older adults.
Bottom line: anyone can benefit from probiotics!
Understanding Probiotics: Myths and Facts
Probiotics for gut health have become increasingly popular over the past decade, and it’s easy to see why. And while probiotics can make a healthy addition to one’s lifestyle, the amount of misinformation on the internet can become overwhelming.
That’s why educating yourself about probiotics is important; understanding the myths and facts will help you make more informed decisions about your health!