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Did you know that 80% of your immune system is inside of your gastrointestinal tract (aka your GI tract, aka your gut)? And that your gut is home to about 500 different strains of bacteria making up about 100 trillion microorganisms?! Think of your gut like a dorm room full of college kids who are competing for space and privacy. But instead, the bacteria in your gut are competing for space and nutrients. 

If there’s a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria, you are unlikely to have gut symptoms. But if you’re experiencing abdominal pain, bloating, acid reflux, constipation, or diarrhea? These are signs it’s time to tune into your gut health.

In my practice, Arizona Wellness Medicine, we perform tests like stool studies and/or breath tests to get down to the root cause of your gut symptoms. After gut testing, I commonly put my patients on a variety of protocols that include things like probiotics and other gut healing nutraceuticals, depending on symptoms and test results. This is because probiotics are an essential ingredient to any gut healing protocol. 

But you may be thinking, “Hold up, Dr. Parke! What exactly are probiotics? What are the general categories of probiotics? And how can they help me boost my gut health and overall immune system? Can probiotics prevent or help infections like COVID-19?”

Keep reading to get your probiotic questions answered.

The Probiotics Definition

Like every storyline and movie has a good guy and a bad guy, your body is home to “good” and “bad” bacteria. Probiotics are the good guys they’re helpful bacteria that benefit your gut health and provide your body benefits. They’re found in a variety of foods like kombucha, kefir, yogurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. You can also take them in the form of supplements.

While extensive research is still being done on probiotics’ exact job description, scientists have come up with many of their key responsibilities. Probiotics help your body by:

  • Balancing the amount of good and bad bacteria in your body to support a healthy immune system
  • Creating certain vitamins and neurotransmitters
  • Supporting the cells in your gut so bad bacteria don’t leak into your bloodstream
  • Helping to grow/foster the good bacteria you lose from antibiotic treatments
  • Regulating bowel movements

An important job, right?

While you’re probably convinced you need to take a probiotic ASAP to get these benefits, it’s important to understand what type of probiotic you should consume. There are different categories of probiotics. If you don’t understand each category, consuming a probiotic could hurt you instead of helping you. 

Now you may be thinking, “But wait, I thought probiotics were the good guys? How could they do more harm than good?”

This is because you may have an overgrowth of a certain bacteria. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, so it’s important to get tested to understand what bacteria are currently in your gut.

What Are the General Categories of Probiotics?

I mentioned earlier that there are 500 strains of bacteria in your gut. Think of a strain as the bacteria’s last name. But when it comes to last names, members of the same family can have a variety of them. So, do you tell your cousin that since she got married and took her husband’s last name that she’s no longer part of the family and banned from all reunions? No!

When siblings, cousins, or other family members get married, everyone will have different last names, but you’re still related

Phew! Families can get complicated, but I’m going to make this simple. Here are the three most common categories of probiotics.

1. Traditional Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria containing probiotics

Ever walked into a grocery or health-food store and seen a whole wall of probiotic supplements? They most likely contain your traditional Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria probiotics. 

Lactobacillus bacteria are found in the GI tract, oral cavity, and vagina. They’re rod-shaped bacteria that convert foods into the end product lactic acid. It also produces the enzyme lactase that helps your body break down lactose after you eat milk-containing foods. Some foods that contain Lactobacillus are yogurt, cheese, pickles, and olives. 

Bifidobacteria are also rod-shaped bacteria that live in your stomach, small intestine, and large intestine. They play an important part in your metabolism and also interact with cells in your immune system

The specific Bifidobacteria called Bifidobacterium bifidum effectively compete with harmful bacteria that cause E. coli and staph infections by producing lactic acid and acetic acid to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria types. Plus, another bacteria in this group, Bifidobacterium lactis, helps to reduce intestinal permeability/leaky gut.

This category of probiotics is a good fit for boosting your overall gut health and increasing the population of healthy bacteria after dysbiosis. Dysbiosis occurs when there’s an overabundance/imbalance of harmful organisms in the gut.

2. Spore-based probiotics

While Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria are popular probiotics, sometimes they’re not fully viable once they reach your small intestine. It could be due to a lot of factors, but one of the most common issues is when the capsules are exposed to stomach acid.  Therefore, it is important for your probiotics to be in an acid-resistant capsule with research showing it makes it past the stomach. 

So how else can you get the probiotics your gut needs? Enter Spore-based probiotics. 

