Pop Quiz: Do You Know How a Probiotic Actually Works?

As more and more products have started tapping the powers of probiotics (probiotic granola bars! probiotic chocolate!), it seems like everyone has the basic science down: probiotic bacteria is the good kind, all other bacteria is bad, and consuming probiotics will support gut health—right?

Actually, it's not quite so simple, according to Nick Bitz, ND, chief scientific officer at Youtheory®. "Traditional probiotics do not work in the manner that most people assume," he says.

Here's the catch: That assumption that probiotics will make us exemplars of gut health is often more dream than reality because consuming live probiotics is key—and it's harder to do than you might think.

The assumption that probiotics will make us exemplars of gut health is often more dream than reality—because consuming live bacteria is key.

Survivability studies on leading probiotics have shown that 99 percent of the most common strains die before they reach your gut, Dr. Bitz says. "Companies have tried increasing overages, protecting the bacteria in enteric-coated capsules, and storing them in cooler temperatures to improve survivability, but the end result is the same: dead probiotics."

So how do you get the live version? Dr. Bitz suggests taking a spore probiotic—like Youtheory® Spore Probiotic—which is surrounded in a natural covering similar to a seed's shell that protects the bacteria from heat and stomach acid. "Spores are unique because they remain in a protected state until arriving safely in the small intestine, where they shed their coat and exert positive effects," Dr. Bitz explains.

What exactly are those positive effects, you ask? Keep reading for more on how probiotics work, plus how to make sure you're actually getting all the benefits.

probiotics benefits
Photo: Youtheory®


Probiotics weren't discovered until 1907, and the term itself wasn't coined until 1965—which is basically yesterday in the world of science. In short, there's still a lot we don't know about the microbiome.

What we do know? Probiotics are generally considered good for you, as the World Health Organization defines them as live microorganisms that "confer a health benefit on the host.” Spore probiotics transmit those benefits by increasing beneficial bacteria and decreasing potentially harmful bacteria in the gut, which sets off a domino affect of wellbeing throughout the rest of the body.

"The digestive tract is at the core of our wellbeing," Dr. Bitz says. "The gut is connected to virtually every body system in a very real and tangible way. I foresee that we’ll continue to uncover new connections over the next several years."

Probiotics benefits

Studies have linked probiotics to optimal gut health, reducing anxiety, improving moodhelping you age better, supporting a healthy metabolism, and more, but additional research needs to be done before we know for sure what role probiotics play in boosting your health.

Among the established benefits that Dr. Bitz says you can usually count on experiencing are a boost in digestive health, brain health, and immune health. "In general, probiotics nourish the body’s soil and bring about huge transformations in our internal environment," he says. 

The best way to figure out which benefits work for you is to try a probiotic supplement and see how your body reacts. Dr. Bitz says some people will start feeling a difference right away, while others will need to take the supplement daily for a few weeks before they notice any benefit. "Either way, it’s important to listen to your body and be patient as your inner ecosystem resets," Dr. Bitz adds.

How to use them

Forget everything you've heard about probiotic foods. With the exception of kimchi, Dr. Bitz says most probiotic foods are overrated in their ability to deliver good bacteria.

If your mind is blown, get this: According to Dr. Bitz, yogurt (heralded as the king of food-based probiotics) only provides a small amount of good bacteria, and most of it isn't able to colonize in the gut. As for your kombucha, Dr. Bitz says it only provides a type of bacteria that isn't native to humans, so it struggles to survive in your intestines. "Despite all of the hype surrounding this probiotic drink, science suggests that kombucha has zero probiotic activity overall," Dr. Bitz says. (But you can still love the 'booch for the bubbly flavor, of course.)

"Despite all of the hype surrounding this probiotic drink, science suggests that kombucha has zero probiotic activity overall."

Instead, Dr. Bitz recommends taking a probiotic supplement that is optimized to survive the journey through your intestines (i.e. it contains strains that are naturally found in humans and is protected by a spore, like the Youtheory® Spore Probiotic) so that it meets the requirements for an effective probiotic.

"By definition, a probiotic [...] must be living, it must survive transit through the digestive tract, and it must exert a positive health effect," Dr. Bitz says. "The great majority of probiotic foods meet the first criteria (they contain live and active cultures), but they fail to achieve the second or third criteria."

Before you clear out your refrigerator, here's the bottom line: Eat bacteria-rich foods if you love them, but you're better off with a supplement if you want to tap into the real power of probiotics.

In partnership with Youtheory®

Top photo: W+G Creative

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