Bacteria generally has the reputation of being something bad we want to keep out of our bodies. It’s the reason why we shower every day, wash our hands after every trip to the bathroom, and clean cuts and scrapes to keep germs from breaking through the surface of the skin. But, in actuality we do need bacteria to live and thrive, and—surprise!—there is plenty of it already inside our bodies that works to help keep us in prime health.
More than 500 known probiotics (a.k.a. good bacteria) are native to the human body, located mostly in the gut where they live alongside “bad” bacteria. The goal is to always maintain a higher ratio of good to bad bacteria (about an 80/20 balance). When this happens, you are better able to digest food and have better gut health, which greatly affects the immune system and promotes better health overall.
Since there are no real ways to test levels of bacteria, the best idea is to take probiotic supplements and eat probiotic foods. In fact, probiotic therapy (as opposed to antibiotic therapy that kills bacteria) has been used in recent decades to treat a number of illnesses, including gastrointestinal problems, allergy onset in children, and urinary infections in women.
What are probiotics?
The concept of probiotics—a word that literally means “for life”—began in the early 20th century. Nobel laureate Elie Metchnikoff, who is sometimes referred to as the “father of probiotics,” stated that consuming these beneficial microorganisms could improve one’s health. Since then, researchers have continued to investigate his ideology. While it took a while for the probiotic movement to catch on in the United States, today it’s become more and more popular—especially as a natural way to help ease certain illnesses.
Over time, scientists have discovered that probiotics don’t just contain one type of microorganism, but rather a variety. The most common type of bacteria belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, and both of these broad categories include many other subtypes of bacteria.
Additionally, further research has provided a distinction between probiotics, prebiotics, and synbiotics, all of which are related but characteristically different.
- Probiotics are the microorganisms themselves.
- Prebiotics refers to dietary substances that favor the growth of beneficial bacteria.
- Synbiotics are products that combine both probiotics and prebiotics. For example, fermented dairy products like yogurt and kefir are considered to be synbiotic since they contain the live bacteria as well as the fuel needed for the bacteria to thrive.
Types of probiotics
As mentioned, there exists many different types of probiotics, with Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium considered to be the strains that are most typically consumed by humans. These are certainly good places to start when looking for a quality dietary aid, but it’s always a good idea to check in with your doctor before changing your diet or adding in supplements. The following descriptions of popular options may also help you better understand which types might be most useful for your individual health concerns.
This is a rather popular strain that forms the basis of a number of probiotics, and research indicates it’s good for a slew of problems, including ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, canker sores, eczema, lactose intolerance, and the prevention of respiratory infections. If you’ve recently taken a round of antibiotic treatments, this is the most recommended option by doctors to help rebuild gut flora. To find it naturally in fermented foods, look for kimchi, kefir, and miso.
If you suffer from digestive issues like IBS and ulcerative colitis, try this probiotic, which has been seen in clinical trials as being able to modify the existing intestinal makeup and also prevent digestive diseases. It can also support bacteria in the mouth that can prevent cavities, tooth decay, and other oral problems.
This type is not only useful for helping restore gut health in those that suffer from diarrhea and for holistically treating acne, but cardiologists often recommend it for those who have heart issues. It’s available in supplement form, and you can also find it naturally existing in kombucha tea and kefir.
Think you might be lactose intolerant? Before giving up dairy, first give this probiotic a try. It has been known to help the body digest lactose and improve the absorption of certain minerals like calcium, phosphorous, and iron into the body. It’s also a big player in improving vaginal health—in one study, 91 percent of women participants experienced relief from vaginal discomfort while taking supplements.
This is a common bacteria strain already living in the digestive tract, but the production of it decreases as we get older. Aside from its incredible gut benefits, bifidobacterium longum also helps to break down carbohydrates and protect cells from free-radical damage—meaning it’s an excellent choice for those that want to detox, ease bloating, and absorb nutrients more efficiently.
Can probiotics really lead to weight loss?
Although many have touted that probiotics helped them to lose weight, when it comes to science, the verdict is still out. Any wild claims about drastic weight loss through probiotics are unfounded; however, some species of bacteria have been seen to have anti-obesity effects. One recent study put participants on a high calorie diet, and for a test group that also engaged in probiotic supplementation, it appears there was some protection against fat and body mass gain. According to the publication, Scientific American, researchers are paying more attention to gut microbiomes can help prevent, and maybe even treat, obesity.
New evidence indicates that gut bacteria alters the way we store fat, how we balance levels of glucose in the blood, and how we respond to hormones that make us feel hungry or full. The wrong mix of microbes, it seems, can help set the stage for obesity and diabetes from the moment of birth.—Scientific American
While more research needs to be conducted regarding the efficacy of weight loss with probiotics, there is no denying that good bacteria offers many overall health benefits, particularly for digestive health. And, the ability to shed excess pounds and maintain a healthy weight starts from the inside. By maintaining a diet that includes probiotic foods or supplements, you may not directly lose weight, but you can improve other areas of your body, which will lead you to feeling healthier and more energized—and that is essential if you want to stay active and engaged in long-term weight loss goals.
What probiotics actually do for health
Probiotics are still a strong focus of research that will, someday, allow us to fully understand the extent of their effect on the human body. But, so far, promising evidence indicates that probiotics can help in a number of areas:
- Easing diarrhea, especially after a treatment that involves antibiotics.
- Treating and preventing yeast infections and urinary tract infections.
- Aiding in the relief of irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS.
- Accelerating the treatment of certain intestinal infections.
- Possibly preventing or reducing the intensity of colds and the flu.
Studies have also been done to examine the effect of probiotics on other health issues, including allergic disorders eczema and hay fever, tooth decay and other oral health problems, colic and low birth weight in infants, even liver disease.
Quite obviously, though, the most promising area where probiotics seem to make the most change is in digestive health—because we already have so much bacteria in our gut, probiotics can really help to balance things out and make a huge difference, from a simple stomach ache to more chronic problems like IBS. In fact, probiotics have become a natural option that more and more people are turning to for treatment since the lack of advancement of modern medicine for these issues can be incredibly frustrating.
The reassuring news is that it really doesn’t hurt to add probiotics into your health regimen. Even if you’re in tip-top shape and your microbiome is in pristine condition, probiotics will only boost your immune system even further and contribute to a better overall mood and mental health, which can also go a long way toward keeping you motivated to shed those extra pounds.
Recommended dosages of probiotics
Probiotics are measured in colony forming units, or CFUs, which are defined as “a bacteria or yeast that is capable of living and reproducing to form a group of the same bacteria or yeasts.”
Based on general dosage guidelines, a healthy adult should choose a strain or blend that contains 10 to 20 billion CFUs, and children should take 5 to 10 billion CFUs. After a course of antibiotics, or if you are trying to cure a specific digestive-related issue, 25 billion CFUs or more may be taken. But of course always check with your doctor first.
In addition to supplements, probiotics can also be found in a number of fermented foods, including:
- Yogurt (but read the label and avoid sugar- and preservative-filled brands)
- Kombucha tea
The amount of CFUs in food products can vary per serving and per brand, so check the manufacturer’s label if you are trying to quantify the amount you are eating.
If you want more specific information about how to support your weight and gut health, the Clinical Guide to Probiotic Products, published by by the Alliance for Education on Probiotics, is incredibly valuable. It’s searchable, so you can simply look for the health issue you’re most concerned with and discover the appropriate strains that have proven the most effective.