Probiotic Are Just For Digestion + Other Microbiome Myths

We love that terms like gut health and the microbiome have gone mainstream. But, as is the way with all big wellness trends, it takes a little sleuthing to divide the truth from the slick salesmanship.

Did you know there are more bacteria in your mouth alone than the entire human population of earth? Nerdy statistic, yes, but perfect proof that learning about probiotics and how they interrelate with our microbiome can be a complex topic.

We’ve been following the trajectory of new supplement startup, Seed, as they’ve developed one of the most cutting edge ‘synbiotics’ on the market (launching just this week). Seed founders and co-CEOs, Ara Katz and Raja Dhir explained to us that priobiotics are about far more than just gut health and that the promise of microbiome research could radically transform our approach to health and wellness in the coming years. Seed’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid, is also Chair of the UN’s Expert Panel on Probiotics (yes, this is an actual panel).

The future of probiotics is promising and we’ve been learning all about it from Ara and Raja. Watch for more from the brand in the coming months. To start – we’re keeping things low key with this simple list of probiotic ‘myths’. There’s a bit of a learning curve here with bacteria and biotics for most of us. Learn more below and check out Seed’s very first product launches, synbiotics developed specifically for men and women’s daily health.

Myth #1:
Fermented foods and beverages (kimchi, kombucha, kefir, etc.) contain probiotics.

Scientifically speaking, most fermented foods and beverages don’t qualify as probiotics. And neither do probiotic nuts, chocolate, shampoo, or mattresses. The World Health Organization’s official scientific definition states that probiotics are ‘live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host’.

Just because a product contains live microorganisms doesn’t mean they are a probiotic. You might have ingested some bacteria, but do you know which strains? In what quantities? Have they survived the acidic journey through your digestive system and landed in your colon? Have those strains been studied, in those quantities, to actually have a measurable effect in your body?  In fact, very often, the bacteria used for fermentation are selected for their interactions with substrates like lactose or glucose, not necessarily because they play any role in human health.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t eat or drink fermented things. Many fermented foods and beverages are extremely nutritious, not to mention very tasty additions to your daily diet (though we do suggest keeping an eye out for excessive sugar content—as many commercial products like yogurts and beverages are sweetened with added sugars). The distinction is that they are not reliable sources of beneficial, effective bacteria – otherwise known as probiotics.

seed probiotics

Myth # 2: Probiotics only ‘work’ if they ‘stick around’ and ‘rebalance’ my gut microbiome.

We first need to clear up this common misconception–probiotics have to colonize your gut (aka, ‘stick around’) and alter the composition of your microbiome to be effective. That’s simply not true.

Probiotics typically don’t take up residence in your gut. Compared to the tens of trillions of microbes already rooted in your intestinal tract, most probiotics don’t contain enough new bacteria to make a significant difference in the composition of your microbiome. Even if they did, we don’t know enough about the safety of introducing colonizing microbes. Large numbers of newcomers moving in and displacing your existing bacteria could alter the unique balance of your ecosystem within and trigger unintended consequences.

So how do they work? Well, probiotics are transient microbes. They travel through your colon, interacting with your immune cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to, directly and indirectly, deliver benefits.

It’s important to know that there are thousands of strains of bacteria, and specific ones have been studied to deliver specific benefits. Some enhance the gene expressions involved in tight junction signaling, which help protect against intestinal permeability—this means a tight gut barrier. Others trigger neurotransmitters that stimulate muscle contractions for increased motility—think, better, more regular poops. Yet other bacteria produce byproducts like short-chain fatty acids, which have been extensively shown to be beneficial for metabolic and immune health, or even folate, a key driver of cellular and reproductive health.

Myth #3: Probiotics need to be refrigerated to stay alive.

Contrary to other perishable food products, refrigeration doesn’t mean ‘freshness’ or superiority. It’s true that bacteria are fragile. They’re sensitive to light, temperature, and moisture so a probiotic should be developed to endure variable storage conditions (except water activity, which one could argue is increased by the condensation of refrigerators and freezers). While some probiotics do need to be refrigerated to preserve efficacy (especially in hotter summer months, or during transport), you can’t discount a probiotic that doesn’t require refrigeration. Technological innovations have given us new tools to process and protect probiotics and give them shelf stability. The more important thing to look for is demonstrated survivability, regardless of the storage conditions.

Myth #4: I’m pretty regular and I don’t have any digestive issues, so I don’t need a probiotic.

This actually goes way beyond digestive issues. Your body is complex and interconnected, and the gastrointestinal system sits at the core of it all. It’s connected to and influences everything from immunity and metabolic function to cardiovascular, skin, and urogenital health. So, while improvements in gut health are often the most immediate, localized, and conspicuous, probiotics can actually have powerful effects across the entire body.

As our mindset shifts from sick care to self-care, we’ve become more intentional about our diet, nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle. This means considering the impact everyday stressors like alcohol, sugar, tobacco, processed foods, antibiotics, or decreased sleep could have on your microbiome.

So even if you aren’t dealing with digestive issues, beneficial microbes can still offer new tools to preventively and proactively care for your whole self (not just your human part).

Myth #5: More colony-forming units (CFU) is always better.

Not necessarily. Especially if it contain billions and billions of bacteria never tested in humans.

You’ve probably seen the term CFU on a probiotic label. That refers to colony-forming units, which basically tells you how many bacteria in the sample are capable of dividing and forming colonies. First, a bigger number on the bottle does not always mean better results. The best dose, per strain, is one that has been shown to deliver positive outcomes in humans.

Second, CFU has become a marketing tool. Many probiotics today proclaim outrageously enormous CFU counts, but are unable to survive the trip from manufacture to store shelf, much less the journey from your mouth, through your acidic digestive process, to your gut. Oftentimes, to get around this, the number on the box will refer to ‘time of manufacture’, when really, it should tell you what amount will still remain viable near the expiration date.

Myth # 6: Probiotics must be personalized with a home stool diagnostic kit to work.

We do believe microbiome diagnostic kits may be insightful for specific endpoints (like bacterial vaginosis or how our bodies metabolize glucose).

The National Institute of Health spearheaded a $173 million Human Microbiome Project, with the goal of characterizing the human microbiome and to determine if changes in microbiome composition could be correlated with health and disease. The project encompassed five years of research and over 200 scientists and concluded in 2012 that there is no universally healthy microbiome. Their findings also revealed that the metabolic function of our microbiome is much more important than what microbial species present. That means, it’s much more important what your bacteria are doing, rather than what they are. So while we wish it were as simple as ‘find out what’s missing and put the good stuff back’, it’s unfortunately not how a complex ecosystem, like the human body, works.

We do think diagnostics may be insightful for specific endpoints like bacterial vaginosis or how our bodies metabolize glucose, but most today (though fun to do) are unable to give us scientifically-substantiated, actionable advice. Beyond the technical limitations of at-home sampling and whether or not the shipped sample even represents the full spectrum of bacteria present in the gut microbiota (swabbing your post-number-2 toilet paper is different from taking a sample from the middle of your stool, which we bet most consumers won’t want to do), correlating actionability with composition is challenging given what science knows today.

We believe probiotics should take a different approach, looking at specific strains of beneficial bacteria which have a health benefit in humans independent of someone’s starting microbiome.

The Chalkboard Mag and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. 
All material on The Chalkboard Mag is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health related program. 

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