Garden of Life RAW Probiotics are some of the most popular out there – and for good reason. Let’s start with the basics: You’ll get 85 billion CFUs and 31 to 33 probiotic strains out of your daily, whole-food, gluten-free, soy-free probiotic, which helps support the immune system, a healthy thyroid, nutrient absorption, digestive function, and a healthy microbial balance.
If you don’t have a specific health goal in mind and want to bolster the number of good bacteria floating around your system, Perlmutter recommends starting with a minimum of eight to 10 different bacterial species. He included a core five (L. Plantarum, L. Acidophilus, L. Brevis, B. Lactis, and B. Longum) and we added five more highly researched and universally beneficial strains for a general health pick. Vita Miracle, formerly Islands Miracle, has nine of those 10, plus 30 billion CFUs per serving.
Probiotics and raw fermented foods and drinks, such as sauerkraut and kefir that contain probiotic-like microbes, are very helpful for digestion. They help to keep your gastrointestinal tract at the proper pH for optimal digestion and help to break down foods. They also regulate the motion of your intestines so that food moves through at the proper pace.
Notions don’t equal evidence though, and Lebwohl cautioned against thinking of probiotics as a cure-all, and examining the ways in which they’ve been proven to work as well as the ways in which they really haven’t. So which medical conditions have probiotics actually shown promise in treating and which claims have the credibility of a used car salesman on acid?
"In fact," she continues, "80% of immune system cells are found in the gut. In addition to the well-known GI benefits of minimizing bloat, gas, constipation, and diarrhea, probiotics aid in digestion by extracting nutrients, helping your body absorb minerals, produce vitamins, and make brain chemicals, including over 30 neurotransmitters along with mood-enhancing serotonin. A healthy person has over 100 trillion microbes, generally a five to one ratio of helpful to harmful."
Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder and director of Real Nutrition based in NYC, discusses the effect probiotics have on immune system issues. "Probiotics compete with pathogenic microorganisms and produce chemicals that inactivate or kill pathogens," says Shapiro. "They help prevent immune-mediated diseases by improving the gut mucosal immune system. Overall, probiotics protect the body from infections and allow the body to maintain homeostasis."
In the past, probiotics have been proposed as part of a weight loss diet. However, a 2015 meta-analysis looked at available randomized, controlled trials investigating this effect and determined that the studies did not seem to support this hypothesis, as body weight and BMI were not consistently reduced. The researchers did point out the need for better designed trials, because they were not convinced the results were based on well-designed science.
Among their numerous health benefits, research shows these friendly microorganisms help prevent bowel diseases, improve your immune system, reduce traveler’s diarrhea, help you maintain a healthy weight, heal various skin conditions, improve bloating and other uncomfortable GI symptoms, and even boost your mood, helping to reduce the effects of anxiety and depression.
If these issues and many others are connected to gut health, then what elements are essential for digestive health? Consider this: According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, upward of 60 million to 70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases. In addition, digestive disease and disorders cost the United States over $100 billion per year.
A 2014 review by Cochrane—an independent network of experts who serve as rigorous arbiters of medical research—found that probiotics may be particularly useful in a hospital's neonatal intensive care unit. The addition of beneficial bacteria to a nutritional regimen seems to significantly reduce the likelihood of developing necrotizing enterocolitis, which is a devastating, poorly understood and often fatal gut disease that primarily afflicts preterm infants—especially the smallest and most premature among them. Researchers think that many cases of the disease begin with an opportunistic bacterial infection in the not yet fully developed intestine of an infant. As the illness progresses, gut tissue becomes increasingly inflamed and often starts to die, which can, in turn, rupture the intestine and flood the abdominal cavity with pathogenic microbes that proliferate to dangerous levels. Researchers estimate that 12 percent of preterm infants weighing less than 3.3 pounds will develop necrotizing enterocolitis and that 30 percent of them will not survive. Standard treatment involves a combination of antibiotics, feeding via intravenous tubes, and surgery to remove diseased and dead tissue. Probiotics probably prevent the disorder by boosting the numbers of beneficial bacteria, which may deter the harmful ones.
Because there's a huge variety of probiotic products available on the market, many people struggle to find the right one for them. "There are many different strains of bacteria in different combinations within different probiotic supplements," explains Brooke Scheller, a clinical and functional nutritionist. "For example, a probiotic may contain a single strain of bacteria or many. It may also contain other vitamins, minerals, or other ingredients that may tout health benefits," she says. There are many different dosages, delivery systems (powder, tablets, capsules), and formulations (refrigerated vs. shelf-stable), and some probiotics also contain prebiotics, which basically act as fertilizer for the probiotics. (Related: Why Your Probiotic Needs a Prebiotic Partner)
Unfortunately, the U.S. has no federal standards for probiotic supplements. Therefore, you run the risk of purchasing a product without any guarantee that it contains its advertised probiotic strains, that the strains are alive, or that the product is free from unhealthy ingredients. Therefore, it may be best to choose a brand-name probiotic that has research backing their effectiveness. Here are some examples:
A popular dish in Japan consisting of fermented soybeans, natto contains the extremely powerful probiotic bacillus subtilis, which has been proven to bolster your immune system, support cardiovascular health and enhance digestion of vitamin K2. Natto can also contain vitamin B12, which is usually lacking in vegan diets. It’s also one of the highest plant-based proteins.