Probiotics are big money these days. But are they really worth the money? Do they even work? Should you use a probiotic or a prebiotic? Which foods are probiotic? In this article, we look at the science behind probiotics to see what they can really do.
As supplements become a more ingrained part of peoples’ lives, they are moving on from pointless protein powders and ineffective multivitamins and thinking about their body more holistically. This is why you might have noticed an explosion in the number of probiotic-infused foods, probiotic drinks, and premium probiotic supplements on sale.
Indeed, probiotics are now big business; the leading gut health supplements now generate as many sales as the most popular sports supplements, and almost as much as the leading multivitamin brands in the US!
For those that don’t know, that’s a lot of money.
So why have probiotics become so popular so quickly?
Why are people willing to spend so much money on gut health supplements, probiotic-infused foods, and new gut-friendly drinks?
Are probiotics worth the money? Should you be using them?
Here are 5 facts about probiotics that you should know before you start using them yourself.
“Probiotics” Usually Mean Foreign Bacteria
Probiotics are foods or supplements which introduce exogenous bacteria strains to your digestive system.
In other words, probiotics work by introducing bacteria which are known to help “rebalance” your gut microbiome.
Basically, probiotics introduce bacteria species to your gut which create an environment that promotes the growth of health-promoting, beneficial gut bacteria species. They do this in numerous ways; competing with and beating harmful gut bacteria; creating a symbiotic relationship with healthy bacteria; or by just creating an environment in which healthy bacteria flourish.
Although many people think of probiotics as being friendly bacteria, they are more like exogenous bacteria which allow your healthy gut bacteria to flourish at the expense of harmful or less healthy bacteria strains.
Probiotics Can Cause Side Effects
Probiotics are always sold using language that makes them sound incredibly safe. You’ll see the words “natural”, “healthy”, and “normal” thrown around a lot with probiotics.
But probiotics are not guaranteed to be side effect free.
When using probiotics, even the best probiotics, there is a chance that you will experience some adverse effects. This is because you are introducing exogenous bacteria to your gut. You are always doing this when you eat, but with probiotics, you are giving your gut microbiome a large injection of different bacteria species that are foreign to your system.
Common side effects of probiotic use are bloating, nausea, stomach cramps, constipation, diarrhoea, and gas.
That said, these side effects are almost always very mild (depending on the probiotic being used), and transient (lasting a few days or more).
Probiotics Are Not Prebiotics
Probiotics are not the only gut health supplements on sale today.
Prebiotics are quickly catching up to probiotics in terms of popularity.
Probiotics are prebiotics are completely different, although they do both aim to improve gut health, digestion, and your wider performance as it is related to gut microbiota health.
Probiotics work by introducing a cocktail of exogenous bacteria strains to the body in an attempt to quickly rebalance the gut microbiome.
Prebiotics, by contrast, are fibers which act as food for your existing gut bacteria.
The best prebiotics will selectively feed the strains of bacteria that are most beneficial to health, while leaving the mist harmful bacteria strains to go hungry. In doing so, prebiotics alter the balance of bacteria in your gut without introducing any foreign bacteria from external sources.
Whether you are best served by a probiotic or prebiotic will depend very much on what your goals are and your current gut health status. The best thing to do is to talk to a medical professional before using either prebiotics or probiotics.
Some Probiotics are Aimed Specifically for Men
Most people are very surprised to learn that some probiotics are designed specifically for men…or at least marketed directly at men!
You’ll see several gut health supplements on sale which describe themselves as being “ideal for men”.
In some cases, these are supplements that have added dimensions which are more beneficial to men than women. This might be hormone support, for example.
But according to the experts at Open Health Tools, the distinction is made with sales in mind, not the end user:
“In most cases, probiotics for men are simply probiotics marketed to men; there is no qualitative difference in product between that and any other probiotic marketed to both men and women. The difference is only on the label. Of course, in some cases, there might be added hormone support, but if there isn’t then men and women should use the same probiotic – which ever one gives the best value for money!”
So don’t be fooled by the whole “man’s probiotic” angle; buy supplements based on value for money, not gimmicks!
Fiber is Always More Important for Gut Health
At the end of the day, the one thing that is going to guarantee you good gut health for life is a diet rich in fiber.
More specifically, a diet rich in water soluble fiber.
Water soluble fiber is basically what prebiotics provide; that is what prebiotic means!
Consuming prebiotic supplements on a daily basis is a great way to promote gut health if you can’t eat fibrous foods. But this is never going to be as effective or economical in the long run as simply eating a variety of prebiotic fiber-rich foods.
Eating a variety of prebiotic fiber on a daily basis keeps all of your healthy gut bacteria fed, as well as promoting healthy bowel movements and helping you stay lean and athletic.
What’s more, a diet high in fiber is closely linked with low rates of bowel and stomach cancers, reduced risk of heart disease, and low risk of diabetes. These are not benefits linked with the consumption of prebiotics or probiotics!