Before we get into what are probiotics, let me tell you something interesting. What if I told you that about 40 trillion bacteria are living inside you at this very moment? That’s 5000 times the number of people living on earth!
Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But it’s true (1).
Yet, having such a large number of bacteria living inside you is no reason to be alarmed. That’s because most of these bacteria reside in your gut and are quite harmless. In fact, some of these bacteria are even helpful to your body for weight loss, digestion, healthier skin, and better immunity.
However, there’s a small number of bacteria that can cause disease if you have them in your gut (2).
That’s why it’s so important to have the right kind of bacteria in your gut, and that’s where probiotics come into the picture.
What are Probiotics?
Probiotics are a certain type of friendly bacteria that, when ingested, provide various health benefits (3).
Usually, probiotics are bacteria, but some types of yeasts can also function as probiotics. You can get probiotics from taking supplements or by consuming foods that are prepared by bacterial fermentation.
However, the easiest and most common way to get probiotics is by taking supplements that are supposed to colonize your gut with good microorganisms.
Now that you know what probiotics are used for, it is important that you do not confuse them with prebiotics. Prebiotics are dietary fibers often found in carbs that help feed the friendly bacteria (the probiotics) already in your gut.
Alright, so what are probiotics in? Food such as yogurt, kefir, kimchi, tempeh, and sauerkraut, all contain probiotics. The most common probiotic bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Some other kinds you may find in supplements are Saccharomyces, Enterococcus, Escherichia, Streptococcus, and Bacillus.
When you’re out looking for probiotic supplements, you may find some products that contain both probiotics and prebiotics. These products are called synbiotics and usually combine friendly bacteria along with some food to help the bacteria thrive, all in one supplement.
Each genus of probiotics consists of various species, and each species has various strains. Therefore, labels of probiotic supplements are usually identified by their specific strain. Since different probiotics have different health benefits, it’s important to choose the right strain for you.
Impact of Probiotics on your Digestive Health
We’re all used to taking antibiotics to fight infections, but after taking them for long periods of time, it is common to experience diarrhea. Some people continue to experience it even long after the infection has been eradicated.
This happens because antibiotics kill many of the natural bacteria in your gut. As a result, the environment of your gut changes drastically, allowing harmful bacteria to thrive.
They may also help combat other digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), reduce gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and other symptoms. For people who have IBS, multi-strain probiotic supplements seem to show the most improvement.
So, if you’re having persistent digestive problems, a probiotic supplement might just be the answer you need. But, of course, you should consult your healthcare provider first.
What are Benefits of Probiotics?
The balance or imbalance of bacteria in your gut is not only important for your digestive system; it also plays an important role in your overall health. Here is an overview of the wide range of benefits that probiotics have been linked to:
1. Restore Natural Balance of Gut Bacteria
Probiotics are the good bacteria in our gut that are known to provide a variety of health benefits when consumed. All of these benefits result from the ability of probiotics to restore the natural balance of bacteria in our gut (6).
Imbalance in our gut bacteria is caused when there are too many harmful bacteria and not enough good bacteria. These imbalances are caused due to illness, medication (antibiotics), poor diet, and more.
When the balance of gut bacteria is disturbed, it can result in digestive issues, allergies, obesity, mental health issues, and some other health issues.
Taking a probiotic supplement seems to solve these issues in just a few weeks. These supplements also appear to be safe for most people.
2. Improve Mental Health Conditions
Recently, an increasing number of studies have linked gut health to mood and mental health (7).
The consumption of probiotic supplements containing Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains for 1-2 months has been shown to improve anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, autism, and memory function (8).
In a study of 40 patients with depression, taking probiotic supplements for 8 weeks decreased levels of depression and reduced levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) compared to people who did not take a probiotic.
3. Reduce Severity of Allergies and Eczema
If you have young children, infants, or are pregnant, pay attention. This part is important.
Certain probiotic strains have been shown to reduce the severity of eczema in children and infants. Eczema symptoms improved in infants who were fed probiotic-supplemented milk, compared to infants fed milk without probiotics (9).
Another study about women who took probiotics during pregnancy found that their children had an 83% lower risk of developing eczema in the first two years of life (10).
Some probiotics may also reduce the inflammatory response in people with milk or dairy allergies, but further studies are required to support this claim.
4. Keeps the Heart Healthy
Some types of lactic acid-producing bacteria may reduce cholesterol by breaking down bile in the gut. This helps lower your blood pressure and bad cholesterol (LDL), keeping your heart healthy.
Bile is a naturally occurring fluid that is produced in the liver. It is mostly made of cholesterol, and it helps digestion. Probiotics break down bile and prevent it from being reabsorbed in the gut, from where it can enter the bloodstream as cholesterol (11).
Studies have found that eating probiotic yogurt for 2-8 weeks reduced total cholesterol by 5% and LDL cholesterol by 4% (12).
