Probiotics have become a mainstay in the health and wellness regimens of many people. Even if you haven’t jumped on the probiotic bandwagon yet, you’ve probably seen them in your pharmacy, natural health food store, or online.
You may have even heard all kinds of stories and “facts” about these crucial microorganisms. But which of these are true and which are false? Let’s take a look at some of the most common myths people have about probiotics.
Myth #1: All probiotics are the same
This is absolutely not true! Not all probiotics are created equal or are intended for the same purpose. Each probiotic strain is a live bacterium with a unique scientifically proven function in the body. And just like in life, a team composed of different players (species) with complementary skills works best. Studies have shown that multi-strain probiotics are more effective than those based on a single-strain probiotics.1 It’s important that the bacterial strains in a probiotic supplement are combined in a well-thought-out scientifically-backed way. Then, the combination of strains has to be tested to make sure they work well together, ensuring the probiotic’s efficacy.
Because each probiotic strain provides different benefits, it’s a good idea to evaluate what each strain does and compared with your health goals. Keep it simple and look for a variety of strains, as opposed to a single-strain probiotic. Then choose one that is targeted towards your specific needs.
Myth #2: Probiotics are only for digestion
Many people are under the assumption that probiotics are only used to help digestive symptoms, but that is only scratching the surface of what these microorganisms are capable of.
Did you know that behind digestion, immune support is the second most popular use of probiotics? This makes sense since about 70 percent of the body’s total number of immune cells reside in the gut. When the gut becomes unbalanced with too much unhealthy bacteria, probiotics can help to restore balance. They have been shown to secrete protective substances, which may “turn on” the immune system. This can help prevent pathogens from taking hold and causing you to get sick.2 And while probiotics may be able to bolster your immune system, what about your cognitive health? The gut has been called the “second brain” because it produces many of the same neurotransmitters that the brain does. These include serotonin, dopamine, and GABA—all of which play a major role in regulating mood. In fact, it’s estimated that 90 percent of serotonin is made in the digestive tract. That may be why some research suggests that probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function while also lowering stress and anxiety. For example, a small 2013 study in the Journal of Gastroenterology found that women who ate yogurt with a mix of probiotics twice a day for four weeks, were calmer when exposed to images of angry and frightened faces compared with a control group. MRIs also found that the group of women who ate the yogurt had lower activity in the insula, which is the area of the brain that processes internal body sensations like a nervous stomach or the sensation of butterflies.3
Myth #3 Probiotics need to be refrigerated to work
Bacteria are fragile. They are sensitive to light, temperature, and moisture. And although some probiotics do need to be refrigerated to preserve their efficacy (especially in the hot summer months), you shouldn’t discount a probiotic that doesn’t require refrigeration. It may even be more convenient for you in the long run! A probiotic that is labeled as “shelf-stable” means it can safely be stored at room temperature. That also means you can take your probiotic with you when you travel or are on the go.
Myth #4: Probiotics with higher CFUs are always better
A lot of people believe that the higher the CFU (colony forming units) count on the label, the better. But that is rarely the case because so many different factors can affect a probiotic’s quality—from the type of strain to the manufacturing process to packaging and shelf stability. In our opinion, the combination of bacterial strains in the probiotic is much more important than the CFU count.
Another important factor to keep in mind is the delivery mechanism. Probiotic bacteria have to survive the journey from the manufacturer to the store to your house and eventually to your large intestine. That poses many challenges, including changes in temperature and moisture. Unfortunately, in many probiotics, the bacteria die before you even get a chance to take them. Instead of the number of CFUs, focus on the efficacy of the delivery mechanism of your probiotic. For example, a dark amber glass bottle can keep out harmful moisture and light. Plastic bottles, on the other hand, can render probiotics useless as they are permeable to varying degrees of humidity. Don’t waste your hard earned money by taking the risk with a plastic bottle.
What’s more, a lot of manufacturers sometimes overload their probiotics with a high CFU count because the strains they use may not survive manufacturing or shelf storage. Probiotics need to be live when you ingest them to make a difference, so make sure they aren’t expired. Look for “live to expiration” not “live at manufacture,” on the label.
Myth #5: Yogurt, sauerkraut, and miso provide me with plenty of probiotics
While probiotic-rich foods are a great addition to your diet, you likely wouldn’t get enough to make a difference in your health. There are also several advantages to probiotic supplements versus probiotic-rich foods. For one thing, you have more control over the specific bacterial strains you ingest. This can be important in addressing specific health issues. Probiotic supplements also give you the chance to pick a multi-strain blend for microbial diversity versus a food product like yogurt, which may only contain one strain. One last advantage is that many probiotic supplements are dairy free, soy free, and gluten-free, so they can fit into virtually anyone’s diet.
Hopefully we were able to bust a few myths and clear up some confusion about probiotics. Now forge ahead and find the perfect probiotic for you! To learn more about probiotics, click here.
- Timmerman H, Koning C, Mulder L. Monostrain, multistrain and multispecies probiotics-a comparison of functionality and efficacy. International Journal of Food Microbiology. 2004; 96 (3): 219-233.
- Fang Y & Polk D. Probiotics and immune health. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology 27 (6): 496–501.
- Probiotics may help boost mood and cognitive function. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/probiotics-may-help-boost-mood-and-cognitive-function