It’s no question that the gut plays a significant role in our digestive health and the health of our body as a whole. So what are probiotics, and why do we need them?
Technically speaking, probiotics are living organisms and substances that contribute to intestinal microbial balance. Microorganisms, which are mainly bacteria but also include yeasts, are naturally present in fermented foods and widely available as dietary supplements.
5 Potential Benefits of Probiotics
- Improves Digestion
- Better Gut Health
- Aids Weight Loss
- Boosts Immune Function
- Improves Nutrient Absorption
Before you go thinking, “my gut bacteria is A-okay,” there are many things we do on an everyday basis that can harm our gut bacteria. Here are eight common problems that cause depletion or imbalances in gut bacteria:
- Lack of food variety
- Insufficient prebiotics (food for probiotics)
- Lack of regular physical activity
- Inadequate sleep
A Healthy Gut Is Essential
Having a healthy balance of gut bacteria helps to maintain health, and has also been shown to possibly aid weight loss, improve digestion and nutrient absorption, boost immune function, and improve athletic performance.
Probiotics are also known to compete with harmful microbes and colonize our digestive system. Add to this, probiotics also aid in the fermentation of food into smaller byproducts, removing the side effects of pathogens and other harmful microbes.
Probiotics and Food
If you’re not keen on supplementing with probiotics, the good news is that many food sources naturally contain probiotics. However, it’s important to remember that some foods—like yogurt-based products—that are said to contain probiotics, may not contain probiotics due to processing procedures.
Ensure you read product labels to confirm that the product contains live, active cultures. When it comes to pickled foods like sauerkraut and pickles, the production process—pasteurization in particular—kills the beneficial bacteria, making the product no longer rich in probiotics.
Instead, look for products that say “raw fermented” on the label to ensure they are naturally fermented and rich in beneficial bacteria. If you’re looking to get more probiotic-rich foods into your diet, here are some foods that are worth incorporating into your diet.
- Kefir (dairy and non-dairy)
- Yogurt, naturally fermented
- Buttermilk, naturally produced
Probiotics and Gut Bacteria
Aside from a number of unpleasant symptoms, dysbiosis can be a risk factor for several conditions, including yeast infections, leaky gut, diabetes, obesity, PCOS, Parkinson’s, heart disease, and colon/rectum cancer.
Specifically, dysbiosis refers to an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria in the gastrointestinal system; in this case, there are more bad guys than good. This can be caused by various factors (including alcohol, antibiotics, poor diet, etc.); and, according to a study published in the Cell journal, can result in digestive issues, mental health problems, and obesity.
Probiotics can be highly beneficial for the gut because of their ability to restore the gut’s natural balance. A balanced or “normal” gut flora helps to reduce the likelihood of pathogenic organisms flourishing, as well as producing nutrients and other substances such as short-chain fatty acids, vitamins, amino acids, and antioxidants.
Prevent Diarrhea and Constipation
Two of the most common uses of probiotics is to treat and prevent diarrhea and constipation. Specifically, with diarrhea, studies show probiotics to be effective in treating three types of diarrhea: antibiotic-associated diarrhea, traveler’s diarrhea, and infectious diarrhea.
Antibiotic use tends to encourage the growth of pathogenic bacteria in the gut, which can cause diarrhea. A meta-analysis published by Swansea University shows that certain strains of probiotics are effective in colonizing the colon and preventing diarrhea.
Furthermore, certain strains of orally administered probiotics have been shown to prevent traveler’s diarrhea. Additionally, the same meta-analysis found that probiotic supplementation can reduce the duration of infectious diarrhea by up to 25 hours.
With respect to constipation, a recent systematic review of probiotics for the treatment of chronic constipation showed that regular supplementation significantly improved the mean number of stools per week.
Several mechanisms may be responsible for this:
- Probiotics may modify the altered intestinal microbiota in people with constipation.
- Probiotic metabolites may alter gut motility function.
- Some probiotics may regulate the intraluminal environment (increasing the end products of bacterial fermentation, reducing luminal pH, etc.).
Reduce Digestive Disorders
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, are becoming increasingly common in Western society. A study published in BioMed Research International has shown that certain probiotic strains, namely Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, effectively reduce symptoms associated with digestive disorders, especially colitis.
These probiotic strains have also been shown to help manage symptoms of IBS. However, they appear to have little effect on improving the symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
Boost Immune Function
As a large portion of your immune system resides in your gut, maintaining a healthy balance of gut bacteria is critical to a properly functioning immune system.
Probiotic supplementation may boost the immune system by inhibiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria, promoting the production of natural antibodies, and boosting immune cell production, specifically IgA-producing cells, T cells, and natural killer (NK) cells.
While evidence supporting supplementation with lactobacillus is minimal, a study published by the University of Washington shows positive effects on reducing the frequency and severity of respiratory infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs) while using lactobacillus probiotics.
Improve Body Composition
Research shows that probiotics can be beneficial for improving body composition via a few different mechanisms. Namely preventing the absorption of dietary fat in the intestinal tract, thus causing excretion in feces rather than storage and build up.
Probiotics may, according to the Journal of Biological Chemistry, help increase satiety and decrease fat storage. While studies show that probiotics can help with weight loss and belly fat reduction, it is important to remember that probiotics alone will not cause fat loss. They must be combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise to elicit a favorable effect.
Whether you get probiotics from a supplement or food, maximizing your intake is key to reaping the most benefits from probiotics. When purchasing probiotic food products, ensure they are labeled as “live” and “raw” because often the processing of foods can kill good bacteria.
Here are some reasons why certain probiotics might not have a positive effect on your health:
You’re taking your probiotic incorrectly: With food vs. on an empty stomach. Make sure you read the label and follow the product directions.
It’s the wrong probiotic strain: Not all strains work for every symptom or condition. Speak to your healthcare professional or look at research studies to determine the best probiotic strain for you.
The product quality is poor (live cultures): Probiotics are incredibly fragile. They must survive the process of manufacturing, storage, and your stomach acid in order to be effective in your intestines.
Improper storage: Humidity, heat, and light can negatively affect probiotics. Pay attention to packaging, as some may need to be refrigerated.
Safety and Side Effects
For most people, probiotics don’t cause any issues. However, as they work mainly on the digestive system, some people may experience digestive discomfort, such as gas and bloating or mild abdominal pain.
After a couple of weeks, you should start to notice improvements in your digestive system after taking good quality probiotics.
The dose you need will depend on the health condition or symptom you’re trying to manage. Generally speaking, a dose of 5 billion CFUs or more is more effective than lower doses for treating gastrointestinal conditions.
Doses vary by brand, and many brands carry multiple strains, so be sure to read the label carefully, so you know what you’re getting. Most studies show that probiotic doses of 1-100 billion CFU (colony forming units) per day is adequate to provide benefits.
Effectiveness of Probiotics
Whether it’s gastrointestinal conditions like IBS, diarrhea, and constipation, or respiratory infections like acne, and allergies, probiotics offer many positive benefits.
While most health experts will suggest getting an adequate dose of probiotics from food, supplementation can help when a specific food isn’t available, or you’re looking to get a higher dose after taking a hefty dose of antibiotics.
With that said, if you want to improve your gut health and see what else you can improve along the way, probiotics may be something to consider. However, more research is needed to understand microbiomes’ role in the immune system and the absorption of nutrients in the body. In some cases, researchers believe that gut flora might have a unique DNA profile for each person, thus taking probiotics supplements would be a waste of time.