We all know probiotics from yogurt commercials and packaging. We’ve heard it’s good for digestion. We might have complained to a friend about bloating and gotten her wide-eyed recommendation, “Oh, you should try taking probiotics!” Beyond that, what do probiotics really do for us? How much should we get? Is yogurt the only way to get them?
Let’s talk about what probiotics actually are, what benefits they might give us, and how to choose the right one for you and your family.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are bacteria that live in your digestive tract that are good for your health.
Your digestive tract is home to a large population of various types of bacteria and yeasts, each with their own function. The community of various microbiota is sometimes called your gut flora. This community works well together when all of the strains of bacteria and yeasts are in balance.
If the population of good bacteria gets too low, the bad forms of bacteria and yeasts in your digestive tract can multiply unchecked, just like weeds taking over a yard.
There’s also something called prebiotics, which are types of non-digestible fibers and resistant starches that feed the good bacteria. Prebiotics are food for the probiotics and help them flourish. It happens that most prebiotic foods are ones that are super healthy for you in general – like garlic, asparagus, wheat bran and bananas – so they’re a win-win.
15 benefits of probiotics that you didn’t know
1. Balance digestive flora
The main benefit of probiotics is in keeping the population of good bacterias in balance so that the bad bacterias and yeasts don’t take over.
Your levels of good flora can be decreased because of antibiotics, stress, antibacterial soaps or hand washes, chlorinated drinking water, foods treated with pesticides and herbicides, colonoscopies or colonics (colon hydrotherapy), or having surgery, radiation or chemotherapy.
Those are times when it’s important to take a probiotic supplement to repopulate your digestive tract with the good bacteria that keep you healthy.
2. Help relieve infectious diarrhea
If you find yourself with a sudden onset of diarrhea (any time it’s brought on by a virus, bacteria or parasite), get yourself some probiotics. They’ve been shown to reduce the severity and duration of infectious diarrhea. For anyone who has experienced it, every minute you could reduce this experience by is worth its weight in gold.
3. Prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea
After a course of antibiotics, a common reaction is diarrhea. Studies show that taking probiotics directly after can reduce the chances. This makes sense as the probiotics will help repopulate your digestive tract with the good bacteria that promote healthy digestion before the bad bacteria have a chance to flourish.
4. Alleviate symptoms of ulcerative colitis
Since the benefits of probiotics are primarily in digestive health, there’s been research on how they can impact various types of inflammatory bowel disease. So far, they’ve seen a positive effect on symptoms of ulcerative colitis.
5. Ease bloating and gas in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
There’s also been some research into the benefits of probiotics on irritable bowel syndrome. Again, some of the symptoms (bloating and gas in particular) seem to ease when taking probiotics. This seems promising and hopefully there will be more studies to find out which have the most effects to provide relief.
6. Prevent urinary tract infections
A study on urinary tract infections found that women taking a supplement of Lactobacillus crispatus daily for 5 days, then weekly for 10 weeks, had a lower rate of getting a recurrent UTI in that time.
7. Produce vitamins
The bacteria in your gut have a role in creating certain vitamins like vitamin K and some of the B vitamins.
8. Reduce inflammation
Inflammation is the root cause of lots of different diseases, allergic reactions and immune response as well as linked to obesity and metabolic syndrome.
As probiotics are studied for their health benefits, researchers are also looking for the way in which they help us. One of those seems to be in reducing inflammation, by reducing the cause or reaction that triggers inflammation in several ways.
9. Help with lactose tolerance
Lactose intolerance is very common because so many of us stop producing the enzyme lactase that we would need to break down the lactose in milk and dairy products. The probiotics in fermented diary products like yogurt break down lactose before it reaches our colon – and the bacteria used to make yogurt help us digest lactose better.
Probiotics might also reduce the allergic reaction to dairy in adults but studies haven’t shown for sure yet.
10. Enhance the immune function
Getting the right community of microbes in our gut is an important part of early development for infants. It also affects the proper development of their immune system.
For adults, probiotics can boost the function of your immune system by promoting the production of natural antibodies and stimulating activity of certain immune cells like dendritic cells and T-cells.
11. Help regulate the blood pressure
Probiotics are being studied for their effect on heart health and might have some impact in lowering blood pressure. So far they’ve only found a slight effect though.
12. Lower the blood cholesterol
Probiotics seem to have some beneficial effects on blood cholesterol as well, specifically lowering total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol.
13. Promote skin health (get rid of acne, rosacea and eczema)
There’s been some research showing the benefits of probiotics for acne, rosacea and eczema. Study also shows that probiotic supplements (of Lactobacillus GG) by mothers prenatally, and then by infants for 6 months after birth, can reduce the child’s chances of developing eczema.
14. Reduce anxiety and depression
The benefits of probiotics may extend to anxiety and depression by reducing those symptoms of stress. Any mental health issues should of course be treated primarily by a qualified professional, but probiotics may add a risk-free addition to a whole life approach to stress management.
15. Prevent allergy development
Probiotics could be helpful in preventing the development of allergies in children, especially if the mother takes probiotics during pregnancy.
The research into the benefits of probiotics is fairly new, so there isn’t a lot of conclusive evidence yet. But what has been done is promising so far. Many of the results seem to depend on which strain of probiotic is helpful for specific health issues, so there’s a lot of potential to find new results.
Hopefully the more they find, the more research will be done in future to help us understand all the ways in which probiotics keep us healthy.
How to find the probiotics that are suitable for you
Most people think of yogurt when they think of getting probiotics, and there are some excellent non-dairy yogurts that are made with properly cultured probiotics. You could also try kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and other naturally-fermented foods.
One thing to watch out for is that many yogurts (especially the dairy ones) that are sold commercially need to be pasteurized, which involves heat that will often kill the probiotic bacteria. Look on the package to see whether the yogurt has been pasteurized or not.
There are also probiotic supplements that are wonderful for getting a more concentrated source of probiotics. You’ll want to take a dose of 1 billion or more per day, and the exact strains aren’t as important as having a variety of strains. There are even gummy versions for kids, or anyone who doesn’t like taking capsules.
Although probiotics are most often associated with dairy products, there are plenty of vegan probiotic supplements and non-dairy products. Probiotics are bacteria which feed and grow on sugars, and there’s no need for any animal products in their life cycle.
Most people don’t need to take probiotic supplements every day indefinitely, think of them as a boost every so often. If you notice that your digestion is off or if you had to take a course of antibiotics, take them for a few weeks until your digestion is normal, and then take a break.
Although most supplements are best taken with food for proper absorption, probiotic supplements are best taken on an empty stomach so that the probiotics can get in your digestive system quickly. The best time is first thing in the morning, before having breakfast.
Some high quality and effective probiotic supplements to try:
The bottom line
Probiotics have a lot of potential benefits, from improving digestion to heart health to immune function. While some of the benefits listed here may not be fully researched yet, what we do know is that probiotics are generally safe and have no side effects for most people. If they can’t hurt, why not give them a try?
Probiotics should always be thought of as a complementary supplement to your regular health care, and of course never go against professional medical advice. Before taking any supplement, you should always consult with your medical doctor.