We get asked about supplements all the time in the Sleekgeek Health Revolution Facebook Group, so I’ve put together this guide to explain things from our perspective here at Sleekgeek.
I hope that you find it helpful in cutting through all the hype and marketing that typically surrounds supplements so that you can get down to the real-world benefits and everyday use.
Feel free to jump right to the bottom for our specific brand recommendations – but please do read on for full context and insight.
A quick word on responsibility and doing your research: One of the best things you can do when it comes to supplements of any kind is to look them up on Examine.com.
They are a great resource for independent and unbiased information on supplementation and nutrition to help you cut through all of the hyped-up marketing and commercial interest out there so that you can focus on what really works and avoid wasting your money.
What is a probiotic supplement?
You can get probiotics from various fermented foods (such as yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh, kefir, kombucha, etc) that are prepared using bacterial fermentation processes.
However, many people choose to supplement their food-based probiotic consumption with probiotic supplements which can come in the form of pills, capsules, or liquids that contain specific good bacterias.
Probiotics should not be confused with prebiotics, which are dietary fibers that help feed the friendly bacteria in your gut. Some probiotic or gut health supplements contain both probiotics as well as prebiotic fiber that acts as “fuel” for the probiotic bacteria to help it thrive.
P.S. For the sake of finer details, most probiotics are bacterias, but in some cases, they can actually be yeasts too.
Are probiotic supplements useful?
First off, no one needs a probiotic supplement, especially since one can obtain probiotics from food too.
However, it’s important to know that we have billions of bacteria living in our digestive tract.
Some of these bacteria are good for us, some are neutral, and some are bad for us.
With an estimated 70% of your immune system based in your gut as well as there being a strong link to brain function, having a healthy gut with lots of good bacteria is considered extremely important for overall health.
Probiotics refer to the good bacteria that help to crowd out the harmful bacteria and keep our gut healthy.
For this reason, supplementing with additional probiotic supplements can be helpful in rectifying an imbalance of too little good bacteria and too much bad bacteria (often a result of recent antibiotic or drug use, poor diet, stress, or alcohol abuse).
This is imbalance, known as dysbiosis, can lead to:
- Poor digestion
- Low immunity
- Low energy levels
- Gas or bloating
- Food intolerances or allergies
- Acne and/or Eczema
- Indigestion and heartburn
- Constipation and diarrhea
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome symptoms
- Increased risk for disease
The good bacteria also help us to digest our food and absorb nutrients effectively, which helps to make your healthier diet that much more effective.
Some probiotic-rich foods (specifically ones containing protein, like yoghurt and even possibly sauerkraut or kimchi) contain amines which can excite the central nervous system and trigger headaches in certain people. If this is you, then probiotic supplements would be useful because they won’t trigger headaches.
What are the benefits?
Although many people out there will pretend to know everything about gut health, this is simply not possible at the moment.
This area of research is still excitingly new and rapidly developing. The real gut health researchers themselves who are doing the research will be quick to tell you that there is still much that we don’t understand about the gut and you should be cautious around any bold claims or definitive claims.
With that said, most are confident that consuming or supplementing with both probiotics and prebiotic fibers is extremely beneficial to overall health.
Some of the main benefits include:
- Increase good Bacteria – Probiotics (good bacteria) help to obstruct the growth of bad bacteria and help to keep the balance of bacteria in our gut in check.
- Improve Digestion – Probiotics improve our ability to digest food properly and enhance gastrointestinal motility (to get things moving).
- Nutrient Absorption – Probiotics help us to absorb beneficial nutrients from food and also help us to make certain vitamins like Vitamin B and Vitamin K.
- Reduce Inflammation – Probiotics can help to reduce systemic inflammation, which can in turn help to reduce the risk for many diseases.
- Mental Health – Probiotics have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety, clinical depression, OCD, and stress (specifically the Lactobacillus Helveticus and Bifidobacterium Longum strains).
- Immune Function – Probiotics may enhance immune function (a very large amount of our immune system is based in the gut) and decrease your risk for infections.
- Skin Health – Probiotics may help to reduce or improve the symptoms of acne, rosacea, eczema, and a few other skin disorders.
