Everything You Thought You Knew About Probiotics Is (Probably) Wrong
PROBIOTICS ARE EVERYWHERE. In a day and age where so many eat a diet of processed foods and live with compromised gut health, it’s unsurprising how quickly the word has spread about the high impact probiotics can have. But, as so often happens in health and wellness, growing interest in probiotics has led to an explosion of brands and products—many with questionable potency and efficacy. The result? Complete consumer confusion.
The truth is that our understanding of the microbiome and the field of probiotics has just begun. We spoke with one of the most educated people we know on the topic, Ara Katz, co-founder of Seed, and learned that probiotics actually go far beyond simply supporting gut health or addressing digestive issues. As research continues to advance, the role of bacteria in the health of our bodies, our children, our environment, and even in the prevention and treatment of disease, has become one of the most fascinating frontiers of science.
We’ve fallen hard, in the nerdiest of ways, for Seed, whose Daily Synbiotic is backed by an impressive ecosystem of scientists, doctors, innovators, entrepreneurs, and storytellers from around the world. Seed’s team brings much needed precision, education, and efficacy to the probiotics category. Their potent and sophisticated formulation of probiotics + prebiotics — their flagship Daily Synbiotic — is the most impressive we’ve come across, and they’re on a mission to educate their community in a way we rarely encounter.
Ready for a science-driven deep dive? Ara is here to drop some knowledge…
The Chalkboard Mag: Let’s start from the top. What inspired the creation of Seed? What did you see lacking in the market?
Ara Katz: I was introduced to my co-founder and co-CEO, Raja, when I was pregnant. My pregnancy and breastfeeding experience, paired with our mutual fascination with the microbiome (especially its critical role in infant development) prompted the question, How can we set up a child for a healthy life? One question led to many around the possibilities of how beneficial microbes (bacteria) can (and do) impact our health as well as the health of our planet — and culminated in a shared vision to set a new standard in consumer health.
TCM: How do we benefit from taking probiotics?
AK: As transient (aka non-colonizing) microbes, our probiotic strains travel through your colon, interacting with your immune cells, gut cells, dietary nutrient, and existing bacteria to directly and indirectly deliver benefits along the way. Some strains support a stronger gut barrier, which is critical for the absorption of beneficial nutrients and for protection against harmful substances. Others trigger neurotransmitters that stimulate muscle contractions, resulting in better more regular bowel movements.
But probiotics are not all about digestive benefits. Our bodies are complex and interconnected, and the gastrointestinal system (home to the majority of your microbiome) sits at the core of it all. It’s connected to and influences everything from immunity and metabolic function to cardiovascular, urogenital, and even skin health. That last one should come as no surprise, considering your skin and your gut actually have similar jobs — managing what comes into your body from the outside world, and relaying information back to your body’s nervous, immune, and endocrine systems.
That’s good news, because it means probiotics can have powerful effects across the entire body. The Dermatological Health blend in our Daily Synbiotic includes strains that are clinically proven to promote skin health, as well as a healthy SCORAD score (a scale for measuring atopic dermatitis, or eczema). Other strains produce metabolites — or byproducts — like short-chain fatty acids, which are essential for both metabolic and immune health.
Probiotics offer new tools for us to preventatively and proactively care for our whole selves—and are an important complement to diet, nutrition and exercise.
TCM: As consumers, how can we know who to trust in an industry that exceedingly touts gut health via probiotics?
AK: We saw the rise of ‘wellness’ usher in a wave of consumer enthusiasm and self-care. But we also saw it propel a category filled with misleading messaging, questionable products, hyperbolic claims and a shift away from science. Misinformation leads to misguided choices and misspent dollars that have the potential to compromise our health — rather than improve it.
We see this happening with probiotics too. We call it ‘gut mania,’ and it’s made worse by the fact that probiotics are an under-regulated category in the United States. The result is a saturated industry littered with products that don’t meet the globally-accepted, scientific definition of probiotics: ‘live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host’ (this definition was authored by a joint United Nations -World Health Organization Expert Panel chaired by our Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid, in 2001). The misuse of the term ‘probiotics’ across supplements, beverages, foods and even shampoos and mattresses, has created confusion and distrust in consumers (not to mention the media). It’s also betrayed the research that has been done — and continues to be done — at leading institutions around the world.
So together — with our combined experience in translating scientific research, product development, technology, e-commerce, and storytelling — we set out to bring much-needed science, precision, transparency, and education to this crowded and confusing market.
TCM: What are the biggest misconceptions consumers have about probiotics?
AK: Despite the ever-increasing number of ‘probiotic’ supplements, foods and beverages out there, there’s still a lot of confusion about what probiotics are, how they work, and why we should take them. These are the seven most common myths in the category…
MYTH #1: PROBIOTICS ARE ONLY FOR DIGESTION.
74% of Americans live with gastrointestinal issues. 68 million suffer from chronic constipation. So it’s unsurprising that most people exclusively associate probiotics with digestive health. But this is a common misconception.
Your body is complex and interconnected, and the gastrointestinal system sits at the core of it all. It’s connected to and influences everything from immunity and metabolic function to cardiovascular, dermatological, and urogenital health. So, while improvements in gut health are often the most immediate, localized, and evident (with digestion often improved in as little as 24-48 hours), probiotics can actually have powerful effects across the entire body, far beyond your digestive tract.
