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How Probiotics Went from Unsexy Supplement to In-Demand Beauty Aid

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Illustration: Magnia/Shutterstock
Illustration: Magnia/Shutterstock

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In the span of a few years, probiotics have gone from being marketed to your menopausal mother—remember those well-known (and widely spoofed) Activia commercials starring a smiling Jamie Lee Curtis?—to newly chic, with the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow extolling the virtues of "friendly bacteria" to her legions of fans. For fashion people looking to take their green-juice-and-yoga wellness routines to the next level, probiotics seem to offer an array of benefits. Could bacteria make you healthier, thinner, more beautiful? Based on new research, the short answer appears to be yes.

In a healthy human body, the intestinal tract plays host to over 100 trillion bacteria. To put that in perspective, that's ten times more than the number of cells in your body. We are always taught that bacteria is the enemy, to be vanquished with powerful soaps and cleaners, but rising evidence suggests that a robust community of bacteria is essential to gut health. In fact, when your gut flora is unbalanced, you can suffer from a bevy of gastrointestinal issues like irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, lactose intolerance, indigestion, and diarrhea, to name a few.

As Michael Pollan reported in the New York Times last year, "More diversity is probably better than less, because a diverse ecosystem is generally more resilient—and diversity in the Western gut is significantly lower than in other, less-industrialized populations." Translation: Americans need some help in the friendly bacteria area.

Frank Lipman, an integrative and functional medicine physician and the founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center explains: "In our daily lives, we are bombarded with things that kill the good bacteria in our gut. Antibiotics, over the counter drugs like Advil, Motrin, or Midol, chorine in our water, non-organic meat which is often loaded with antibiotics, stress, and junk food can all disrupt our digestive systems. It's virtually impossible to avoid all of the good-bacteria killers."

Lipman espouses the widespread belief that introducing additional bacteria into your system via probiotics is your front-line defense against these attacks. "Probiotics spend their days aiding digestion, boosting the immune system, and consuming bad bacteria," he says.

You've probably seen probiotics in supplement form as capsules or powder, but they're also prevalent in naturally fermented foods like miso, tempeh, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kefir. Yogurt—the food perhaps most associated with probiotics—though? Not so much. "Many people eat yogurt because they've been told it's a good source of friendly bacteria," says Lipman. "However, this isn't necessarily true. The bacteria used to make most yogurt, L. bulgaricus and S. thermophilus, are not the key beneficial bacteria. Some brands add a small amount of acidophilus just so they can say so on the label."

SNL deftly parodied Jamie Lee Curtis's Activia commercials. Photo: Getty Images

As a rule, foods with added probiotics tend to be pretty bogus. Sonya Angelone, a nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, asserts, "Companies add questionable amounts of probiotics to juices, ice cream, and granola bars, but most of the time these labels do not disclose the amount or types of viable bacteria contained in the products. They are more hype than a good resource."

Okay, but what about rubbing probiotics all over your face? Let's just say the jury is still out. In the past few years, beauty companies have tried to jump on the probiotic bandwagon, releasing products that promise to do everything from clear up and prevent acne to promote cell renewal and combat the effects of aging, all with the help of a few friendly bacteria. And we're not just talking hippie-approved, Whole Foods-exclusive goods. Big-name brands from Chantecaille to Clinique all have probiotic product offerings.

Unfortunately, dermatologists aren't sold just yet. Since the bacteria in your gut aren't the same as those on your skin, we can't assume that what helps internally will have the same effects externally. However, there is hope if you're looking to clear up some cosmetic concerns. "Your skin, hair, and nails are a reflection of the internal state of your body," says Lipman. "Therefore, cleaning out your digestive system and supporting it with good probiotics can play an important role in taking care of your outward appearance."

Seemingly-superhuman supermodels have jumped on the probiotic train as well. Naomi Campbell drinks them every morning upon rising, while Christy Turlington swears by them in her extensive health regime. What do they know that we don't? Well, for one, probiotics have been tied to slimness.

A recent report in Scientific American notes that "the wrong mix of microbes, it seems, can help set the stage for obesity and diabetes from the moment of birth...Keeping our gut microbes happy could be the elusive secret to weight control."

While researchers are in the midst of unlocking the magic flora mix, Ohio-based clinical dietitian Lisa Cimperman has a slightly more cautious take. "Lean and obese individuals have different predominant strains of bacteria in their gut," she says. "However, we don't necessarily know the direction of the relationship. Does the bacteria make you thin or obese, or does being thin or obese and the diet that goes along with that drive what types of bacteria are in your gut?" Given the sheer number of different strains present in your tract, she likens identifying a specific one that might produce effects on your weight to finding a needle in the haystack—for now.

Are supplements the answer? Photo: digieye/Shutterstock

There are also prebiotics to consider. As Cimperman explains it, prebiotics are indigestible fibers that provide fuel for the probiotics living in your gut. "This is why a diet high in complex carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables helps to fuel a healthy diversity of gut flora," she says. Additionally, she notes that meat-eaters and vegetarians have significantly different profiles of bacteria living in their digestive systems. The good news is that there is no need to ingest prebiotic supplements in addition to probiotics. Instead, she recommends increasing your daily fiber intake.

But what about those probiotic supplements? While doctors and nutritionists universally agree that probiotics have some major benefits (unless you have a compromised immune system, in which case you should stay away from them), they almost all think that a pill-popping regimen is not necessarily the way to go. "There are only a few situations, like after a course of antibiotics, that I might recommend a supplement," says Cimperman.

Otherwise, your best bet is to opt for a diet filled with probiotic-rich foods. "I don't recommend probiotic supplements for the average healthy person because there are so many natural sources of these friendly bacteria," she continues. Bonus: The last time we checked, kimchi was way less expensive than a bottle of probiotic pills. "The items that tend to be high in probiotics also have other health benefits because they are usually high in protein or fiber," adds Kristi King. "It's easy to incorporate these foods into your diet and knock two health benefits out with one bite."

If you do find yourself standing at the health food store in front of a wall of different pills and powders, check for probiotics that deliver 20 to 50 billion live organisms per dose and contain strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria, often abbreviated to L. and B. You should also look for the words "live active cultures" on the label. Stick to the refrigerated section, too: That's where you'll find the best quality and most potent product.

As far as side effects are concerned, the biggest thing to fear is a little gas or bloating. But as Kristi King, a clinical instructor in nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine explains, "The downside to actually taking over-the-counter probiotic supplements is that they do not have to have FDA approval prior to being placed on the shelf. So, what is on the label may not necessarily be in the product."

The verdict? While bogus products abound, probiotics do live up to the hype. "Probiotics are absolutely worth it," says Lipman. "Most people don't realize that health starts in the gut. So, regardless of the ailments, re-balancing the digestive flora is always a good idea."