- Seasonal Allergies – Probiotics may help to improve the symptoms of those who suffer from seasonal allergies.
What are the downsides?
OK, so let’s get real for a moment. Like we said above, no one knows everything about gut health and probiotics yet, so it’s always good to be cautious.
It seems that probiotics are generally well tolerated, beneficial, and considered safe for most people.
However some side effects or downsides of probiotics include::
- Gas and Bloating – In the first few days of supplementing, you may experience gas and bloating or mild abdominal discomfort relating to digestion.
- Headaches – Probiotic-rich foods (specifically ones containing protein, like yoghurt and even possibly sauerkraut or kimchi) contain amines which can excite the central nervous system and trigger headaches in certain people. If this is you, then probiotic supplements would be useful because they won’t trigger headaches.
- Increased Histamine Levels – Most people don’t need to worry about this, but some people have difficulty breaking down histamine in their bodies. Histamine helps regulate physiological function in the gut and acts as a neurotransmitter… But it’s also involved in the inflammatory response and produced by the immune system when it detects a threat. This may result in allergy symptoms like itching, watery eyes, and a runny nose. Some probiotic-rich foods (as mentioned above) contain histamines which could contribute to this problem.
- Allergens – Some probiotic supplements contain allergens such as dairy, egg, soy, lactose, or yeast and should be avoided by those who are allergic.
- Increased Risk of Infection – Research suggests that those with suppressed immune systems, venous catheters, as well as those who have had recent surgery, should avoid taking probiotics. The risk seems to be extremely low but the bacteria or yeasts found in probiotics may in some cases enter the bloodstream and cause infection. Those with severe acute pancreatitis should not take probiotics as there is an increased risk of mortality.
- Quality Control is Lacking – Studies that have tested the contents of probiotic supplements and compared them to what was listed on the label showed that quality control of probiotics is lacking, but that this will slowly improve as better testing methods are developed and greater understandings of probiotics are gained.
The billions of bacteria in our digestive tract are simply a part of who we are as human beings.
The average person will experience things like antibiotics, stress, alcohol, and poor diet from time to time, all of which lead to less good bacteria and more bad bacteria.
Therefore, it’s important to take care of our gut health and prevent dysbiosis (imbalance).
The general consensus on probiotics is that they improve overall health in a wide variety of ways for most people, although there is still much research left to do to improve our understanding.
Both probiotics from food sources and probiotic supplements each have their own pros and cons depending on the individual and their goals.
For most people, the best option probably lies somewhere in between with a conscious effort to eat probiotic-rich foods and supplement with a high-quality probiotic (especially after periods of high stress, poor nutrition, excessive alcohol intake, or taking antibiotics).
However, if you have a compromised immune system or are taking immunosuppressive drugs, have AIDS, or are receiving radiation treatment then you should be cautious as there is a risk of infection.
If you want some practical guidelines:
1) Protect your gut health.
As the medical saying goes, “First do no harm”… There are things that you can minimise or avoid to protect your gut health.
Some of the things that can kill off good bacteria in your gut include:
- A diet lacking in a variety of whole foods (check out the Sleekgeek Nutrition Guide and Sleekgeek Food List as a good place to start).
- A diet that is lacking in prebiotic fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
- A diet that is too high in sugar and processed foods (check out the Sleekgeek 30-Day Sugar-Free Challenge and 12 Ways to Eat Less Sugar).
- Lack of regular physical activity (check out the Sleekgeek 30-Day Move More Challenge and the Sleekgeek 30-Day Step Challenge).
- Lack of sufficient sleep (tips on how to improve the quantity and quality of your sleep here and here).
- Too much stress and/or too little stress management and recovery (check out the Sleekgeek Meditation Guide and 10-Day Meditation Challenge).
- Drinking too much alcohol.
- Antibiotic use – an important medicine for treating bacterial infections, such as pneumonia and sepsis, but often misused for things like viral infections such as colds, flu, or bronchitis for which antibiotics are ineffective.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) use.
Whether you choose to use probiotic supplements or not, there is a LOT that you can do to protect and improve your gut health by making small tweaks to your lifestyle.
