Do Probiotics Work?
By Tyler Woodward
Probiotics are a rapidly growing area within the health & diet sphere. As we learn more about the mysterious gut microbiome, the more potential benefits of probiotics.The question remains do probiotics work?
- The Probiotic Pathway
- Are The Probiotics Alive?
- Do The Probiotics Make It Into The Colon?
- Do Probiotics Work?
When debating the effectiveness of probiotics there are two main questions that arise:
- Are the probiotic bacteria still alive once they arrive in the colon (large intestine?
- Does the probiotic make its way into the large intestine before being digested?
The Probiotic Pathway:
Probiotics have a long way to go to get into their targeted destination. After swallowing probiotics head down the throat into the stomach. Your stomach is extremely acidic, you can imagine like the vats of acid pictured in many movies. This is known as chemical digestion and is designed to break down all the food you eat into their individual parts, allowing them to go into the small intestine and be absorbed into the bloodstream. Normally, you want 90+% of your food to be absorbed in the small intestine with very little remains passing through into the large intestine or colon, but probiotics are another story. It is believed that the small intestine should be sterile in healthy individuals, meaning that no bacteria or living organisms (besides your cells) should reside within it. If your probiotic lands in the small intestine then it can result in a condition known as SIBO, small intestine bacterial overgrowth. So, how your probiotic is encapsulated has a big role into how well it works:
1. Are The Probiotics Alive?:
When shopping for probiotics today you’ll see two mains types of probiotics available today:
1. Shelf Stable -
Shelf stable probiotics are encapsulated typically through either freeze-drying or spray-drying technique . This involves a vacuuming process that sucks all the liquid and humidity out of the environment of the bacteria allowing for them to remain alive at room temperature. These techniques tend to have a longer shelf life compared to the “live” probiotics.
Some probiotics use double encapsulation methods in order to keep excess heat and moisture away from the bacteria. Many of these utilize this second encapsulation to supply the bacteria with fermentable fiber to provide them with nutrients. This has been shown in some research to increase the bacteria’s absorption into the intestine.
2. Refrigerated -
Refrigerated probiotics are live probiotics that are placed directly into capsules. These probiotics must be refrigerated to ensure the bacteria does not die due to excess heat, stress or humidity. The cold environment also helps to slow the bacteria down, so they do not starve from a lack of nutrients. Many refrigerated probiotics will be packaged with blister packs in order to keep them cold in the shipping process. Probiotics that aren’t freeze-dried or spray dried have a higher likelihood of being exposed to excess heat and/or humidity during the shipping process.
It’s worth noting that not all bacteria need to be freeze-dried or refrigerated in order to be packaged up. Certain strains of bacteria are extremely resistant, basically meaning they’re hard to kill. In this context, these bacteria can exist on a shelf for decently periods of time without issue and still be alive once consumed.
Generally, I would recommend shelf-stable probiotics because they are believed to have a longer shelf life and are less susceptible to being exposed to “extreme” weather conditions. This means the bacteria is more
Interestingly, there is some evidence that shows that it doesn’t actually matter whether or not the bacteria make it into your colon alive, as long as they make it into your colon. Even the dead bacteria have been shown to have some benefits, although this is up for debate in the scientific community.
Read More: What Causes Constipation
2. Do The Probiotic Make It Into The Colon?:
Whether or not the probiotic makes its way into the large intestine depends on what the probiotic is encapsulated in. There are a number of encapsulations used for probiotics, most typically indigestible materials like cellulose or fermentable fibers.
For most supplements I’d recommend avoiding cellulose, as humans cannot break down cellulose since we don’t produce the enzyme cellulase, which is necessary to do so. Cellulose in our body is not broken down unless the bacteria in our colon “feed” on it through fermentation. This is beneficial in the case of probiotics because as you know you do not want the probiotic to be released in the stomach or small intestine or it can cause bacterial overgrowth in these locations. For this reason, probiotics encapsulated in cellulose make a very viable option for ensuring the bacteria make their way into the colon.
Fermentable Fibers -
Fermentable fibers are again something I generally recommend avoiding when it comes to optimal health. This is because fermentable fibers, like cellulose, are indigestible by the digestive proteins in our stomach or small intestines. Unlike cellulose, fermentable fibers are easily fermented by the bacteria in our colon. This has a two-fold benefit, first it can help to feed the bacteria within the capsule, increasing their likelihood of surviving while in the capsule. Second, the fermentable fiber can help to facilitate these probiotics to make more permanent changes to your gut microbiome. A lot of the research on probiotics seems to show that they are only benefiting you, while you are taking them, after you stop taking them a lot of the time the microbiome seems to go back to its previous state. The addition of fermentable fibers with the bacteria may be able to help make more permanent changes in your gut microbiome that last beyond the dose of probiotics.
Short & Medium Chain Triglycerides -
Short and medium chain fatty acids (triglycerides), also known as SCT's & MCT's respectively, have been shown to have a number of benefits in fighting "bad bacteria", improving the gut microbiome and the body's ability to use fat as fuel. MCT's in particular have been shown to have an anti-microbial effect, reducing the "bad bacteria" present in the colon. This is very beneficial when combined with probiotics as it increases the chances of making more long-term changes in your gut microbiome.
Read More: Coconut Oil & Metabolism
Do Probiotics Work?:
All-in-all the science behind probiotics is rather lacking and does not reach much of a consensus, meaning there’s no definitive yes or no that probiotics do or do not work. This is largely due to the fact that the only means we have of measuring changes in the gut microbiome are from assessing the bacteria found in your stool, since the majority of poop is made up of bacteria. This is likely not an accurate means of measuring the composition of bacteria in your gut because it's only showing the bacteria that is leaving your gut. Though this is not to say that probiotics do not work.
There are many things that we do in life, that science does not have the ability to explain why they occur. Just because there is not an overwhelming consensus in research yet to support the effectiveness of probiotics does not mean they do not work. Afterall probiotics have been shown in research to have a multitude of benefits including:
- Reducing Endotoxin (The “Bad Bacteria”) & Improving Diversity of the Gut Microbiome
- Improving Digestion
- Reducing Constipation
- Anti-Diuretic Effects
And we know that many people experience significant improvements in their digestion during and after the use of probiotics. Some people need to take them constantly to feel the effects, while others maybe only once or intermittently every few months.
If you are experiencing digestive issues, probiotics can be a saving grace for many people. When you try them, if they make you feel better and improve your digestion then they must be doing something, even if its just a placebo! On the other hand, if you tried probiotics for a few months and they don’t seem to be helping then maybe they’re not for you. At the same time, it’s possible that you try probiotics again a few weeks, months or even years after and experience vast benefits from them. Science sadly does not always have the answers and sometimes listening to your body is the best answer we’ve got…
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My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good