Endospores encapsulate the probiotic strains and are highly resistant to stomach acid so they reach your small intestine with no problem. Their resilience also shows because they can even resist antibiotics. They’re composed of endosomes that are also stable at room temperature and can deliver a high amount of beneficial bacteria to your small intestine compared to a traditional probiotic. A common example of a spore-based probiotic is Bacillus subtilis. It’s also commonly found in fermented foods and raw vegetables.

While spore-based probiotics are favorable for most people, you probably want to think twice if you have a weak immune system from recent chemotherapy, radiation, or other prescription immune system modulators. This is because foreign strains of bacteria could do more harm than good for your body.

I commonly recommend spore-based probiotics to patients who may have elevated levels of endotoxins, leaky gut/intestinal permeability, or irritable bowel syndrome. They’re also beneficial in improving your overall gut lining.

3. Saccharomyces boulardii 

Ever had juicy lychees or mangosteens? (FYI: They’re delicious, tropical fruits.)

Saccharomyces boulardii is a healthy, probiotic yeast that was first isolated from the skin of these two fruits. This was because a scientist saw that those who consumed mangosteen were able to control their diarrhea – they came to find it was all thanks to this powerful bacteria strain Saccharomyces boulardii helps your body’s immune defense by binding and getting rid of certain harmful bacteria and yeast.  It also helps support a healthy gut lining. 

If you’re suffering from gut symptoms, I recommend giving one of these three categories of probiotics a try. They’ve helped my patients so much that I created my Complete Probiotic that contains strains of lactobacillus, bifidobacteria as well as saccharomyces boulardii — a powerhouse of probiotics!  I also created a spore-based probiotic combined with immunoglobulins called Spore IG that is amazing for healing the gut, especially in patients that have SIBO/IMO and/or cannot tolerate traditional probiotics.  You can purchase my probiotics and other gut healing supplements here.

Your Gut Microbiome and COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s vital to keep you and your family’s immune systems up to prevent infection. You’ve probably been proactive by taking things like extra vitamin C, but you may not be aware that supplementing a probiotic with vitamin C may be beneficial to you and your family’s respiratory tracts– especially for your little ones. 

Probiotics and vitamin C were shown to prevent upper respiratory tract infections in 3 to 6-year-old children. The probiotics were from our first category of probiotics, traditional Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria probiotics. And this is important since the SARS-CoV-2 virus leading to the COVID-19 disease affects your respiratory tract.

While COVID-19 affects your respiratory tract, it also affects your GI tract. Scientists found that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was present in fecal samples of patients with COVID-19. The virus also altered the gut microbiota composition of patients. Scientists found that Bacteroidetes were superabundant in COVID-19 patients while Actinobacteria were superabundant in non-COVID-19 patients. Patients with COVID-19 had low amounts of Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Eubacterium rectale, and bifidobacteria which are beneficial bacteria for the immune system. 

Even after patients recovered from the virus, their dysbiotic gut microbiota remained. You may also know that many patients who had COVID-19 and recovered are still experiencing symptoms of joint pain, fatigue, brain fog, or GI complaints. This may be due in part to a dysbiotic gut microbiome.

While studies still must be done to determine the link between microbiota dysbiosis from COVID-19 and long-term persistent symptoms, it’s fascinating that a virus impacting the respiratory tract also affects your gut. It will be interesting to see the longer-term research to see if probiotics can aid in the complete recovery of patients who have or had COVID-19.

Should You Take Probiotics?

If you have significant GI symptoms, I recommend finding a functional medicine practitioner to help you run some tests to determine the root cause of your symptoms, and which probiotics may be best for you. Lastly, it’s vital that you talk to your healthcare professional if you’re pregnant, nursing, trying to get pregnant, under cancer treatment or taking certain medications that affect the immune system as each probiotic category is different. Systemic infections from probiotics are rare but have occurred.

Interested in talking to a doctor about which probiotic would be most beneficial for you and getting tested for your gut symptoms? Schedule an appointment with Arizona Wellness Medicine here

Let’s get down to the root cause of your gut issues together!

Dr. Emily Parke

Dr. Emily Parke

Dr. Emily Parke, D.O., is a certified functional medicine doctor, board-certified in anesthesiology & pediatric anesthesiology, and trained in medical acupuncture. She’s an experienced speaker in the medical and functional medicine community, and presently gives talks on a wide array of subjects.