Remember, you don’t need a dramatic lifestyle overhaul to see improvements. Working on getting even just 1% better every day at one or two of the things listed above can compound over time to create massive results. Something is always better than nothing.
2) Real food first, supplements second.
The first rule of supplementing is that you should be making a conscious and consistent effort through your diet first. Supplements are in no way a replacement for a healthy diet.
Many people mistakenly believe that taking a probiotic supplement can replace eating good quality food in their diet. Real food contains many other vitamins, minerals, fiber, nitrates, and phytochemicals that are not found in supplements and may be more effective when consumed in whole food form.
As we mentioned earlier, it’s important to eat a diet that contains a wide variety of whole foods as well as foods that are specifically rich in prebiotic fiber.
Healthline has a list of probiotic-rich foods that you can eat to get more probiotics in your diet:
- Yoghurt (one of the best sources of probiotics – if it’s yoghurt “with active or live cultures”)
- Kefir (a fermented probiotic milk drink)
- Sauerkraut (finely cut, fermented cabbage)
- Tempeh (a fermented soybean product originating from Indonesia)
- Kimchi (a fermented, spicy Korean side dish made from cabbage)
- Miso (a Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybean paste)
- Kombucha (a fermented black or green tea drink)
- Gherkins (pickled cucumbers)
- Traditional Buttermilk (the leftover liquid from making butter – not the same as more commercial Cultured Buttermilk which does not have any probiotic benefits)
- Natto (a fermented soybean product that is typically mixed with rice and served with breakfast)
- Certain Cheeses (Gouda, mozzarella, cheddar, and cottage cheese that have “active or live cultures” on their food labels)
According to Precision Nutrition, if you’re healthy then you should aim for 1-2 servings of probiotic-rich foods each day and if you’re hoping to prevent or alleviate a symptom of dysbiosis / imbalance then you may need to increase the dose.
You can also get prebiotic fiber from food to feed the good bacteria (probiotics) in your gut:
- Berries, Bananas, Apples, and most other fruits in smaller amounts.
- Garlic, Onions, Leeks, Asparagus, Dandelion Greens, Jerusalem Artichoke, and most other vegetables in smaller amounts.
- Chicory Root, Konjac Root, Burdock Root, Yacon Root, and Jicama Root, and most other roots in smaller amounts.
- Barley, Oats, Wheat Bran, Flaxseeds, Seaweed, Cocoa, and most other whole grains, legumes, and seeds in smaller amounts.
3) Choose a good supplement brand.
If you feel that after your lifestyle and food-based strategies to improve your good bacteria
Quality, consistency in quality, freshness, dosage, and sustainability are always a concern when it comes to supplements.
When it comes to quality, not only does the quality of products vary dramatically from one brand to another, but the consistency of that quality can also differ over time.
A solution to this is to hedge your bet by identifying 2-3 brands that you trust or have been recommended and then rotate through them each time you need to replace your product.
For example, you might use Brand A for a month, and then use Brand B for the next month, and then Brand C for the next month before going back to Brand A again.
As for freshness, it’s important to check the best-before date on the product. Keeping your probiotics in the fridge or freezer will help keep it fresher for longer.
Dosage can vary from brand to brand, and the recommended dosage can also vary depending on what food-based probiotics you consume, your lifestyle, and whether you are taking a preventative / maintenance dose, or trying to recover from taking antibiotics or NSAIDS.
According to Precision Nutrition, “supplemental doses for probiotics are typically expressed in billions of live organisms. Between 3 and 5 billion would be a starting dose. This could be increased to 10 billion if you are hoping to alleviate a specific health concern. Take with food/drink and use a reputable brand.”
They also recommend that if you are wanting to get prebiotics from supplements, then “2-4 grams of FOS [fructo-oligosaccharides, which are common prebiotics] per day can help to feed healthy gut bacteria and keep things balanced. Supplementing pre- and probiotics at the same time might be a good idea.”
4) Consume supplements with food.
Consuming your probiotic supplement with food may help to improve its absorption.
It may also improve it’s effectiveness if your meal contains prebiotic fiber that can provide a source of fuel for the good bacteria.