There is more to this question than meets the eye.
Probiotics are live bacteria present in yoghurt, other dairy products and pills.
The goal is to get these probiotic bacterias to establish a presence in the lower gut where they render beneficial health effects.
Let’s look at the points on probiotics:
Probiotics Are Live Organisms
Live bacteria live and die under a variety of circumstances.
One such circumstance is time. Some bacteria make spores which can live for many years and then blossom and grow.
Unfortunately, most probiotics do not make spores. They will die off gradually if they do not find a comfortable place to grow – a moist, warm, friendly environment like the colon. When a probiotic sits on a shelf in a store, the bacteria slowly starts to die. The longer they are in a warehouse or on a store shelf the fewer live bacteria will be present.
Refrigeration likely prolongs the life of probiotics but we don’t know for which ones and for how long. Most manufacturers are unable or will not tell you.
We also don’t know which ones our bodies need. A good bacterial strain for one person may not be as effective for another. When you consume probiotics, you’re hoping the bacteria you consume is the bacteria your unique gut needs – fingers crossed.
Yoghurt and Probiotics
You can be sure that yoghurt and other such fermented dairy products have fresh, live bacteria in them. Plus, it is refrigerated! These are two good things.
Do you know how many bacteria are in a serving? No. Neither do the manufacturers. That is why this information is not found on the labels.
The dose may be too small and likely not be enough to make a difference. Additionally, many of these bacteria will be killed by stomach acid, especially when eaten with food.
Not knowing the number of good bacteria you’re consuming is only part of the problem. The other downside of yoghurt is the sugar content.
Most yoghurts contain a large amount of sugar. If not sugar, manufacturers replace it with a non-nutritive sweetener. Non-nutritive sweeteners have shown to cause gastrointestinal issues. These are the very same issues many individuals try to alleviate by consuming probiotics in the first place. Most non-nutritive sweeteners are toxic to pets and not an option.
Probiotics and Stomach Acid
This is the tricky part of the probiotic puzzle.
Stomach acid is very, very strong (stronger in dogs and cats than in humans even!) It does and will kill the majority of bacteria that get into the stomach each day.
So, how do you protect the probiotic bacteria you take from this “bacteria execution chamber” which everyone has inside them?
Here are some things you can do.
Various groups suggest ways to get some of your probiotics to your intestine. The efficacy of these proposals are still to be determined:
- Take the probiotic on an empty stomach. When the stomach is empty, it is not making much acid. Open a capsule and mix it with a small amount of water. Water is neutral and will not cause the stomach to secrete increased acids used to break down proteins. The stomach will empty out the liquid in 15-20 minutes but will keep food in it for 60-90 minutes. The stomach grinds the food up and mixes it with acid and harsh enzymes. This process gets the food ready for absorption in the small intestine.
- Mix the probiotic with some bicarbonate of soda, a strong alkaline powder. This assists in neutralizing the stomach acid – only temporarily until the probiotic can get through the stomach. (Caution: It is not advised to do this very often. Stomach acid breaks down proteins into amino acids (denature). People taking proton pump inhibitors which block stomach acid, had intact proteins being absorbed. This resulted in them developing allergies to those food items. Blocking the stomach acid may cause intact food proteins to get absorbed resulting in allergies.)
Coating a Probiotic
Some better manufacturers use enteric-coated capsules.
Enteric coating is a polymer barrier on oral supplements. This helps protect supplements from the ph (i.e. acidity) of the stomach.
Another substance, called alginate, may coat and protect the bacteria until it gets into the small intestine where it is safe. Again, unfortunately, we don’t know how well this works. It sounds like it should. You have to check with the manufacturer to know if this is part of their production technique.
So here are the summary points:
Use a refrigerated probiotic which has recently come onto the store shelf. Check the expiration date! The further away it is, the more live probiotics are likely to be in the capsule.
Take a probiotic on an empty stomach with 120ml – 180ml of water. Even better, empty the powdered bacteria into a glass, add cold water and a teaspoon of soda bicarbonate to neutralize the stomach acid.
Yoghurt is an option. Most people feel better that they are doing something good for their gut.
We don’t know how much, but the advertisers tell us we will almost live forever if we eat their product.
Check sugar and sweeteners content in the yoghurt product. If you’re trying to manage your blood sugar, yoghurt may not be the right option for you.
Different probiotics seem to work for different health conditions. Therefore, choosing the right type (or types) of probiotic is essential. There are some probiotics that are helpful for certain gastrointestinal diseases. A good physician knowledgeable in GI problems and probiotic bacteria efficacy will help you make the right choice.
Remember, Hippocrates said…
“Bad digestion is the root of all evil.”
Prebiotics and Probiotics
No discussion of probiotics would be complete without mentioning prebiotics.
A prebiotic is not a probiotic.
A prebiotic is a specialized plant fibre. It easily gets through the stomach unchanged and unaffected by stomach acids. Prebiotics feeds the good colon bacteria which everyone already has in their colon.
That’s right. We have over a 1000 species of bacteria in the colon and many of these are the good guys. Feeding them good prebiotics is the key to creating a rich furnace of potent good bacteria.
When the body has a good balance of bacteria in the gut, it experiences many important benefits. Benefits range from easier weight management, an improved immune system, better mental health to resistance to stress.
When consuming prebiotics, you’re reaping all the benefits that come with them. Why? Prebiotics aren’t destroyed in the body.
You can also be sure that what you’re introducing is beneficial. Unlike yoghurt that contains good bacteria that may not be helpful to your unique gut, prebiotics fertilizes the good bacteria you already have in there. Prebiotics is species specific.