Did you know that your body is home to trillions of microorganisms? While it may sound strange, it’s true! Some of these microorganisms live on your skin and some in your mouth, but most inhabit your gut. Known as your microbiota, this microbial community is made up of various bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. And just like any community, each person’s microbiota has its own unique characteristics. But unlike a community in your town, the characteristics of microbial communities are dependent on something called the microbiome, which is the complete set of genes within the microbes that live in and on your body.
Your microbiota and your microbiome are distinctively yours alone. They are based on where you live, your age and gender, what you eat, your overall health status, the amount of stress you’re under, and even what you touch in your environment. But even though, like your fingerprint, your microbial profile is uniquely yours, we all share some common traits—especially when it comes to the bacteria in your gut.
Are We More Microbial Than Human?
For every human gene in your body, there are 360 microbial genes. In fact, out of the 100 trillion cells that make up your body, only about one in 10 of those cells is actually human!
Good Bugs, Bad Bugs
Your gastrointestinal tract contains more than 500 different strains of bacteria—both good and bad. Beneficial bacteria’s best-known role is their ability to protect against the harmful microbes that can make you sick. One way they do this is by producing organic compounds, including lactic acid, hydrogen peroxide, and acetic acid, that increase the acidity in your intestine. This helps prevent the bad bugs from reproducing. Your good bacteria also produce bacteriocin, a natural antibiotic that kills off harmful microorganisms and enhances your immune system by boosting disease-fighting cells. In a nutshell, this means that the beneficial bacteria in your gut keep pathogens at bay and interact directly with your immune system to improve your overall health.
Ideally, your good and bad bacteria would naturally live in harmonious balance. Unfortunately, this balance is often out of whack in the real world. And that means you need to send in reinforcements. Supplemental probiotics, when ingested properly, help to recolonize the digestive tract with friendly, beneficial bacteria, which fosters microbial diversity and improves the state of your microbiota.
Did you know? Your microbiome helps your body synthesize vitamins and absorb nutrients.
The Science of Probiotics
The two most prevalent types of probiotic bacteria that live in your gut are Lactobacillus, found in the small intestine, and Bifidobacterium, which resides in the large intestine. Not only do these two types of bacteria favorably alter the microbial balance in the intestines, they also promote good digestion and may help to ease the symptoms of some chronic digestive disorders.
Several large studies show that probiotics can reduce antibiotic-associated diarrhea by up to 60 percent. A Cochrane Database review of 33 studies involving 6,352 children found that those who took probiotics proactively had less than half the odds of developing diarrhea while on antibiotics compared to those who did not take probiotics. Other research shows that probiotics can effectively reduce diarrhea among those undergoing radiation treatments for abdominal or pelvic cancer.
Another common malady improved by probiotics is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). According to research, one specific human strain of bacteria called Lactobacillus rhamnosus fortifies the intestinal barrier and reduces IBS symptoms by up to 42 percent. Other studies point to the benefits of another human strain—Lactobacillus plantarum—for those with IBS. In a study published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, 214 people with IBS received either a L. plantarum supplement or a placebo every day for four weeks. By the end of the study, those taking the probiotic showed a greater decrease in pain and bloating compared to those given the placebo. But the benefits of this particular strain have been found to go well beyond the digestive tract. Other studies suggest that L. plantarum improves eczema symptoms and may even help protect your cardiovascular system.
Bifidobacterium bifidum is another human strain with multiple health benefits. Studies show that B. bifidum not only improves the symptoms of IBS, it’s also been found to ease the symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease, optimize immunity, reduce allergies, improve cholesterol levels, and lower blood sugar levels.
Pick the Right Probiotic
When shopping for a probiotic supplement, many people believe a higher healthy bacteria count is better. So they grab whatever product supplies the highest number. Product potency is typically labeled with the number of Colony Forming Units, or CFUs. CFUs are live, viable cells that can act on the microbiota. Although there is no recommended daily dose for probiotics, research suggests that you can safely take 20 billion live CFUs. Not only will this amount promote better general health, it’s especially important if you are taking antibiotics, have digestive problems, or suffer from Candida or frequent urinary tract infections.
However, your gut bacterial balance is much more than a numbers game. Your health goals and whether or not the specific probiotic strains in a supplement will target those goals is critical. But regardless of the CFU count or the number of bacteria listed on the labels, what really matters is whether or not the bacteria is viable and able to survive the journey to the colon.
Some probiotic supplements require refrigeration to ensure viability. However, many probiotics are now shelf-stable and can be stored at room temperature. While it would seem that refrigerated products are more likely to retain their potency, some non-refrigerated probiotics—particularly those with specific technology to protect the bacteria from heat, light, and oxygen—can also remain alive for an extended period of time. To maintain potency, store shelf-stable probiotics in a cool, dry cabinet away from sunlight. And check the expiration date periodically to make sure your probiotic is still viable.
Feed Your Beneficial Bacteria
Like any living organism, the beneficial bacteria that make up your microbiota need food to thrive. Prebiotics are a non-digestible type of soluble fiber that promotes the growth and proliferation of good gut bacteria. But preliminary evidence shows that prebiotics don’t just feed beneficial bacteria. They may also play an independent role in digestive health by doing the following:
- improving antibiotic-associated diarrhea
- easing traveler’s diarrhea
- soothing gastroenteritis
- normalizing bowel function
- improving colitis
- reducing irritable bowel problems
Some probiotic supplements include prebiotics. Check the supplement facts label for one or more of the following prebiotic oligosaccharides: Fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS), inulins, isomalto-oligosaccharides, lactitol, lactosucrose, lactulose, oligofructose, or transgalacto-oligosaccharides (TOS).
You can also boost your prebiotic levels by eating certain foods like apples, asparagus, bananas, garlic, leeks, and onions. Try to add at least one prebiotic food to every meal.
While probiotics are definitely an effective way to boost your microbiome, it’s not the only way. Long before scientists discovered the bacterial wonderland of the human gut, Ayurvedic practitioners routinely prescribed herbs like turmeric, galangal, andrographis, boerhavia, Indian laburnum bark, gotu kola, cyperus, licorice, East Indian sarsaparilla, long pepper, chebulic myrobalan, Indian tinospora, ginger, and curry tree leaf. These 14 herbs have a centuries-old reputation for supporting digestive health and easing everyday gastrointestinal problems. They were on to something—these herbs have been shown to provide antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and carminative benefits.
Recent studies show that these herbs also have a direct impact on the microbiota. In one of these studies, which appeared in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers found that three of these herbs—turmeric, ginger, and long pepper—actually changed the gut microbiome. In their study, they noted that the herbs specifically promoted a strong shift in bacteria known to regulate metabolism. Other studies show that Ayurvedic herbs function as prebiotics as well. Plus, there’s evidence that some of these traditional herbs, like andrographis and licorice, help heal a compromised intestinal lining—a condition commonly known as leaky gut syndrome.
While helpful when used individually, their real digestive power comes when you combine them. Check supplement labels for a botanical blend that includes most—and preferably all—of these herbs. An added bonus? These herbs are safe and gentle so you can take them daily.
Adding these Ayurvedic herbs to a comprehensive probiotic supplement can support microbial diversity and a robust microbiota. This, in turn, can help keep you healthy from head to toe!