Probiotics are the latest craze that’s sweeping the health and wellness market. But are probiotics all they’re cracked up to be? What are they and what do they do? Without giving too much away, we can confidently tell you that you need to know what probiotics are if you want better health of both body and mind.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are the friendly bacteria that live in your large and small intestines and influence many aspects of your overall health. As this research article states, the current definition of probiotics used by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations World Health Organization is:
“live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.”
A healthy individual can have more than 400 different species of probiotics in their body and a mix of around 40 trillion good and bad bacterial cells called your ‘gut flora’.
You may think that having bad bacteria in your gut is harmful. However, they are only able to impact your health negatively when the balance of good and bad bacteria is off.
The following are just a few benefits of taking probiotics:
- Improves digestion and absorption of nutrients, in turn reducing symptoms like bloating, cramping, gas, etc.
- Boosts immune function and is responsible for 70% of your body’s immune response
- Wards off harmful bacteria by creating an environment that’s too acidic for them to survive
- Reduces symptoms of illnesses such as IBS, diarrhea, ulcerative colitis, liver disease, etc.
- Regulates female health and hormones, balances vaginal flora, and prevents bacterial vaginosis/thrush
- Stimulates production of important vitamins like B12 and K for energy and healthy hair, skin, and nails
- Reduces inflammation throughout the body
Probiotics come in many forms. You can consume them as a supplement, which is generally the most convenient way, through a powder, or in tablet or capsule form.
You can also consume probiotics naturally in fermented foods, which we will discuss more in-depth later. Whichever form of probiotic you choose, make sure it suits your lifestyle and always consult a doctor if you are unsure.
You can find a review of our top rated probiotic supplements here.
What are prebiotics?
Just like humans who need food to thrive and flourish, so do probiotics. Food for probiotics is called prebiotics. They are essentially tiny, indigestible fibers in foods like oats, bananas, asparagus, onions, garlic, and many more kitchen staples. Chances are, you’re already consuming prebioticson a daily basis.
While prebiotic fibers are indigestible for humans, your probiotics will gobble them up. These fibers will make their way through to your small intestine where they will be fermented so that your probiotics can feed on them.
When this happens, the probiotics are given all the energy they need to produce as many health benefits as possible.
This medical publication specifies that the two main probiotic strains that benefit the most from prebiotics are:
- Lactobacilli – This strain has been found to reduce cholesterol, diarrhea, and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This probiotic can also provide benefits such as improved immunity, vaginal health, and weight loss support by promoting good digestion, among other things.
- Bifidobacteria – This probiotic strain is best at aiding digestion and protecting the gut from harmful bacteria..
According to the same publication, here are the main benefits of prebiotics as explored so far:
- Can reduce the duration of infectious and antibiotic- associated diarrhea
- May help you feel fuller for longer, which can assist with weight loss and reduce risk of obesity
- Can create a protective barrier in the body to prevent colon cancer
- Works to reduce symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Improves the body’s absorption of minerals like magnesium and calcium
- Lowers risk of cardiovascular disease
If you’re not consuming prebiotics, it’s likely that your healthy intestinal flora isn’t receiving the fuel it needs to kick your health into top gear. To change this, you can consume foods with prebiotics in them naturally or purchase a synbiotic product, which is one that contains both probiotics and prebiotics. Let’s take a further look at synbiotics below.
What are synbitoics?
Synbiotic supplements aren’t as prevalent on the market at this time since there hasn’t been enough research into them to fully explore how beneficial they are. And since it’s quite easy to consume prebiotics in your everyday diet, there’s not much need for them to be in probiotic products. However, either way, synbiotics are highly underrated.
If you want the most convenient and optimal probiotic experience, then you really should be purchasing a product with prebiotics included. According to this medical review, the most common formulas are the probiotic strains bifidobacterium and lactobacillus combined with a prebiotic such as fructooligosaccharides, which is a type of sugar derived from plants.
These fibres and friendly bacteria will enter your intestines and work synergistically to give you the most efficient and beneficial probiotic health improvements possible.
Which foods contain probiotics?
As mentioned above, some fermented foods are naturally rich in probiotics. If you’re wanting to skip the supplements and consume probiotics in your diet instead then here’s a list of a few foods and drinks you can find the most probiotics in.
Yogurt is definitely the most popular probiotic food on the market. Depending on which yoghurt you’re purchasing, the level on probiotics may have been diminished or completely removed during the processing stage.
