If you’ve taken a walk down a Natural Grocer aisle recently, you know that probiotics are having a moment. It’s emblazoned in bold letters on the packaging of everything from plant-based butter to sprouted tortilla chips. But how did we get here? Probiotics have always been around; they were essential to the preservation of foods in the pre-refrigeration age. But as the modern world, with all its stress and sterility, begins to take its toll, human bodies are becoming more and more prone to inflammatory diseases.
Fast forward to today, where, with the support of the National Institutes of Health, scientists are eagerly exploring the intricacies of the gut microbiome and how it communicates across skin, immune, and brain axes. Suddenly, the world of Lactobacilli holds the promise of a new breed of probiotic altogether that provides a more natural option for serious health issues.
Are probiotics more than just digestive aids? Can we make them so that they do specific things? Is it possible for a probiotic to break down the toxins related to alcohol poisoning? Can probiotics offset the negative effects of chemotherapy? With so much promise, it’s not surprising that the food industry has caught on, and now have a drink that openly advertises that they’re “the only yogurt with L. casei shirota.”
If you ever wonder what the store bought probiotics off the shelf are (and what exactly they do), you aren’t alone. We’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of what these friendly bacteria can do for us. But for further information, it’s safe to start with the most studied and researched family in the gut microbiome: Lactobacillus.
The superheroes of the probiotic world
Lactobacilli have been at the center of microbiome research not just because of how common it is, but because of why it is so common. First, probiotics are only effective if they’re hardy enough to withstand the digestive fluids of the stomach and make it to the intestines to thrive. And Lactobacilli are particularly robust and long-living. Second, they balance out their environment. Often, in terms of microbiome diversity, growth in one species can mean limiting the population of another species. And while that concept also applies to Lactobacilli, they actually take it a step further. Many Lacto species (particularly L. acidophilus) produce H2O2. Commonly known as hydrogen peroxide—yes, the stuff in your medicine cabinet—it physically deters the growth of harmful bacteria colonies. Last, Lactobacilli are safe. Unlike some species within your gut microbiome, a sudden flourishing of Lacto colonies won’t hurt you. And it is with that promise of safety that researchers freely include it in their studies.
Get to know your Lactobacilli
We’ve already discussed L. acidophilus; it’s a popular probiotic that has been on the market for decades and commonly found in probiotics off the shelf. Its ability to keep candida species in check has long made it a panacea for women who struggle with yeast and vaginal bacterial infections.
But it’s in more things than you think. L. acidophilus gets its name from lactic acid. If you’re an athlete, you may recognize that word as something to dread. But it has another purpose—in the cosmetic industry. Lactic acid helps dissolve dead skin cells, making it a popular ingredient for exfoliators and spot treatments. If you see “probiotic” on your body lotion, it’s most likely for skin renewal.
Acidophilus creates lactic acid by producing the enzyme lactase, which aids in lactose digestion. It reduces problems related to lactose intolerance and also diminishes levels of free amines, which are linked to colon cancer.
Despite L. acidophilus’ popularity, there isn’t a Lacto species as well studied as L. rhamnosus. Because of some powerful figures in research as an inhibitor of pathogens E. coli, salmonella, and rotavirus, it’s become of great interest to the medical world. Rhamnosus has made its way into studies in obesity and even the mental health of pregnant and postpartum women. If you find rhamnosus on the label of a probiotic, it’s most likely an immunity booster.
Present in breast milk, L. reuteri plays an essential role in infant development, which is why you can find it in treatments for everything from colic to childhood eczema. But that doesn’t mean it stops being useful as we age. L. reuteri maintains the intestinal lining to protect against leaky gut in adults.
Like most Lacto species, L. gasseri supports immune function by suppressing harmful bacteria and is found in probiotics designed for allergies. But it’s gotten a lot of attention lately because of its interaction with fat. Gasseri prevents inflammation from dietary fats and can bind cholesterol, suppressing its expression in the bloodstream and the liver. With such positive results in early research, scientists are exploring its role in weight loss.
Curious to see how these Lactobacilli figure into your microbiome? Take a gut test!