If you want to experience any benefits related to blood pressure, research suggests that supplementation should exceed 8 weeks.
5. Boosts the Immune System
By inhibiting the growth of harmful bacteria, probiotics may help give your immune system a boost. In addition, some probiotics have also been shown to promote the natural production of antibodies in the body (13).
Taking probiotics can also reduce the likelihood and duration of respiratory infections. The probiotic Lactobacillus crispatus has also been shown to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women by 50% (14).
Probiotics may help significantly boost your family’s immune system, especially that of your kids.
Can Probiotics Help You Lose Weight?
Many scientists believe that the bacteria in your gut play an important role in determining your body weight because research shows that microbial changes in the gut are a crucial factor in developing obesity as an adult (15).
While a lot of research is still being conducted on this subject, some probiotic strains appear to aid weight loss (16).
In a study of 210 people with excess belly fat, the participants took the probiotic Lactobacillus gasseri daily. The results found that participants lost an average of approximately 8.5% of their belly fat over a period of 12 weeks (17).
Surprisingly, when the participants in the above study stopped taking the probiotic, they gained back the belly fat within 4 weeks.
Another study found that dieting women who took Lactobacillus rhamnosus for 3 months lost 50% more weight than women who didn’t take a probiotic (18).
So, how exactly do probiotics help you lose weight? They use a number of different mechanisms.
Firstly, probiotics prevent the absorption of dietary fat in the intestine. So, rather than being stored in the body, the fat is excreted through feces.
Secondly, probiotics may help you feel fuller for longer durations after a meal, resulting in eating fewer calories throughout the day.
Lastly, probiotics could also increase the levels of certain hormones such as GLP-1, which causes your body to burn more calories and store less fat.
It is also important to understand that not all probiotics will help you lose weight. So, if your goal is to lose weight, make sure that you pick the right probiotic.
10 Natural and Healthy Probiotic Foods
Here is a list of 10 super healthy probiotic foods that you should consider adding to your diet.
Yogurt is one of the best sources of probiotics. It is made from milk that has been fermented by friendly bacteria, and it mainly contains Lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. It is also suitable for people with lactose intolerance.
Kefir is a fermented probiotic milk drink that is made by adding kefir grains to cow’s or goat’s milk. Like yogurt, kefir is also suitable for people with lactose intolerance.
Sauerkraut is finely shredded cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria. In addition to its probiotic qualities, sauerkraut is rich in fiber and vitamins C, B and K.
Tempeh is a fermented soybean product, and its flavor is quite similar to that of mushrooms. It is also a source of vitamin B12, a nutrient which soybeans do not contain before fermentation.
Kimchi is a fermented, spicy Korean side dish with cabbage as its main ingredient. However, one can also make it from other vegetables. It contains the lactic acid bacteria Lactobacillus kimchi, and some vitamins and minerals, including vitamin K, vitamin B2 and iron.
Miso is a Japanese seasoning that is traditionally made by mixing soybeans with other ingredients such as barley, rice, and rye. It is also a good source of protein, fiber, and various vitamins and minerals.
Kombucha is a fermented black or green tea drink that is popular in Asia. It likely does have probiotic properties as it is fermented with bacteria and yeast, but high-quality evidence about kombucha is lacking.
Pickles or gherkins are cucumbers that have been pickled in a solution of salt and water. Pickled cucumbers are a great source of healthy probiotic bacteria. They are also low in calories and contain vitamin K, which is essential for blood clotting.
9. Traditional Buttermilk
There are two main types of buttermilk: traditional and cultured. Traditional buttermilk is the leftover liquid from making butter. Cultured buttermilk is what you commonly find in American supermarkets. Only the traditional version of buttermilk contains probiotics.
Like tempeh and miso, natto is another fermented soybean product. It contains a bacterial strain called the Bacillus subtilis. It is rich in protein, vitamin K2 and may even help prevent osteoporosis in older women. Natto also has a distinctive smell and a slimy texture.
Should You Take a Daily Probiotic Supplement?
Probiotics are generally safe and well-tolerated for most people. However, while it would likely be a great idea for you to take a daily probiotic supplement, it would be best to consult your healthcare provider beforehand because regulations differ among probiotics.
During the first few days of taking a probiotic supplement, you might experience digestion-related side effects such as mild abdominal discomfort and gas.
However, once you give your body time to adjust, your digestion will begin to improve.
At the end of the day, maintaining a healthy gut is very important, but it is more than just taking a probiotic supplement.
Many other lifestyle factors such as daily diet and exercise are just as important. If you want to find out which diet is right for you, check out our guide to choosing the perfect diet.
However, probiotic supplements offer a wide range of benefits with very few side effects. So, if you want to improve your gut health, they’re definitely worth a try.
Just be sure to start slowly, use a reputable product, and get good advice from a trusted healthcare provider.