The label on the tub should specify if there are any live cultures included and which strains.
Kefir is a fermented milk drink and comes from adding kefir grains to milk. Kefir are cultures of lactic acid and yeast that look similar to a cauliflower. This probiotic food product will generally contain a few strains of probiotic.
In Korea, this spicy, fermented cabbage dish is extremely popular. Kimchi is prepared using a mix of seasonings like garlic, ginger, and chili, and also contains lactic acid bacteria strains.
Sauerkraut is another fermented cabbage dish that contains lactic acid bacteria, and is popular in many European countries. This probiotic food is rich in fiber and contains the vitamins B, C, and K.
Tempeh is a high-protein meat substitute that has a similar texture to mushrooms and is made of fermented soybeans.
Miso is a Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybeans with added salt and a fungus called koji. It’s a paste that’s generally put in soups and is high in protein, fiber, and many vitamins and minerals.
Apart from these food and drinks you can also find probiotics in the fermented drink kombucha, as well as buttermilk, pickles, and some kinds of cheeses. Experiment with what works best for your health and dietary needs to find the best methods of consistently consuming probiotic-rich foods.
How can probiotics improve my health?
Absorption of nutrients from your food
A lot of people simply don’t have the time to make sure they’re consistently consuming a well-balanced, healthy, and nutritious diet at every meal. Between jobs, kids, hobbies, and commitments, there’s just not enough time in the day to be meticulously worrying about every food you eat.
If you’re one of these busy people, then probiotics can help your body optimize its nutrient extraction. That way, even on days where you’re not eating as well as you know you should be, you can still make sure you receive the most benefit from your food.
And for those of you who’ve actually nailed a healthy lifestyle, probiotics can help give you a boost when it comes to weight loss, metabolism, and general digestion so you can enhance the health benefits you receive from your healthy living efforts.
Optimal immune function
This article presents recent evidence that suggests that being exposed to healthy bacteria early in life can actually help to prevent children developing allergies. In addition, it also suggest that probiotics may assist childrenin developing a robust immune system.
Probiotics can help to suppress the inflammatory responses to allergies and infections. This means that issues like asthma and eczema can be decreased in severity and the body can learn to eradicate them fully. Such benefits can be seen in both infants as well as adults.
There has even been exciting evidence to show that some strains of probiotics will reduce the risk of cancerous cells growing, while others may helplower bad cholesterol. This latter finding suggests probiotics may help reduce risk of heart disease.
Diarrhea, lactose intolerance, and improving your overall immune response are just some of the other health benefits that the same medical article, mentioned above, explores in depth in regards to probiotics.
Alleviating digestion troubles
Probiotics effectively assist with reducing and managing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and ulcerative colitis. They do this mainly by creating protective barriers in the gut to decrease sensitivity and reactions to triggers.
As mentioned above, probiotics assist with weight loss. They do this by generally enhancing the entire digestive system.
Probiotics reduce the absorption of unnecessary fats from your diet and allow them to simply pass through and out of your body. They can even suppress your appetite by a small amount which, when coupled with a good diet and exercise, can result in some huge weight loss benefits.
In a recent medical study, women who were taking a probiotic as part of their diet and exercise routine, lost 50% more body weight than the women who didn’t.
Mental health and mood regulation
There’s an important link between gut health and mental health called the “gut-brain axis”. By utilizing immune molecules, nerve signals, and gut cells, your gut and brain are able to communicate and respond to each other more efficiently.
Basically, this means that if your brain is experiencing any kind of inflammation, infection, or general issue, your gut is able to respond quickly by controlling and employing your body’s immune response to target the brain efficiently.
Taking probiotics can help to regulate and lift moods as well as reduce brain fog. Many users take probiotics simply for these benefits. Some say they even feel improvements within a couple hours in these areas after consuming their friendly bacteria.
Inflammation is the main underlying cause of brain conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis. Research into probiotics and how they can assist with treating these kinds of diseases is encouraging but incomplete. At the very least though, probiotics are known to assist with regulating mood, reducing inflammation in the brain, and helping to encourage healthy sleep. All of these factors are going to assist with improved mental health.
When should you start taking probiotics?
As mentioned above, probiotics can help infants develop a healthy immune system and reduce the risk of allergies. Therefore, the sooner you start consuming probiotics, the better. Ideally, you should view probiotics the same way you view multivitamins, as something that is essential to health and should be consumed on a consistent, daily basis.
