Probiotics: 101

Here’s a peek at the connection between food, the body and good bacteria:

Recently, my Guiding Stars colleague and fellow Registered Dietitian Allison Stowell and I presented an hour-long, free webinar on probiotics (you can check out the archived webinar here). We were excited to present on this topic for a few reasons: 1) it’s an area of great consumer interest, 2) new probiotic product development is on fire right now, and 3) there’s LOTS to say about probiotics. The more we dug into the studies and science on probiotics, the more interested in it we became! While developing the webinar we realized we could probably present on this topic for 3+ hours and still not touch upon all the information we wanted to communicate. Who knew microorganisms and the gut could be so fascinating? For the sake of this post, I’ve pared our webinar down to a few main points.

When making dishes that use yogurt, like this Blue Cheese Dressing, look for varieties with the “Live and Active Cultures” seal.

First, I want to mention that I’ve covered basics about probiotics in this blog post, and Alli covered some of the probiotic basics in her blog about smoothies and gut bacteria, so I won’t cover those points again, but definitely check them both out for basic background. Instead, I’ll summarize the big “take home” points from our recent webinar.

Probiotics likely impact many areas of health.

Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any health claims for probiotics, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) only officially recognize the health benefits of probiotics extending to GI problems (they note acute diarrhea, antibiotic-related diarrhea and atopic eczema), that does not mean that’s all that they’re good for.  We are just starting to learn about all facets of the bacteria in and on our bodies and the impacts it may have; this is why the NIH started the Human Microbiome Project. It’s really a case of we-don’t-know-what-we-don’t-know. However, more and more studies are coming out that indicate possible beneficial impacts of various strains of probiotics in the following conditions:

  • Weight loss
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Functional constipation
  • Risk for cardiovascular disease

The probiotic gut-brain connection is real.

You might be hearing more about the gut-brain connection (sometimes called the gut-brain axis) as this is a hot topic of research in the probiotic arena. Basically, the gut-brain axis is a bi-directional communication and regulatory system between the gut environment, the central nervous system and the brain. The gut and the brain can send messages to each other (and receive them). What does this mean? We don’t really know yet—that’s what the scientists are looking into, but there is evidence from both animal and human studies that the gut microbiota (the collection of microbes in the gut) can have mental and behavioral impacts. For example, depression, mood, anxiety, stress and aspects of cognition may all be influenced by our gut microbes. I can’t wait until this science is better defined—this has exciting implications for the role of diet and mental health.

Choose probiotic products as wisely as possible.

When it comes to probiotic foods, look for those with live, active strains. Yogurts will generally have the “Live and Active Cultures” seal. For fermented foods like sauerkraut, pickles and kimchi, you want the refrigerated varieties—heat-treated versions won’t have live cultures. For other products, look for labels that indicate the presence of active cultures in the finished product—not just that it was “made with active cultures” (lots of things are made with cultures but that doesn’t mean any viable cultures are left when you consume it).

For probiotic supplements, making wise choices won’t be all that easy because labeling of probiotic supplements is not regulated (they are not regulated like drugs are). In general, look for a reputable manufacturer, a label that indicates the species and strain of bacteria, and the quantity of bacteria per dose.

For additional, reliable information on probiotics, check out and Mayo Clinic.