Digestion & GI health
Probiotics — for life!
I know plenty of women who would rather not get into the interworkings of their
digestion. I promise I won’t go too far! But it’s important to know that when it
comes to digestion, we’re not alone. Tiny organisms, mostly bacteria, who live in
our GI tract, help us to digest food, aid nutrient absorption, produce certain key
vitamins, prevent disease, and much, much more. These tiny organisms actually
make up three to five pounds of our total body weight!
When we’re born our digestive tracts are completely sterile, but then we start to
undergo “colonization” by an amazingly diverse array of microbes. Unfortunately,
some of us get started off in life with less-than-optimal GI ecosystems, and by
the age of about two (unless you move to another country or make drastic changes
in your diet) your flora is more or less set. For others who begin with a healthy
floral balance, microbial imbalances (aka
dys-biosis) can develop later on: after a particularly stressful period
in life, an illness, as a consequence of prescription meds, or even by way of a
junk-food or drinking habit. Imbalanced gut flora can lead to gas, bloating, cramps,
headaches, joint problems and more.
Can you tell when your GI flora are out of balance?
Here are some indications that you could use a few more friendly residents in your
- Cramps, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas,
- Gluten, dairy, or other food sensitivity
- Yeast infections, cold sores, thrush
- Urinary tract infections
- Headaches, migraines, stuffy nose, increased mucus production
- Joint aches
- Rosacea, acne, or other skin problems
- Chronic bad breath
Note: Although these symptoms can indicate floral imbalance, they can also
reflect more serious conditions. See your healthcare provider with any ongoing concerns.
The exciting news is that scientific evidence suggests several opportunities to
support our beneficial intestinal flora. For starters, we can simply eat plenty
of plant foods. Taking a good probiotic and some other GI-supportive supplements
is another easy, low-cost, nearly instantaneous way to gently make amends for any
damage our intestinal colonies may have suffered along the way.
Many women I talk with are overwhelmed by all the choices, when it comes to probiotics.
So let’s take a closer look at the best way to get rapid relief from dysbiosis,
and how to find the right probiotic for you.
Reaping the benefits of a friendly GI community
When patients tell me they can’t wait to get home at the end of the day to change
into roomier clothes — usually something with an elastic waistband to accommodate
for bloating or gas — this is my first clue that they may need digestive support.
We usually find rebalancing the patient’s gut flora extremely helpful in resolving
embarrassing symptoms like bloating and flatulence. And in the process, we can accomplish
much more for her overall health. Here are just some of the myriad benefits of a
balanced GI community:
- Digests certain sugars and proteins.
- Facilitates absorption of certain minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, and iron.
- Regulates appropriate storage of fat in the body.
- Prevents bloating, gas, and yeast overgrowth.
- Manufactures vitamin K and B vitamins sometimes otherwise in short supply.
- Deprives invaders of nutrients, secretes acids that less-friendly microbes can’t
- Strengthens the lining of the gut to help block dangerous pathogens, toxins, and
- Stimulates immune system by increasing T-cells, producing natural antibiotics/antifungals.
- Metabolizes and recycles hormones, including estrogen, thyroid hormones, and phytoestrogens.
- Helps detoxify drugs and other harmful compounds.
- Exerts anti-tumor/anti-cancer effects.
And there are even more advantages being discovered all the time — but suffice it
to say that having healthy GI flora is essential to your overall health and longevity!
Research recently published by molecular biologists suggests we acquire as newborns
one of three main types of gut ecosystems. Surprisingly, these three enterotypes
(“entero” meaning “inside”) appear to cluster in humans not by the country
we’re from, or by our race, gender or age — but they do correlate with
our genetic blueprint and dietary traditions.
So the family we’re born into determines what kinds of “bug” communities live in
and on us. You might be thinking, Yuck — and I need to know this why!?
But trust me: your enterotype matters a lot because it’s central to how you obtain
energy and metabolize nutrients — both of which have enormous implications
for your lifelong health and well-being.
How you can achieve healthy floral balance
The good news is that no matter where your imbalance stems, natural solutions are
at your fingertips. My first recommendation will always be for women to eat well
to restore and balance their gut flora, but choosing optimal “gut food” is not always
possible — or palatable for some! Take a look at these suggestions for keeping a
good biotic balance.
- What to eat. Good bacteria feast on fiber. They thrive
on a generous supply of vegetables, legumes, fruits, seeds, and whole grains. Foods
like garlic, green tea, and ginseng contain polyphenols, which are also helpful
for fostering friendly microbes. And to keep the bad bacteria out, include some
real fermented or cultured foods in your daily diet, like miso, kim chi,
sauerkraut, umeboshi, tempeh, soy sauce, kefir, yogurt, and any kind of
- What to avoid. Unfriendly flora love refined sugars and
animal fat best of all. So use moderation with sweets, refined flours, alcohol,
butter, and fatty meats, or avoid them altogether, at least for a while. You should
also steer clear of processed foods and anything containing adulterants like preservatives.
