Probiotics have gained massive appeal in the last decade. While the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) noted a rise in the use of probiotics by Americans between 2007 and 2012, an academic study noted that probiotic supplement use spiked upwards between 2013 and 2017.
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 online or on store shelves, 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 can contain a wide variety of different probiotic strains. The idea behind these products is that more microbial diversity is more beneficial to gut health. But are multi-strain 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 amounts present in 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, instead of 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 may 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 amounts provided cater to your needs.
Quality over quantity is the key!
Myth #2: Yogurt Is the Best Probiotic Food
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. Additionally, 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 Lactobacillus spp., a type of lactic acid bacteria that may be beneficial for gut health. Additionally, sauerkraut is rich in vitamin K2, which plays a crucial role in bone and cardiovascular health.
While raw sauerkraut typically has live cultures, many types of sauerkraut are pasteurized. Fortunately, pasteurized sauerkraut has also been demonstrated to be beneficial for gut health, which could be due to prebiotics or even to beneficial postbiotics.
Kefir is a fermented, dairy-based beverage originating from Turkey, and it’s another rich source of live cultures. In fact, kefir contains a diverse mixture of beneficial bacteria and yeasts that seem to act in a symbiotic way to ferment lactose. Some studies also suggest kefir may have beneficial antimicrobial properties.
If you’re looking for a plant-based beverage that's both rich in probiotics and refreshing, look no further than kombucha. It is a fermented tea drink containing beneficial bacteria and yeast which 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, 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.
Also, keep in mind that the live cultures used to create lacto-fermented foods are utilized because they are effective at fermenting foods and are safe for human consumption. Their ability to bestow a health benefit is not guaranteed. In many cases the exact species or strains that are present may not be listed on the food label, making it difficult for you to evaluate any claim that the food truly contains probiotics.
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.
Lacto-fermentation is a process in which lactic acid bacteria metabolize (or “break down”) sugars and starches such as lactose in foods. This process is done without oxygen (it is anaerobic), and a byproduct is 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 down proteins into peptides and amino acids, while digesting polysaccharides and oligosaccharides into disaccharides, monosaccharides, and lactic acid. Many bacteria responsible for lacto-fermentation 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. Some fermented foods are meant to be baked or cooked, and others may be pasteurized, which kills off any bacteria that might remain.
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” or even “raw” or “actively fermenting” 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 supplements 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. Most studies of probiotics have focused on strains from two genera: Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
Lactobacilli produce lactic acid, and can help maintain a healthy small intestinal barrier. Some Lactobacillus species and strains may also support healthy lactose digestion, maintain healthy cholesterol levels, and even improve stress and sleep quality.
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 product with a strain that caters to your own individual needs rather than simply grabbing whatever is available at the pharmacy. The most effective supplement 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 widely-understood benefits of using a probiotic. 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 support a healthy immune response.
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 may affect neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA, and dopamine.
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 digestive 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 certain 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. Preclinical studies suggest that certain probiotic strains may help sustain testosterone levels, which is good news for men.
Meanwhile, women can also benefit from probiotics. 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.
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 randomized controlled trial found that the probiotic strain Bifidobacterium breve A1 can help improve mild cognitive impairment in older adults.
Understanding Probiotics: Myths and Facts
Probiotics for gut health have become increasingly popular over the past decade, and it’s easy to see why. However, 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!
To learn more about the science behind probiotics for stress and mental health, check out What to Know About Neuralli Mood.