Probiotics: The New Multivitamin
For many years people have been taking multivitamins as a way to “cover the bases” in an attempt to optimize their health. Not a bad idea. Multivitamins are a good way to make sure that you are receiving adequate amounts of the most common vitamins and minerals. Dietary sources are always the best way to get these, but it usually can’t hurt to add a little extra just in case. For those who truly assess their health with a functional medicine practitioner you can customize which variety of multi might be best for you given your specific findings, or even better just target specific micro-nutrients.
However, next generation “Multis” should now be seen as probiotics. The amount of medical research into the microbiome is mind-blowing! The microbiome is basically the collection of microorganisms that are present within the human body. The importance of these organisms cannot be overstated and their exact contribution to our health and/or disease is just starting to be uncovered. You can think of the microbiome as an opportunistic environment. These microorganisms live together in what should be a ‘balance of power’. When various organisms grow in number excessively they can crowd out other organisms. This can sometimes be a good thing, or a bad thing. If it is a bacteria that tends to lend itself towards improved health then it can help to keep the harmful bugs from growing excessively in number. However, if the opposite occurs then these beneficial bacteria cannot help keep the balance and harmful organisms are allowed to flourish. The ideal ‘balance of power’ is not completely understood and may even vary from person to person. However, we do have enough research to understand many of the different strains of bacteria that actually help to support a healthy environment. These strains are the most common ones seen in probiotic supplements today. However, we also know that variety is important because having one strain dominate in number too excessively, even if it’s a ‘healthy’ strain, can begin to crowd out other healthy bacteria needed for optimal health. For this reason, I typically suggest that people either cycle which probiotic they take, in order to get a wide variety of bacteria exposure, or make sure to take one that is broad spectrum and expansive. This allows you to attempt to maintain a healthy and varied gut environment.
Another easy and sometimes more effective way to help improve gut bacteria health is to consume fermented foods. Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, are foods that are created by allowing bacteria to ferment the sugars in the food. So, you are actually consuming foods that are full of bacteria. Some studies have shown that eating fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, has more impact on actually changing the makeup of the microbiome than taking probiotics. I say just do both.
Pretend that you gut environment is filled with millions of different soldiers, some groups of soldiers are good and others are bad. The bad soldiers can’t do too much harm if the good soldiers are allowed to flourish and keep the peace. However, if this balance is disturbed and the bad soldiers are allowed to grow in number, then the susceptibility for harmful situations becomes more prevalent. This is a good way to imagine the environment in the human microbiome. For now, the best thing we can do to attempt to keep the good soldiers healthy and strong is to support them with things like probiotics and fermented foods.