- Try a probiotic supplement. If you expect to be traveling,
are under lots of stress, or you’re currently experiencing GI symptoms, consider
taking a good probiotic supplement to restore or maintain balance. The colonies
of organisms that naturally inhabit your gut are not the same as probiotic species,
though. Probiotics principally act as placeholders in your ideal intestinal “real
estate,” so your native flora can get reestablished.
Different combinations and protocols work well for different people and situations.
Here are three such possible scenarios:
Jen, who is starting an antibiotic...
- Starts a high count probiotic as soon as she starts her antibiotic.
- Continues her probiotic for 6-8 weeks after the course of her antibiotic treatment.
Anne, who has minor bloating and gas...
- Takes a 25-50 billion count probiotic for 3 months daily.
- After 3 months she switches to a 10-15 billion count probiotic for 3 months.
- If she’s symptom free, Anne can try taking 6 weeks off to see how she feels. If
not, she can rotate between higher and lower count probiotics every 3 months.
Ellen, who has digestive issues due to food sensitivities, etc....
- Begins taking a 25-50 billion bacterial count probiotic (without prebiotics or yeast)
once per day.
- Gradually works up to taking 2-3 capsules per day unless there is a problem. If
she’s experiencing a problem, she can back down to 1 capsule per day.
- Stays on probiotic for 3 months.
- Switches to a different high-count probiotic for 3 months and rotates every 3 months.
Choosing a probiotic: what to look for
Probiotics come in a wide range of formulations, from encapsulated beads and powders
to enteric-coated capsules and liquid functional foods. Most women prefer powdered
probiotics in capsules that do not require refrigeration. To help guarantee the
most active cultures, we recommend buying smaller quantities more frequently and
keeping them in the refrigerator — unless that means you forget to take them, of
What are prebiotics?
Certain foods are rich in fiber molecules called prebiotics, factors which
nourish friendly GI flora and set the stage for probiotic survival. Prebiotics help
probiotics survive passage through the acidity of the stomach and small intestine,
and foster their growth in the intestines and colon.
- fructooligosaccharides (FOS)
- guar gum
These are natural sugar molecules found primarily in all kinds of plant foods (bananas,
artichoke, chicory root, burdock, onions, leeks, fruit, soybeans, sweet potatoes,
asparagus, green tea); but also honey and cultured foods (kefir, cottage cheese,
sauer kraut, yogurt).
Research is showing that prebiotics may also help maintain optimal cholesterol levels,
stabilize blood sugar, and decrease risk for osteoporosis, along with diverse additional
health benefits too numerous to list here!
Bear in mind that the following guidelines are for women who are experiencing minor
symptoms of gas and bloating with meals, or those who want to prevent bacterial
imbalance due to antibiotics, stress, travel, and so on.
For anyone with more serious digestive disorders, it might be best to proceed more
gently when it comes to healing your gut. This could mean starting with a lower-bacterial-count
probiotic every other day, taken at the end of the day when the stomach is not empty.
You can work up to taking it every day and/or to a higher-count probiotic. Talk
with a functional
medicine practitioner for more help.
Here’s what to look for when selecting a probiotic:
- Look for supplements that contain bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species
such as L. acidophilus in the billions. The number of colony-forming units
(CFU’s) should be listed on the label.
- To ensure product purity, safety and quality, look for a supplement made in a GMP-compliant
facility that is certified by the NSF. (These acronyms should also appear on the
Ideally, we’d be getting all the prebiotics and probiotics we need from our diet,
but this is not always possible. This is why we created our own
Super Biotic for our Personal Program members, which contains 15 billion
organisms per dose.
Probiotics can’t do it alone
Probiotic use is generally safe, simple, and effective, but it’s no substitute for
good overall health practices. Probiotics supply the flora, but you need a solid
foundation of nutrition for those microorganisms to flourish and to be able to take
advantage of the potential health benefits they can provide. That’s why we recommend
probiotics as part of a combination approach that includes lifestyle and dietary
changes, as well as a daily, high-quality multivitamin/mineral. It’s also why we
created our Personal Program
for Digestive Reset, which offers a combination of probiotic support, glutamine,
and an elimination diet to help heal your gut.
When used alongside a healthy diet and nutritional supplements, probiotics can make
a real, sustained difference in your long-term preventive health. So take a tip
from the microscopic organisms living in your own body and pay attention to the
little things! Sometimes they can turn out to be the most important of all.
Related to this article:
References & further reading on probiotics
Last Modified Date: 09/12/2011
Principal Author: Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP