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What Are Probiotics and Are There Any Alternatives?

Updated: Jan 30, 2023

Marketers, the media, and even some scientists throw around the word "probiotic" to describe pretty much anything that contains bacteria. However, this is merely one piece of the probiotic puzzle. A puzzle that is crucial to understand because beneficial bacteria hold the keys to living a longer, healthier and happier life.


Gut health euphoria seems to be upon us! With a whopping 4 million Instagram posts tagged with #guthealth and a further 500,000 tagged as #microbiome, it's safe to say that the gut and its microbiome are pretty famous. Not to mention the 30 million google articles and did we mention the 700 million TikTok videos!


What is it all about? Advances in technology and scientific research are transforming the way the gut and its microbiome are viewed in relation to our health. There’s a popular belief that we are on the verge of a paradigm shift in medicine; a move away from prescription drugs curing disease and towards a bacteria driven proactive approach that stops the disease from occurring in the first place. Due to all of this excitement, there is an overwhelming amount of information out there that is difficult to navigate and understand. This article aims to bring you up to speed on what probiotics are, what they do, their benefits and their limitations.




What are probiotics?


According to the official definition, probiotics are ‘live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host’. There are a few key points here we need to point out:

  • the microorganisms (bacteria) have to be alive

  • there have to be enough microorganisms administered per dose

  • the microorganisms need to benefit our health in some way

Sounds simple, but it’s far from it.




The live microorganisms bit


Let’s start with the live microorganisms part. Hydrochloric acid, potassium chloride, and sodium chloride make the stomach a very hostile environment for bacteria. Probiotics in our food and supplements must survive this environment to make it to the gut where they can work their magic. Unfortunately, a large proportion of them do not, in fact, some studies have estimated that between a whopping 60% and 80% of probiotics are destroyed in the stomach.


It’s all about speed, the longer the probiotics spend in the stomach, the lower the percentage is of them that survive. Due to this, the best time to take live bacteria supplements is on an empty stomach so that no undigested food is in the stomach to slow them down. Ideally, we recommend taking any live probiotic supplements first thing in the morning. If this cant be done then aim for at least 30 minutes before or 2 hours after eating a meal




The dosage bit


For microorganisms to be classed as a probiotic, the amount of live organisms that reach the gut needs to be sufficient enough to convey a health benefit. So, for probiotic supplements that means they must survive manufacture, packaging, shipment, and the period spent in their packaging before having to run the gauntlet of the stomach when ingested by you.



Unfortunately, as time passes the number of live microorganisms present in a supplement decreases. Often, the number can be decreased by around 50% in the first month alone. The rate at which probiotics deteriorate can be reduced by refrigeration, however this can vastly increase the shipping costs for suppliers and as such is very rarely done. Marketers have a trick for this however, they often advertise probiotics as not requiring refrigeration and instead quote an extremely high CFU dosage to counteract the deterioration e.g. if the supplement contains more microorganisms than needed then enough will survive to reach you. However, be wary of this when buying probiotics, see if you can find out some more information regarding the estimated strength of the probiotic at different ages and compare that to when it was manufactured.


Probiotics are often measured in CFU or AFU. Colony-Forming Units (CFU) indicate how many bacteria in a dose are capable of dividing and colonising at the point of testing. Active Fluorescent Units (AFU), can also distinguish between active (useful) and non-active (not-useful) bacteria in a dose at the point of testing. AFU will therefore give a lower but more accurate measurement than CFU. The testing is almost always conducted at the point of manufacture and as such won’t represent what will actually be taken.




The benefit bit


Not all microorganisms are created equal and for them to be classified as a probiotic they need to confer a health benefit. The dosage required to achieve the health benefit is based on clinical studies where they usually administer a single strain in a range of different dosages to a group of test subjects and monitor and measure the results. They look for the dosage which has been most effective (and safest) and this would be the recommended dosage for that strain.


Often probiotics supplements will contain a mixture of different strains which give the user coverage of a range of health benefits. These usually include immunity, energy, mood, heart brain and gut health [add link to the benefits of probiotics]. This is great as it would be difficult and extremely expensive to buy each probiotic strain individually for the regular person. The number of strains available is also extensive, so having the professionals choose a mix of strains for you makes sense and saves you a heap of time.



In a supplement with a mix of strains, however this can present difficulties in understanding how much of each strain is present in a single dose of the supplement. Most good probiotic supplements however provide a measurement of each strain used in the recipe in either CFU or AFU to help us understand what we are getting. This unfortunately does get a bit more complicated when you consider that different probiotic strains deteriorate over time at different rates. As such, with time it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to know how much of each strain is present in a dose.


I’m afraid before we leave this section there is one more pitfall we want to help you avoid. Not all strains cost the same and as such some suppliers will include higher quantities of the strains which are cheaper and less of the more expensive strains. This presents a difficult problem to the customer as there is a lot of research required to identify this practice. What we would suggest when choosing a probiotic supplement is to avoid any mixes with over 5 or 6 different strains and do some research on the strains included and make sure their health benefits align with your health goals.




How do probiotics work?


Let's say you've found a probiotic that you are happy to start taking. What are all the lovely beneficial bacteria actually doing and how does that benefit your health?



In all honesty, there is a lot of research ongoing trying to fully understand the gut microbiome and how it works. It's a hugely complicated field that has been the source of some extremely promising health discoveries over the past 20 years. A topic so complex that a few paragraphs on a page couldn’t do much justice. What we do know however, is that probiotics travel through the intestines and can provide the following benefits:


• Improved gut lining: This is the system of the gut which controls what the body absorbs. The lining chooses which nutrients to allow to pass through the lining of the intestines and into the body but then refuses entry to the body of any bacterial toxins and pathogens


• Neurotransmitters: The production and release of neurotransmitters that stimulate gastrointestinal muscle contractions, resulting in better and easier bowel motions.


• Produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs): these by-products are produced by probiotics and have been shown in multiple studies to be beneficial to metabolic and gut immune functions.


For these benefits to become a reality the probiotic bacteria cells need to come into contact with prebiotics within the gut. Prebiotics are soluble fibre molecules and they are the food that probiotics need to produce benefits for the body.



How can you ensure the probiotics you take meet the prebiotics in the gut?

Well, unfortunately you can’t. This is one of the main challenges that probiotics face on their mission to provide health benefits. If the probiotics are not able to interact with prebiotics then they will pass through your gut system without providing the much-needed benefits.

The best thing we can do is to ensure that sufficient good quality prebiotics (soluble fibre) is regularly ingested and is present in our gut for the probiotics to be able to ingest if they come into contact. If more soluble fibre molecules are present in the gut, then the chance for each probiotic bacteria cell bumping into one is increased.


The best way to get prebiotics is to eat a diet rich in foods with high levels of prebiotics. This can’t always be an easy task, especially with modern lifestyles that often require food that’s fast and convenient. These fast and convenient meals are often low in nutritional value and won’t provide us with the prebiotics that we desperately need. Modern farming techniques are also making our food less nutritious in general so even the vegetables and grains that we do eat, aren’t as nutritious for us as they used to be. The best tip here is to try to eat organic fruit and vegetables whenever possible. This will also help you avoid pesticides that are having disastrous effects on our gut microbiomes, but that’s another story entirely. Another way to boost the levels of prebiotic


s in your system is to take a good quality prebiotic supplement daily.




How long should probiotics supplements be taken to feel the benefits?


The length of time it takes for the benefits to be felt ranges from strain to strain. Generally, the advice for most probiotic supplements on the market is to allow for 3 months for the benefits to take effect. This is inline with the British Society of Gastroenterology guidelines which also recommend 12 weeks when trying any bacteria-based supplements. As previously mentioned, the gut and its microbiome are extremely complex, what works for one person may not work for another especially when you factor in all the challenges that probiotics face that we have discussed in this article.


Supplements should never be a substitute for a healthy lifestyle, but they are a great boost and can help us feel at our best. In our opinion, there are none more important than supplements linked to maintaining gut health. However, finding the right probiotics that work for you can be a long and costly process.




Are there alternatives to probiotics?


Yes, they’re called Postbiotics.


Living a healthy lifestyle is always the number one piece of advice. Limiting stress and anxiety levels whilst ensuring we get enough exercise and sleep have been linked to living a long and healthy life. This combined with a diet that is rich in probiotics and prebiotics will help you be at your best for longer.


When it comes to gut health supplements however, probiotics supplements have a lot of limitations. As this article has outlined, probiotics face several challenges to provide health benefits. These challenges result in a large proportion of any probiotics that are digested being wasted and not providing any health benefits. Studies have estimated that between 60% and 80% of probiotics are destroyed in the stomach acid alone. When you consider how expensive good quality probiotics can be, this might not be the best value for money when it comes to gut health supplements.



Postbiotics are different, they are the end product of probiotics digesting prebiotics. There is no risk of them being destroyed in the stomach acid as they are not alive like probiotics. For the same reason, they also do not lose potency over time whilst they are in storage, nor do they need to be kept refrigerated. They provide the body with all the substances that cause the health benefits of probiotics and by design, they do not face the challenges that live probiotics do.


Postbiotics therefore, offer a much better option for maintaining and improving gut health. Don’t just take our word for it either, numerous scient


ific studies have now been completed which have proven the benefits that postbiotics. We have listed some of them in the scientific studies section on our website in case you want to have a read.


It’s because of these scientific advancements that we at Root have spent the last 2 years developing a Postbiotic formula that not only improves and maintains gut health but also optimises the gut to make it more efficient and make you feel the best you can do. Don't just take our word for it, we have had human clinical studies conducted which have shown multiple gut health related benefits. We have also included a prebiotic booster that feeds any probiotics already present in the gut to double up the benefits and support your gut microbiome.




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