Some experts say that introducing new strains of bacteria every few months could be the best way to maximise gut health. But others are less convinced.
If there there’s one buzz-phrase that sum up the past few years in wellness culture, it’s ‘gut health’. Nutritionists, scientists and doctors alike have become increasingly sure about the huge impact our gut health has on our physical and mental health, as well as the many ways our busy modern lives are damaging the wellbeing of our digestive systems.
As this understanding of the microbiome has grown, more and more of us are taking a daily probiotic supplement to counteract the impact of toxins in our food, environment, medicine and even beauty products to promote a healthy gut. Probiotic capsules contain strains of bacteria that help to promote a diverse microbiome; consuming them is a bit like adding fertiliser to soil.
But taking the same old probiotic every day might not be the most effective way of strengthening the gut, some experts claim. If the aim of taking these supplements is to introduce as many new strains of bacteria to our gut as possible, should we be rotating the strains of bacteria in these probiotic supplements to maximise our gut health?
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After reading about rotating probiotics, I was prompted to experiment with alternating my own daily supplement. Before I started to chop and change, I’ve been asking the experts just how much truth there is to the rotation hack.
“We have hundreds of bacterial strains in our gut, many of which can become depleted for various reasons, such as stress, antibiotic usage, lack of dietary fibre and more,” explains Le’Nise Brothers, nutritionist and author of You Can Have a Better Period – the book in which I first read about alternating probiotics.
“When we add new strains through probiotic supplements, food or drink, we encourage these new strains to colonise the gut and improve the diversity of the intestinal microbiome,” Brothers tells Stylist. She’s in favour of experimenting with rotating probiotics over longer stretches of time because she says that “different strains have different effects”, and you may need to experiment to find a supplement tailored to your needs.
Brothers recommends that her clients “ideally take a course of probiotics for three months and then either take a break or try a new type of probiotic” because “it can take up to three weeks for a bacterial strain to colonise the gut”.
Rotating probiotics doesn’t work for everyone
But experimenting in this way might not be best for everyone. Dr Kate Stephens, resident microbiologist for probiotics brand Optibac, explains that “rotating probiotics to introduce a variety of new strains may boost diversity, but using probiotics in this manner may not be that simple or effective”.
She tells Stylist that the way probiotics are tested is that “participants will take one or more probiotic capsules a day over a duration of time and then outcomes are measured compared with a control” – so the way we use them in our daily lives should mimic this.
“If you alternate every day or other day, it’s unclear if this will be beneficial. There is also a lack of evidence for alternating probiotics every few months,” Dr Stephens concludes.
My own experience aligns with Dr Stephens’ advice. I wanted a probiotic proven to help with women’s health issues, and when I started to alternate between the product I’d been taking with a new one, I noticed a drop in energy and mood and an increase in constipation and bloating. Clearly, rotating probiotics didn’t work for me (at least, not in the short-term).
The type of probiotic you take is more important than how you take it
Whether you’re alternating products or not, it’s more important to find the right probiotic for you. “Probiotics work in different ways so it’s important to choose the strain that has been researched for your health condition,” says Dr Stephens, emphasising the need to look out for products which have been rigorously trialled.
We can’t take a ‘one size fits all approach’ to probiotics she stresses: “Instead of alternating strains, choose a high-quality strain that has been researched specifically for your needs.”
How to choose your ideal probiotic supplement
So, what should we be looking out for on ingredients lists? Brothers says that lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1® and lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 have been shown to be effective in managing symptoms of thrush and bacterial vaginosis. She also highlights a 2021 study that found that participants who consumed a probiotic supplement containing lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and bifidobacterium longum R0175 saw significant improvements in their symptoms of social stress.
Dr Stephens recommends looking out for the following strains for these conditions:
- IBS: Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM® – helps with abdominal cramping and bloating.
- All round digestive support: Bifidobacterium lactis HN019 – boosts good bacteria in the gut.
- Immune health: Lactobacillus paracasei CASEI 431® – boosts immune responses and has been shown to reduce duration of illness.
- Children’s digestive and immune health: Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG – one of the most researched strains for children, shown to reduce the number of tummy bugs and coughs/colds supporting the gut and immunity.
- Diarrhoea: Saccharomyces boulardii – the most researched probiotic for diarrhoea, helps alleviate diarrhoeal symptoms and reduces the growth of harmful bacteria in the gut.
- Antibiotics: Lactobacillus acidophilus rosell 52 and lactobacillus rhamnosus rosell 11 – clinically trialled to be taken alongside antibiotics and shown to reduce side effects
- General gut and immune health: Bacillus coagulans Unique IS-2 – researched in adults and children and shown to support with gut and immune health.
Find the cause of the issue before reaching for supplements
Both Brothers and Dr Stephens are clear that probiotics aren’t always the silver bullet we’re looking for. “It’s better to understand what’s causing the bloating first, rather than reaching for a probiotic, which might exacerbate the issue,” Brothers says.
She recommends keeping a “food diary to track when bloating occurs to see if there’s any connection to what you’re eating or [your] menstrual cycle”. Both experts emphasise the importance of eating for a health gut by adding in soluble (oats, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils) and insoluble (peels of fruits and vegetables, chia seeds, flax seeds and whole wheat) prebiotic fibres to our diets to help reduce inflammation and prevent constipation.
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The jury is out on whether rotating your probiotics over longer stretches of time works to increase gut health. There’s no big studies out there on the subject, and with most experts agreeing that your best option is to plump for a food-first approach to gut health, I’ll be sticking to eating more plants and using a supplement that works for me.
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