Apart from this, there’s many situations in a person’s life where taking a probiotic could be beneficial. An example of such times include when you’ve just finished a course of antibiotics and want to replenish the healthy bacteria in your gut. Other examples are when you’re suffering from infectious diarrhea, stress, or sleeping issues, or if you feel that your health and mental clarity is lacking overall and you’re wanting a bit of a boost.
These are just a few of the times that a probiotic can be useful, but it’s definitely not limited to this. If you’re unsure whether probiotics are the right option, chat to your doctor and they will be able to put you on the right track.
Best time of day to be taking probiotics supplements?
This medical test shows that probiotic supplements consumed with a meal or no more than 30 minutes before the meal, have the best chance at survival. Generally, probiotics consumed 30 minutes before or after a meal will not survive in high amounts. This means you won’t be receiving the best health benefits possible.
The reason for this is simple. The food you consume will act as a barrier between your probiotics and your stomach acid. If there’s no food in your stomach, the acid will burn them off before your healthy bacteria supplement gets the chance to reach your intestines.
So, breakfast, lunch or dinner?
This depends on what you’re consuming your probiotics for. If you’re consuming your supplement or probiotic-rich foods for overall health, then it’s best to have them in the morning with breakfast so you can experience the benefits throughout the day.
For those of us who are consuming probiotics for a specific health concern, think about when this concern is at its most severe. For example, if you experience bad gas or bloating directly after lunch, consume your probiotics with lunch to negate the effects and ensure a smooth afternoon. Or, if you’re needing your probiotics for a good sleep or some late night study focus, take your probiotics with dinner so the effects will be at their peak during the later hours of the night.
How often do you need to be taking your probiotics?
You should consume probiotics daily to keep it consistent for the best benefits. If you’re consuming your probiotics in supplement form, then the product label will tell you exactly how often you’ll need to be consuming a dose each day.
For convenience, try purchasing a supplement that you only have to consume once a day. This will just make it easier to remember and stay on track.
Will I notice changes immediately?
We know it’s exciting and you want results now, but try to keep in mind that probiotics are probably not going to be a miracle cure and you’ll definitely need to be patient.
Larger health improvements generally take around two weeks of consistent probiotic consumption to show themselves. In saying that, though, milder symptoms of digestion and brain fog may start to improve within a couple hours of taking your probiotic.! However, there are a number of things that can affect your desired results whether they’re long or short term:
Quality of your probiotic supplement
High quality probiotic supplements from reputable brands are going to contain the best technology to ensure you’re getting maximum results. This includes the enteric coating on capsules or tablets to protect them from your stomach acid, time delay release capsules that open up at the exact right moment, technology to extend their shelf life potency and more. If you’ve skimped out on your supplement you won’t be receiving the best results you could be.
Illnesses and infections that you’re taking your probiotics for can be reduced within even a couple hours of being administered. The smaller, digestive issues will be targeted first while the more serious symptoms should diminish during the first few weeks as your probiotics heal you from the inside out.
A poor diet filled with high fats and sugars will prevent results. Your probiotics will not be able to utilize nutrients in those foods and these types of foods will actually cause bad bacteria to grow. A healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and fiber will encourage much quicker results.
Any kind of medication that makes your body more acidic, like antibiotics and antacids, will create an environment that’s hostile for your probiotic buddies.
If you’re not noticing many results, then get moving. When you exercise, your bodily functions are all kicked into high gear so your probiotics can be transported around your body easier and quicker.
Like humans, different strains of probiotics excel at different things more than others. Doing your research, finding the right strains for your health concerns and purchasing a probiotic supplement with as many of those strains as possible will put you on the fast track to better health.
How to choose the right probiotic supplement
Get the highest culture count
Colony forming units (CFU) are the measurements of live, viable microorganisms inside your probiotic supplement. When starting out, a good number of CFU’s is around 10 billion. Once your body is accustomed to this though, ramp it up since the higher the CFU’s the better. Some brands can contain up to 100 billion CFU’s in one serving.
Find the correct strains
As mentioned in the section above, find the correct strains that will target your health concerns the best. Like your CFU count, aim for for as many strains as possible for the broadest range of health benefits. As a general guideline, beneficial bacteria generally belong to the following species: Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Enterococcus, Streptococcus, Pediococcus, Leuconostoc, Bacillus, and Escherichia coli as specified in this medical article.
Capsules or tablets
As you now know, your stomach acid will kill your probiotics if given half a chance. Therefore, try to find a probiotic product that has an enteric coating or technology that makes the bacteria resistant to stomach acid.
