Over the last several years, probiotics have become quite the buzzword in health circles and also promoted more and more by clinical doctors that are starting to understand just how essential they are.
While supplements have long existed to replenish nutrients in the body (like a vitamin D deficiency) or boost health (such as taking zinc when a cold hits), the specific class of supplements known as probiotics have come into relatively recent focus as they are now understood as a fundamental way to support overall well-being. Having the proper gut environment is incredibly important and has been linked to lowered risk of diabetes, stronger immune system function, weight loss, even mental health.
Understanding the basics of probiotics
In order to fully understand how probiotics work, you also have to understand the makeup of the human gut. Our digestive systems are filled with bacteria, and though we have long viewed bacteria as a bad thing, there is also such a thing as good bacteria. The collective way to describe good bacteria is probiotics. They are the opposite of antibiotics, which we take when we are sick; rather, we take probiotics to stay healthy.
Up to 500 varieties of probiotics already live in the gut, but they can be easily damaged or destroyed through illness, bad diets, and lifestyle. The key to reaching optimal health in many instances, say researchers, is maintaining the right ratio of good to bad bacteria in the gut (most recommend an 80/20 balance). Because there’s no effective way to measure the concentration of each kind of colony, though, it’s suggested to take a daily probiotic to ensure the balance is maintained. This can be done in a number of ways.
Probiotics occur naturally in a wide range of foods, in particular pickled or fermented products and yogurt with live active cultures. However, supplements are often used separately or in addition to food in order to provide a more concentrated dosage.
Types of probiotic supplements
There are numerous different probiotics available on the market, but the most common come down to these two basic types:
Lactobacillus acidophilus is the most common probiotic you'll see on store shelves and is often added to food products. Acidophilus is one kind, which has been extensively studied and shown to affect many functions in the body, including aiding in digestion, treating IBS, reducing the symptoms of lactose intolerance, and preventing and curing vaginitis and yeast infections.
Lactobacillus casei, on the other hand, can help reduce the symptoms of lactose intolerance because it can live in environments that range widely on the pH scale. This makes it better enabled to do its job of breaking down sugar in the digestive tract to form lactic acid, even if a person has overly low (or acidic) pH due to lactose intolerance.
If you're a frequent traveler, you’ll also want to be sure to pack Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (often abbreviated L. rhamnosus GG) supplements, which have shown to be the most effective at shortening the duration of “traveler's diarrhea.” Some studies even show that taking it regularly can prevent an episode completely.
This common strain of probiotics is vital because it provides barrier protection throughout the digestive tract, and is therefore most recommended by practitioners who study leaky gut syndrome. Like lactobacillus, bifidobacterium support a healthy digestive system, and certain strains may boost the immune system and therefore aid in treating specific conditions.
Bifidobacterium longum can survive in high levels of gastric acid and are an important probiotic for immune support. Because bifidobacterium levels naturally decrease as you age, supplementation may be more important as you get older.
Bifidobacterium breve is similar to casei in its abilities to break down foods into lactic and acetic acids, and is a common addition to dairy foods. Meanwhile, bifidobacterium infantis is great for babies as it supports stomach health, digestion, metabolism, and overall well-being—but it’s great for older children and adults as well.
You should speak to your medical professional about beginning any probiotic regimen to ensure you can do so safely and also to review which type of probiotics may be better for individual situation.
Benefits of probiotics
When probiotics are ingested on a regular basis, they can deliver a number of benefits. Once your gut bacteria levels are properly balanced with more good bacteria, some of the following health benefits could occur:
- Reduction in the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Prevention or decreased cases of diarrhea (this includes diarrhea caused by antibiotic use as well as infectious diarrhea caused by bacteria or viruses)
- Improved nervous system function—15 randomized and controlled trials found that regular use of probiotics could help to improve symptoms associated with nervous system problems including autism, depression, and anxiety
- Better management of allergies—in particular early studies have found that eczema might be better controlled or even prevented through the use of probiotics
- Lowered cholesterol, which can improve heart and cardiovascular health—probiotics prevent the reabsorption of bile in the gut when food is broken down, which often turns into cholesterol
- Immune system boost and reduced risk of infections—trials have shown that even respiratory tract infections can be prevented through the use of probiotics, especially in children
- Improved vitamin deficiencies of vitamins K, B12, and folic acid
Possible side effects
Side effects are extremely unlikely to occur as a result of using probiotics. However, those with certain health issues should talk to a health professional before starting. This list includes:
- Immunodeficiency problems
- Cardiac valve disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Children with lowered immune systems
- Short bowel syndrome
In these instances, the process of manipulating gut bacteria could lead to some serious health issues. For healthy individuals, you might notice some diarrhea during the initial week or two of using probiotics while your body adjusts, but it should go away.
How to get more from probiotics
Taking probiotic supplements on a consistent basis is a good start. But there are ways to get more out of them:
Choose the right kind of supplement
Look on the label for high CFU (colony forming units) counts of between 15 billion to 100 billion, and try to find a supplement with a high diversity of different strains to ensure you get the maximum benefits from them. For those that are lactose intolerant or vegan, there are also supplements available that are dairy-free, allowing you to get the same benefits from probiotics without having to worry about milk.
Combine with prebiotics
These are non-digestible carbohydrates that serve as a kind of food or energy supply for the probiotics, allowing them to multiply. Some cultured foods like kefir or yogurt actually contain both prebiotics and probiotics. Some other prebiotic foods include whole grains, bananas, garlic, and onions.
Add in probiotic-rich foods
Double your dose of good bacteria by combining supplements with naturally probiotic foods. This list includes fermented options like:
Stick with the regimen
One mistake commonly made is to assume that since you’re not feeling any effects of probiotics after a day or two, that they aren’t working. But it takes time for the proper balance of gut bacteria to be built up in your body.
Photo by Alicia Cho