How Do I Know If My Probiotics Are Working
By Natasha Trenev


Do you take a probiotic to improve your health but sometimes wonder if your supplements are working, or if the friendly bacteria are just passing straight through your digestive tract? Probiotics improve health in a variety of ways and many consumers notice the improvements gained by probiotic supplements right away, but others worry that their supplements may not be working, and they have no idea if they are literally flushing their money away.


If you take a probiotic supplement and wonder if it is working, or if a stool analysis shows low bacteria counts, you may have questions.



Question: "I had my Stool Analysis done and it said I was low in L. acidophilus even though I am taking a probiotic that contains this organism- how is that possible?"

Many labs ask that you stop taking probiotics and other supplements for two weeks before submitting a stool sample for analysis. In the research world, scientists refer to this as a "washout period" in which your body gets rid of all the supplements you have been taking. Researchers do this to eliminate the effects of the supplements on the test and obtain a baseline reading of the body.


If you stopped taking probiotics before submitting a stool test, it would not be surprising for the lab to find low L. acidophilus – you started taking probiotics because you had insufficient bacteria in your gut. Stopping the supplements merely returned you to a state of inadequate probiotics.


In addition, a stool analysis is a snapshot of the bacteria that your body is eliminating. We regularly shed bacteria in our daily bowel movements, but what remains uncertain is if the bacteria passed in our feces is a true reflection of the bacteria still living in the depths of our gut. Is it possible that you test low for L. acidophilus, even though you are taking it because your body is using it and it is colonizing? We simply don’t have all these answers yet. One stool testing company has indicated that the bacteria in your stool sample can grow while in the mail to the lab company and potentially take over your fecal sample; the bacteria that grows well outside of your body is likely very different from the bacteria that grow optimally inside your body, and that growth can be hard to account for, meaning your stool sample could be completely skewed by the time it reaches the lab for testing.


Individuals have also reported sending samples from the same excrement to two different stool analysis companies and receiving completely different results on their reports. Microbial testing through stool analysis is a relatively new offering, each company has a different approach to the testing and individual laboratories are still working out the details. uBiome, one company that offers this type of testing, reported four different ideas as to why the results might have differed so much from one lab to the next and noted the potential for "...huge differences in results."


Finally, the bacteria in your gut vary with your diet. Fiber, in particular, fuels and sustains your gut microbiota. If you aren’t consuming enough fiber in your diet the probiotic bacteria may have a difficult time thriving. This is why we always suggest taking probiotics as just one step in an overall health approach that includes an appropriate diet and exercise for your individual needs.


Instead of focusing on stool test results we suggest listening to your body and really tuning into how you are feeling. Are you feeling better?


Question: "Are there any studies that show probiotics work even if they do not colonize?"

Colonization is only part of the picture. Probiotics do a lot more than just colonize and the human body benefits from the effects of these other functions. Here are eight beneficial functions of probiotic bacteria and you’ll notice that many of them do not rely on colonization for optimal effect.



1. Co-aggregation

Bacteria adhere to the surface of the intestinal lining. Infections can happen when harmful bacteria and other pathogens adhere and then enter the body through the intestinal wall. Probiotics co-aggregate, or clump together, in a way that can block pathogens from sticking to the intestine.


2. Biosurfactant Production

Biosurfactants produced by Lactobacilli prevent bacteria from adhering to surfaces. Probiotics produce biosurfactants that prevent pathogens from adhering to the intestinal wall. Supplementation introduces enough probiotics to stimulate the production of biosurfactants.


3. Signaling effects

Bacteria can communicate with each other through a phenomenon known as quorum sensing, which gives bacteria information about their environment, such as population density and nutrient availability. Pathogens use quorum sensing in a way that produces toxins. Probiotics can disrupt this communication to prevent illness.


4. Bacteriocin & Hydrogen Peroxide Production

Bacteria produce proteins, known as bacteriocins, which kill potentially bad bacteria. Probiotic bacteria can also produce hydrogen peroxide that has antimicrobial properties. Probiotics produce bacteriocins and hydrogen peroxide that kill or inhibit pathogens. Natren’s Lactobacillus acidophilus NAS strain recently underwent testing confirming its ability to produce a number of bacteriocins.


5. Competitive Exclusion

Competitive exclusion says that two species competing for the same resource cannot coexist without a change in population – one species will fare better than will the other. This holds true for bacteria too. Probiotics compete with bad bacteria by eating up all the nutrients and attaching to the prime spots in the intestines, crowding out pathogens for resources.


6. Immunomodulation

About 70 percent of the body’s immune cells are in the gut. Bacteria have great influence over these immune cells and, therefore, over the immune system. Probiotics in the gut can stimulate the production of antimicrobial proteins that can kill pathogens to support the immune system.


7. Modulation of Tight Junctions

Molecules and ions move from the digestive tract into the body by passing between tightly packed cells, known as tight junctions. Pathogens can sometimes pass through these cells to enter the bloodstream or cause local inflammation. Probiotics stimulate the production of special proteins, known as claudins, to strengthen tight junctions to restrict the passage of pathogens into the body.


8. Supporting the growth of other bacteria

Some probiotics work by supporting the overall ecosystem of the gut rather than providing a specific effect.



Gut microbiota testing is a relatively new concept that is still being fine-tuned. It remains uncertain if the bacteria we pass in our feces provide a true reflection of the bacteria that are alive and flourishing in our gut. We known that our gut microbiota responds to what we eat, what we drink and much more. Researchers at Rush Medical College in Chicago stated that, "...colonization may be unnecessary to achieve positive results in probiotic therapy," and "...during such passage, the probiotics continue to be metabolically active, thus providing health benefits to their hosts." Sometimes we don’t have to have all the answers to know that something works; the positive effects of taking probiotics have been well documented in hundreds of clinical trials. The beneficial bacteria found in probiotics provide a number of health benefits and this is why we take our probiotics daily!

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Sometimes we don't have to have all the answers to know that something works. This month we challenge you to take note of the way you feel on and off your probiotic regimen. Are you like most of our customers and you "just feel better" or do you have an exciting testimonial to share - we’d love to hear from you, write to us with your questions or shared stories at