Vegan Probiotics: What You Need To Know For Optimal Gut Health

Written by: Yvonne O'Halloran


Time to read 7 min

Vegan probiotics and maintaining optimal gut health is a hot topic. As more people opt to eat more plants and less animal products new dietary questions arise like: how does an increase in fiber impact gut health? Can you have too much fiber in your diet? And are vegan probiotics essential?

In this article we take a look at vegan gut health (gut microbiome) and take a dive into vegan probiotics to if they genuinely improve our gut health or if it is just another marketing ploy?

What Is 'Gut Microbiome'?

So, what exactly is the gut microbiome? Our gut microbiome consists of trillions of micro-organisms from thousands of different species than live on our skin, our saliva and mouth, our eyes, gut, and our gastrointestinal tract. Our body contains more bacterial cells than all human cells combined. You may be surprised to know that these useful little bugs come to a total weight of approximately 5 pounds!

Our microbiome is made up of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. Most of our gut microbiome are made up of bacteria and this good bacteria has many important functions such as helping us to regulate our immune system, digest our food, produce vitamins, and protect against other disease-causing bacteria. When everything is in balance, there is a symbiotic relationship meaning that the human body and the bacteria both benefit but when there is an imbalance, the pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria can take over, leading to increased risk of a variety of diseases.

This imbalance is known as dysbiosis. Dysbiosis occurs when there is a loss of good bacteria, there is an overgrowth of the disease-causing bacteria, or bacteria in the gut is less diverse. Diversity is the key to a healthy gut as different bacteria love to eat different plants!

Why Is Gut Health Important?

A study from Nutrients found that this imbalance can lead to autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and rheumatoid arthritis. It has also been linked with colorectal cancer and cardiovascular disease highlighting just how incredibly fundamental our gut health is to our health and the prevention of disease. Furthermore, dysbiosis (the loss of beneficial bacteria) can lead to neurological disorders, colitis, obesity, autism, and allergies. Keep in mind, this is only what we know so far, there is still so much to learn about this complex system.

What Causes Bad Gut Health?

So, what can disrupt our gut health? Although family genes, environment and medication can have an impact, what we choose to eat is the clear winner when it comes to our gut health.

Gut microbes love to eat fiber so a high fiber diet filled with a variety of fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, and legumes can result in a healthy and diverse gut. Generally, it is recommended that women consume 25g fiber per day and men should aim for 38g per day.

Some organizations recommend even more than this for increased health benefits- around 40g per day. For some people though, going over the 40g of fiber per day may affect the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients such as calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium.

Considering that only 5% of Americans are meeting the recommend intake of fiber though, this will rarely be an issue. Generally, it is believed that it may only be a concern if someone regularly consumes more than 50g of fiber per day.

The Importance Of Fiber To Maintain Good Gut Health

Animal products do not contain any fiber but a great deal of saturated fats and cholesterol.

When we eat animal products, our gut produces disease promoting microbes (such as TMAO that is formed from eating egg yolk, full fat dairy and red meat).

The opposite occurs when we eat plants as the good bugs produce health- promoting bacteria that can help ferment fiber into short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that helps to maintain our health.

This is because they have an anti-inflammatory effect and can prevent tumor growth. They also provide the colon cells with energy and have physiological effects on several of our organs, most notably our brain.

Amazingly, our gut bacteria play a role in the gut-brain axis crosstalk where the bugs in our gut send signals to the brain and vice versa. This communication has linked certain gut bacteria with depression and mental well-being in a variety of studies.

Other less impactful factors that can also affect our gut health includes sex hormones, antibacterial or anti-fungal agents and medications (i.e., long term use of antibiotics).

Vegan Gut Health & Probiotics

Probiotics are described as live microorganisms that offer us health benefits if given in the right amounts. These probiotics can be ingested through probiotic rich foods such as sourdough bread, kombucha, sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, non-dairy kefir, coconut and soy yogurt and miso. Probiotics can also be taken via supplementation in the form of capsules, powders, and liquids.