MYTH #2: PROBIOTICS CAN BE FOUND IN FERMENTED FOODS AND BEVERAGES LIKE KOMBUCHA.
Scientifically speaking, many of the products out there that claim to be probiotic, like some kombuchas or probiotic nuts for example, don’t actually qualify as one. Just because something contains live microorganisms, doesn’t mean it satisfies the scientific definition of ‘probiotic’—”live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host”, a definition authored by the United Nations – World Health Organization Expert Panel chaired by our Chief Scientist, Dr. Gregor Reid, in 2001.
You might have ingested some bacteria, but do you know which strains? In what quantities? Have they survived the acidic journey through your digestive system and landed in your colon? Have those strains been studied, in those quantities, to actually do something in your body?
The science of probiotics demands precision, accountability, and efficacy (you are putting live bacteria in your body, after all).
MYTH #3: PROBIOTICS DON’T WORK UNLESS THEY COLONIZE YOUR GUT.
When it comes to taking probiotics, you may have heard that you need to ‘restore’ your gut or ‘put the good bacteria back’. This is based in a common misconception that probiotics must ‘colonize’ or alter the composition of your microbiome to “work.” It’s not true.
In fact, outside of specific cases like fecal transplants, there is little evidence that probiotics ‘colonize’, or that they need to. Compared to the tens of trillions of microbes already rooted in your gastrointestinal tract, most probiotics don’t contain enough new bacteria to make a significant difference in the composition of your microbiota.
Even if they did, we don’t know enough about the safety of introducing colonizing microbes (especially soil-based microorganisms, which are becoming popular). Large numbers of newcomers moving in and displacing your existing bacteria could alter the unique balance of your ecosystem within and trigger unintended consequences.
What scientists do know is that, as transient microbes, probiotics travel through your GI tract, interacting with your immune cells, dendritic cells, gut cells, dietary nutrients, and existing bacteria to, directly and indirectly, deliver benefits.⠀
Some enhance the gene expressions involved in tight junction signaling, which help protect against intestinal permeability—this means a tight gut barrier. Others trigger neurotransmitters that stimulate muscle contractions for increased motility—think, better, more regular poops. Yet other bacteria produce byproducts like short-chain fatty acids, which have been extensively shown to be beneficial for metabolic and immune health.
This is why, if you choose to take a probiotic, continuous daily intake is important.
MYTH #4: PROBIOTICS WITH HIGHER CFUS ARE ALWAYS BETTER.
Not necessarily — especially if it contains billions and billions of bacteria never tested in humans.
You’ve probably seen the term CFU on a probiotic label. That refers to colony-forming units, which basically tells you how many bacteria in the sample are capable of dividing and forming colonies. First, a bigger number on the bottle does not always mean better results. The best dose, per strain, is one that has been shown to deliver clinically-validated, positive outcomes in humans.
Seed leverages a new form of measurement that has emerged — AFU — which stands for Active Fluorescent Units. It’s measured with flow cytometry, a process where probiotic cells are tagged with fluorescent ‘markers’ and counted by a laser as they pass through a tube. Through AFU, we are able to calculate a more precise measurement of all viable cells, including ones that are efficacious but not necessarily culturable (and therefore would not be counted in a traditional plated CFU measurement).
TCM: What do Daily Synbiotic probiotics do that others can’t?
AK: Our Daily Synbiotic is the first to take a ‘microbe-systems approach’ with clinically-studied, strain-specific benefits beyond digestive health, including cardiovascular health, dermatological health, immune function, reproductive health, gut barrier integrity, and oxidative stress. The female formulation is also the first probiotic to increase folate production.
TCM: What’s the purpose of including prebiotics?
AK: New observations have revealed that gut bacteria can actually biotransform prebiotics into secondary metabolites, increasing their bioavailability in the body and contributing to your health. So, it’s not just about what bacteria ‘eat,’ but also what bacteria can ‘do.’
In the simplest terms, prebiotics are the ‘food’ that feeds and encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But we now know that’s only a small piece of a larger puzzle.
TCM: What’s the key difference between the Female Daily Synbiotic and the Male Daily Synbiotic?
AK: The female formulation includes a dermatological health blend and is also the first to include probiotic strains that increase folate production within the body. The male formulation contains two unique strains which emerged from a clinical study only conducted in men evaluating muscle recovery after high-intensity exercise. Both formulations are the same and differ only in these mentioned benefits and are safe to take for either sex.
TCM: Why is continuous daily intake important and how do we know the probiotics we’re taking are working?
AK: Each time you go to the bathroom, you lose up to a few trillion microbes (including probiotics that have completed their work in your colon). This is why continuous, daily intake is important to optimize impact.
Everyone’s body is different, and the benefits you ‘feel’ (reduced bloating, more regular bowel movements, higher energy) are often just the most visceral ones.
Many people feel results of the Daily Synbiotic as soon as 24-48 hours after ingestion, due to localized benefits like improved digestion. Longer term benefits like cardiovascular health and metabolic function may take longer to notice. You may never notice them at all, and that’s completely normal. As long as you continue your daily intake, those beneficial microbes are doing their work inside to program, sustain, and enhance your health.
When choosing a probiotic, we suggest asking the following questions:
+ What are the strains (not just species) present? In what quantities?
+ What have these strains (in these quantities) been clinically studied to do in my body?
+ Where can I view the clinical research?
The Chalkboard Mag and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. All material on The Chalkboard Mag is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programs.