Shelf life and refrigeration
Some probiotics need to be refrigerated. So if that’s the case, be sure your bottle was kept cool at the store and that you transport it home and into the fridge as quick as possible. Also, try to grab a bottle that’s the furthest away from its expiry date since CFU’s will lose their potency and die over time.
Check the label
Some probiotics will include fillers. Make sure that these fillers aren’t ingredients you’re allergic or intolerant to and aren’t harmful for your system. The best supplements will include vitamins and minerals so that you can get your daily probiotic and vitamin needs in one product.
As mentioned above, if you can, purchase a product that only requires you to take one tablet, capsule, or dose a day. This will provide convenience and give you a greater chance of sticking to your daily probiotic dosing schedule.
Benefits of probiotics for men
A medical test was conducted on male mice to see what effects the probiotic strain, Lactobacillus reuteri, would have on them over a period of time. These mice were fed a “typical Westernized diet” of high fats and low fiber to mimic the average dietary habits of humans and ensure the results weren’t swayed by a different diet.
The results, published in 2014, showed that the mice consuming the probiotic had higher and healthier levels of testosterone than the mice who didn’t. This was the result of probiotics lowering the cortisol levels in their bodies.
Cortisol overproduction in men can lead to erectile dysfunction, muscle breakdown, and decreased testosterone production. Consequently, a reduction in testosterone can then result in depression, low sperm production, and degradation of muscle mass. Therefore, by lowering cortisol levels, as seen in the test above, probiotics can mitigate all of this!
In the same test, the mice given the Lactobacillus reuteri exhibited better rates of growth in their testes than the mice that went without. This was due to less muscle breakdown, which is something that happens naturally over time but can be slowed by probiotics. It was also due to the powerful anti-inflammatory effects the probiotic had on the mice’s bodies. Healthy testicles mean higher sperm production and activity.
Prostate cancer is a sudden and deadly disease that affects about one in seven men over the age of 75. The prostate is a small gland that mainly produces fluids to feed and protect sperm. Inflammation is a huge factor in developing cancer of the prostate. However, consuming probiotics consistently over time will help to reduce the inflammation in the body that could lead to prostate cancer in the later stages of life.
Additionally, probiotics will also decrease your risk of developing prostatitis. This is a very uncomfortable bacterial infection that involves the prostate becoming inflamed.
You can read our article on the best probiotic supplements for men’s health by clicking here.
Benefits of probiotics for women
If you’re a woman, it’s likely you’ve experienced the extreme discomfort and pain of bacterial vaginosis (BV) or vaginal thrush. These are both infections that result from your vaginal flora being out of balance.
Generally, antibiotics will be prescribed for these kinds of infections. And although they can be effective, these antibiotics kill off all bacteria, even the good stuff. So, when your vaginal flora is repopulating there’s a risk that too many of the bad bacteria will populate quicker. As a result, you’ll be stuck with a recurring infection.
This in-depth medical article specifies the following strains that make up your desired vaginal flora: Lactobacillus crispatus, iners, acidophilus, delbruekii and gasseri. Therefore, to keep your lady garden fresh and prevent bacterial infections from taking hold, a probiotic supplement might be exactly what you need.
With menopause comes a new stage of life. However it also brings pesky issues like hot flushes, poor digestion, night sweats, insomnia, lowered libido, hair loss and more. Taking probiotics will encourage vitamin production and regulate your hormones so your menopausal symptoms can be alleviated.
Conceiving a child can be difficult. Therefore, you want to give your body the best chance possible. By taking probiotics, you can reduce inflammation in the body, prevent vaginal and bacterial infections, stimulate hormone and vitamin production, and maintain your immune system. This in turn can ensure your body is the healthiest environment possible for new life.
It’s best to consult a doctor before deciding to take probiotics since fertility is unique for every woman.
Are probiotics safe to consume if I’m pregnant?
Always speak to your doctor first before starting probiotics, especially if you are pregnant. There hasn’t been much definitive research into this topic. However, we do know that probiotics do not seem to cause any adverse effects to the unborn child. Probiotics are generally safe to use while you’re pregnant. Around 90% of midwives will recommend probiotics to their patients.
Pregnant women will generally experience more digestion problems and a lot more constipation. Although this is normal, probiotics can assist with all things digestion and keep the gut flora healthy. As a result, this can help lessen some of the symptoms and make the pregnancy more comfortable.