According to a research article, probiotics have been effectively used to reduce symptoms of digestive disorders such as bloating, IBS, IBD and diarrhea. This is likely because taking probiotics can:

  • Decrease gas production
  • Boost immune system
  • Fight inflammation
  • Slow the growth of harmful bacteria

Vegan Probiotics

A great deal of probiotics on the market are not vegan as they contain dairy, but there are a variety of non-dairy probiotics available also. Probiotics can consist of fermented vegan sources or fermented dairy-based sources and sometimes the capsule the powder is contained in is made of gelatin, making it a non-vegan probiotic. When searching for a vegan probiotic, it is best to look for the vegan certification logo.

Health Benefits Of Probiotics & Prebiotics

Should everyone be taking probiotics? The short answer is no. Even though certain strains and doses of probiotics can help with certain conditions, maintaining a healthy gut comes down to a healthy lifestyle including a whole food, plant-based diet that includes a wide variety of fermented foods to colonize the gut such as kimichi, sourdough, kombucha, miso and other fermented foods. Consuming prebiotic foods (a type of fiber that feeds the good bacteria in our gut) is also important.

Prebiotics include:

  • Oats
  • Bananas
  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Cooked and cooled potatoes and rice

Should You Supplement Probiotics?

There are certain situations where probiotic supplementation is beneficial. Probiotic supplements have been shown in studies to be resistant to acid and bile and can therefore can make their way down to our gastrointestinal tract, helping to improve our gut health.

They have also been shown to be effective in at decreasing the duration of diarrhea in children. Probiotics containing lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (LGG) may be particularly effective for treating rotavirus in children (severe diarrhea) by decreasing the duration of diarrhea by a little more than 1 day when doses of 10 billion CFU are given.

Small studies have also shown promise in certain strains of probiotics helping with symptoms of chrons disease, ulcerative colitis (UC), IBS and pouchitis (an inflammation that occurs in the lining of the pouch created during surgery to treat UC). 

Although the evidence of benefit is not strong enough to support a blanket recommendation of probiotics for IBS symptoms, many people will find an improvement in symptoms from using a well-researched probiotic.

A 2010 review published by The World Journal of Gastroenterology, found that certain strains such as Bifidobacterium lactis and lactobacillus casei improved the frequency of bowel movements in people suffering with constipation.

This research shows is that probiotics have their place and can be used to treat certain conditions, but they are certainly not necessary for everyone.

What Are The Negative Side Effects Of Probiotics?

It is important to note that probiotic supplements are deemed dietary supplements and not drugs and therefore the manufacture of probiotics are not monitored by the FDA. There are many overhyped products on the market and in some cases, you may not even be ingesting what the label claims.

Furthermore, although the risk of taking probiotics is low in healthy populations, it can be dangerous for premature babies, immunocompromised people such as those with HIV or for those who are going through chemotherapy treatment. Always check with your physician before commencing a probiotic supplement.

Probiotic supplementation is big business, projected to reach $75.9 billion by 2027. While some companies are just riding the money train and producing products that are ineffective and a waste of money, others are selling well researched probiotics that are beneficial to health. Remember to research the product you are considering before you buy and aim to purchase single strain probiotics as these seem to be more extensively researched and are more effective at supporting the gut flora.

Finally, if you are choosing to take a probiotic, continued consumption is generally required for sustained benefit. However, for the general population, you can likely maintain a healthy gut microbiome by simply choosing to live a healthy lifestyle without the need for expensive supplements.

8 Things Vegans Should Know About Probiotics

1. Probiotics are helpful for certain conditions and can help recolonize the gut and restore balance with health promoting microbes.

2. If choosing a probiotic, choose well-researched, single strain probiotics applicable to your issue/condition.

3. Avoid probiotics if you are immunocompromised or going through chemotherapy.

4. When on the lookout for vegan probiotics make sure they state on the label they are dairy free and contain the vegan certification label.

5. Look out for colony forming units (CFU) per capsule (it is recommended they contain at least 1 billion CFU)

6. Maintaining a healthy gut can be achieved through choosing to eat a wide variety of whole plant foods, avoiding, or limiting animal products, maintaining a high level of fiber, regularly consuming fermented foods, and living a healthy lifestyle.

7. There are many probiotics on the market that does not do what it says on the tin so beware! Research the brand and the product before you buy.

8. Aim to eat 30 different plants every week to ensure a healthy gut.

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Yvonne O'Halloran

Yvonne is a plant-based dietician with more than a decade experience helping people feel healthier through plant-based nutrition.

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