What Are Probiotics, and How Do They Work?  

Last Update: July 10, 2023

If you’re like most people, you’ve likely given some thought to your gut health. Maybe you notice some bloating after eating certain foods, brain fog after a heavy meal, or the occasional bout of constipation when you travel. 

On your journey toward better gut health, you’ll pretty quickly come across recommendations for probiotics. They may seem like the be-all, end-all cure for all kinds of gastrointestinal concerns, but before you introduce a probiotic into your daily routine, it’s important to understand how they work. 

To help you get a grip on your gut, we’re answering all your probiotic questions, from when to take them to 

What are probiotics?

To understand probiotics, you first have to understand the human microbiome. This refers to the wide array of microorganisms (including bacteria and fungi) that live on or inside your body. 

Many of these microorganisms live inside your gut, and this is where probiotics come in. Probiotics are also live microorganisms, particularly bacteria and yeast, that are ingested in supplement form to work with the gut microbiome to treat gastrointestinal disorders. Some of the most common probiotics are lactic-acid bacteria, like Lactobacillus and Streptococcus, to supplement the bacteria that occurs naturally in your gut. 

What do probiotics do?

When used properly, probiotics help support the diversity of microorganisms in your gut microbiome. Having a diverse gut microbiome is essential for a variety of bodily functions, including:

  • Digesting food 
  • Producing vitamins 
  • Supporting the immune system and fighting off disease
  • Helping the gut microbiome return to homeostasis after a disturbance (such as illness) 

Are probiotics good for you?

Like most things, probiotics can be good for you in moderation and when taken correctly. The need for probiotics also varies from person to person. 

While there is still much to learn about the effectiveness of probiotics, there are many studies that show promising results treating conditions like:

When should you take probiotics? 

While some brands advise that you should take your probiotic with a meal, others say that it can be taken on an empty stomach. So when should you take your probiotic? 

It depends on the type of probiotic you’re taking. Experts recommend checking the label of your probiotic to determine whether or not you should take it with a meal. Think of it this way: when your stomach acids are lower (i.e. before a meal), the probiotic has a better chance of surviving in your system. After you eat a meal, your stomach produces more acids, breaking the probiotic down more quickly. While some probiotics are formulated to release more slowly and survive these stomach acids, others are not, and may get flushed out as you digest your food. 

While a variety of factors play into when you should take your probiotic, studies show that consistency is what’s most important. If you’re going to take a probiotic, be sure to take it at around the same time every day so that it is regularly in your system. 

How long does it take for probiotics to work?

Well, it depends on your definition of “work”. Do you want your probiotics to take away diarrhea? According to one study, that may only take a couple days. If you’re looking for probiotics to boost your immune system or take care of long-term digestive issues, on the other hand, it may take more than a month.

Prebiotics vs. probiotics

While probiotics contain live microorganisms to add to the ones in your gut microbiome, prebiotics are foods that help to feed the microorganisms in your gut microbiome. Prebiotics include whole grains and certain fruits and vegetables, as well as supplements. 

While some studies suggest that prebiotics may be as or even more beneficial than probiotics, you’ll want to talk to your doctor before starting any new supplements (though if you’d like to reap the benefits of prebiotics sans supplements, a well-balanced diet should do the trick!)

Do probiotics help you lose weight?

Not necessarily, though having a diverse and well-balanced gut microbiome is important for maintaining a healthy weight. 

What are probiotic foods?

If you don’t want to take a probiotic supplement, you can also get probiotics from food. Here are some foods that contain probiotics:

  • Kimchi 
  • Sauerkraut 
  • Kombucha
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Certain yogurts
  • Olives
  • Miso
  • Kefir
  • Sourdough breads
  • Fermented cheese
  • Pickled vegetables 

And finally… Do probiotics make you poop?

It’s a common question! While probiotics are not laxatives, meaning they aren’t meant to stimulate a bowel movement, they could help to improve your digestion and mitigate issues like constipation. 

Try these probiotics from Thrive Market: 

wellmade by Thrive Market Organic Kids Chewable Probiotic, Very Berry

wellmade by Thrive Market Women’s Daily Probiotic

wellmade by Thrive Market Men’s Daily Probiotic

This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before changing your diet or healthcare regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

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Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts is Thrive Market's Senior Editorial Writer. She is based in Los Angeles via Pittsburgh, PA.

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