Probiotics and Stomach Acid

A question I frequently get is about probiotics and how to protect these possibly beneficial bugs from the very harsh stomach acid. There is more to this question than meets the eye, so let’s look at several parts of the probiotic picture. First, probiotics are bacteria, present in yogurt, other dairy products and pills. The hope is that these probiotics will establish a presence in the lower gut and render beneficial health effects.

Probiotics Are Live Organisms

As such they can live or die under a variety of circumstances. One such circumstance is time. Some bacteria make spores which can live for many years and then blossom and grow. Most probiotics do not make spores, so they gradually die off if they do not find a comfortable place to grow, meaning a moist, warm, friendly environment like the colon. However, when a probiotic sits on a shelf in a store, the bugs gradually die. The longer they are in a warehouse or on a store shelf the fewer live bacteria will be present. Refrigeration likely prolongs the life of probiotics but we don’t know for which ones and for how long. Most manufacturers will not tell you.

Yogurt and Probiotics

You can be sure that yogurt and other such dairy products have fresh, live bacteria in them. Plus, it is refrigerated. These are two good things. However, we do not know how many bacteria are in a serving and manufacturers do not put this on the labels. You could be getting a very small dose which would not be enough to make a difference. Additionally, many of these bacteria will be killed by stomach acid, especially when eaten with food.

Probiotics and Stomach Acid

Here is the tricky part of the probiotic puzzle. Stomach acid is very, very strong. It does and will kill the majority of bacteria that get into the stomach each day. So, how do you protect the probiotic bacteria you take from this “bacteria execution chamber” which everyone has inside them? Here are some things you can do. First, take the probiotic on an empty stomach. When the stomach is empty, it is not making much acid. You can open a capsule and mix it with a small amount of water. The stomach will empty out liquid in 15-20 minutes, but will keep food in it for 60-90 minutes. During this time it grinds the food up and mixes it with acid and harsh enzymes which are designed to get the food ready for absorption in the small intestine. Another trick you can do is to mix the probiotic with some bicarbonate of soda, a strong alkaline powder. This will neutralize the stomach acid temporarily until the probitoic can get through the stomach.

Coating a Probiotic

Some manufacturers will coat the bacteria with a whey (wheat) protein to resist stomach acid. We do not know how well this works and it is not for a celiac or wheat intolerant person. Another substance is called alginate which coats and protects the bacteria until it gets into the small intestine where it is safe. Again, we don’t really know how well this works. It sounds like it should. You have to check with the manufacturer to know if this is part of their production technique.

So here are the summary points:

  • Use a refrigerated probiotic which has just come onto the store shelf. The longer into the future is the expiration date, the more live probiotics are likely to be in the capsule.
  • Take a probiotic on an empty stomach with 4-6 oz of water. Even better, twist or cut the capsule and empty the powdered bacteria into a glass, add the water and a teaspoon of soda bicarbonate to neutralize the stomach acid.
  • Yogurt is great and most people get a good feeling that they are doing something good for their gut. We don’t know how much, but the adverisers tell us we will almost live forever if we eat their product.
  • There are some probiotics that are helpful for certain gastrointestinal diseases. Your physician is the person to help you make the right choice.


Prebiotics and Probiotics

No discussion of probiotics would be complete without mentioning prebiotics. A prebiotic is not a probiotic. A prebiotic is a specialized plant fiber that easily gets through the stomach unchanged and the feeds the good colon bacteria which everyone already has in their colon. That’s right. We have over a 1000 species of bacteria in the colon and many of these are the good gals and guys. Feeding them good prebiotic plant fiber is the key to creating  a rich furnace of potent good bacteria. Learn more about the differences between prebiotics and probiotics.

For additional information about the health benefits of prebiotics you can view published research on PubMed.gov.

2 comments

  1. al non says:

    Whey is a milk protein and not a wheat protein. Perhaps you are confused because there is an element of milk (casein) that is often accused of being similarly detrimental to gut health as gluten. However, i don’t think casein is included in the whey protein fraction (i could be wrong here though)

  2. vinu says:

    There is always an inherent danger in trying to bypass stomach acid.
    Stomach acid breaks down proteins into amino acids (denature). People who took proton pump inhibitors which block stomach acid, had intact proteins being absorbed. This resulted in them developing allergies to those food items. Likewise, if the probiotics have other food proteins, defeating the stomach acid with say bicarbonate of soda, will cause intact food proteins to get absorbed resulting in allergies. This is a danger with any oral vaccine also.

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