Probiotics can also reduce the risk of bacterial infections that could harm the baby, in turn keeping the birthing canal full of good bacteria for when the baby passes through it.
You can read our roundup article on the best probiotic supplements for women by clicking here.
Can probiotics assist with weight loss?
A recent research article, published in 2016, stated that worldwide obesity has more than doubled from 1980 to 2014. In 2014, a recorded 39% of adults across the globe were overweight and 13% of them actually fell into the obese category.
These are some pretty alarming results, and unfortunately, these numbers are rising. Fast foods, sedentary lifestyles and trendy but ultimately useless diets are leading the way to increased obesity.
However, the same article describes your gut flora as a gateway between your external environment and your body. This means that healthy bacteria in your gut may be able to negate lifestyle factors that would normally lead to weight gain. Although it is important to remember to combine probiotics with a healthy diet and exercise routine for best results.
Here are a few probiotic strains that can assist with weight loss:
This species hangs out in your small intestine and is one of the most widely used and beneficial. Among other things, Lactobacillus creates an enzyme called lactase which breaks down lactose, which is the sugar in milk.
Lactobacillus also wards off nasty bacteria by creating an acidic environment they cannot survive in. Also, when you eat foods with carbohydrates in them, Lactobacillus will break them down and ferment them into lactic acid. This allows your body to absorb vitamins and minerals more efficiently.
Beneficial Lactobacillus strains:
- Plantarum – This strain produces conjugated linoleic acid which increases fat burning without having to restrict calories.
- Gasseri – This strain burns fat on belly, hips and waist specifically.
- Salivarius – This strain decreases bacteria that’s characteristic to overweight people and replaces them with healthy, normal weight range bacteria.
- Paracasei – This strain decreases fat absorption and fat mass overall.
- Rhamnosus – This strain encourages weight loss and decreases fat mass.
This species of bacteria is found in your large intestine. Like Lactobacillus above, these probiotics help protect your body from nasty bacteria and produce lactic acid for absorption of vitamins and minerals.
Also though, this kind of lactic acid gives your cells extra energy to make a protective barrier in your gut, in turn decreasing excess fat absorption. Bifidobacterium is also responsible for the optimal production of B and K vitamins to give you energy and support healthy digestion, hair, skin, and bones.
Beneficial Bifidobacterium strains:
- Bifidum, Longum, and Infantis– These strains together work to reduce glucose levels and insulin resistance.
- Breve – this strain targets belly fat and reduces cholesterol and fasting glucose, in turn lowering risk of diabetes.
- Animalis – This strain decreases body mass index (BMI), cholesterol, and inflammation in the body.
You can have a look at our in depth article on the best probiotic supplements for weight loss by clicking here.
Are there any side-effects to taking probiotics?
First off, the great thing about taking a probiotic supplement is that there’s no risk of overdoing it. Probiotics don’t hang out in your gut forever. They populate the area and if there’s too many, your body will simply flush them out with normal bodily functions.
If you’re starting out though, here are some possible side effects to be aware of:
Mild digestion issues
Some common side effects in the first two weeks of taking a new probiotic are gas and bloating. This can happen while your body is getting used to the probiotic. If these symptoms continue after the two-week period, then it’s best to visit your doctor for further advice. They can find out what’s not agreeing with your system and provide potential treatment options.
Some probiotic supplements do contain common allergens like soy, dairy, or egg. If prebiotics are included, make sure you’re not allergic or intolerant to the type of fiber used in the supplement. All ingredients should be listed on the bottle. Therefore, always read the label carefully if this is a risk for you.
Risk of infection
About one in every million people will develop an infection from the Lactobacilli bacteria. These infections can be treated with antibiotics and are very rare. For anyone with an autoimmune disease, have undergone recent surgeries, or have been in a hospital for an extended time, there is a small risk of infection when taking probiotics.
Probiotics have many awesome health benefits that can improve your quality of life. You can consume probiotics in your diet or from a supplement. The important part of taking a probiotic is to ensure you’re getting a daily dose of probiotics to help consistently improve your digestion, boost your immune response, reduce inflammation in the body, and overall health.
MS, MEd, RD, LDN.
Staci has been a registered dietitian with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2010 and has over a decade of experience in the nutrition and dietetics industry. She has graduate degrees in Biology, Human Nutrition, and Nutrition and Education from New York University, the Columbia University Institute of Human Nutrition, and Teacher’s College, Columbia University, respectively.