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If you’re like most people, “probiotic” probably makes you visualize a little white pill that you’ve heard is really good for your digestive system. While you’re on the right track, there’s so much more to it – and it’s important to understand why probiotics are so essential for thriving health. That’s why we created this article about probiotic benefits — to help you understand why they are essential to health.
If you break it down in Latin, probiotic means “for life.” That makes sense, considering you’re made up of about 100 trillion bacteria that outnumber human cells by 10 to 1.1,2 Yes, you’re a walking body of bacteria! Because of this, it makes sense to ensure your bacterial makeup is balanced and healthy, right? Let’s get more specific.
What Exactly are Probiotics?
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, the official definition of probiotics is: “live microorganisms which when administered in adequate amounts confer a health benefit on the host.” 3 (For simplicity, think of “microorganisms” as bacteria, although it can also include other components like fungi and viruses.)
The most common probiotic strains you’ll see on supplement bottles are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, both of which contain many subsets of bacteria types.4
The most common ways you can consume probiotics are: 5
- Fermented foods or foods enriched with probiotics, including yogurt (with “live and active” cultures), kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, kefir, miso, aged cheese, some beverages like kombucha tea, and some milks.
- Probiotic products, notably supplements, which come in a variety of forms, including capsules and powders.
In order to truly grasp why probiotics are so important to your digestive and even overall health, you need to understand the human microbiome.
What is the Human Microbiome?
The microbiome is an ecosystem which contains many types of bacteria and other substances, such as fungi and antimicrobial peptides. The mouth, skin, and gut each possess their own microbiome, but the majority of the bacteria reside inside the gut (also known as the gastrointestinal or GI tract). Even more specifically, most of them live within the large intestine. This particular microbiome is also commonly referred to as gut flora.
To be clear, all bacteria are not created equal. Healthy individuals are made up of both “good” bacteria (a.k.a. probiotics) and “bad” bacteria, with the ideal balance being about 85 percent “good” and 15 percent “bad.” 6
The overall idea is to maintain this balance for good gut health by consuming probiotics, especially because modern lifestyle factors easily deplete our population of healthy bacteria. Activities like smoking, drinking, medications (especially antibiotics), and poor diet, as well as environmental factors like pollution all contribute to tipping the scales of your microbiome’s balance in favor of bad bacteria.7,8 In fact, unless you’re living a life completely devoid of toxins, which are prevalent in modern society, chances are your gut microbiome can use some extra probiotics to improve your gut health.
Note: no one is born with a microbiome because the womb is sterile. Through contact with the mother, including vaginal delivery, the environment, and food the baby consumes (starting with breast milk), every human being’s microbiome is formed upon birth. So, the balance of bacteria is influenced as soon as you enter the world!
Possible Effects of Gut Microbiome Imbalance
According to the American Nutrition Association, any unbalanced gut microbiome can lead to one or more of the following symptoms: 9
- Poor memory or feeling spacey
- Insomnia and hypersomnia
- Mood swings
- Muscle and joint aches and pains
- Alcohol intolerance
- Frequent urination
- Skin rash
- Gas or bloating
- Diarrhea or Constipation
- Body odors and bad breath
- Eczema or psoriasis
- Frequent colds
On an even more serious level, a microbial imbalance may potentially contribute to chronic gut inflammation, chronic fatigue, and skin conditions.10
Considering the negative effects that bad bacteria can have on various parts of the body and its many systems, there have been countless studies, and more are underway, that look into how probiotics can prevent or counter the above mentioned conditions. Below are a few promising studies (although this list is certainly not comprehensive):
- Immunity: Studies have shown that probiotics can help the body regulate its immune response.11 (Note: many experts claim 70-80 percent of the immune system lies in the gut, so this finding is not entirely surprising.)
- GI disorders: A study found probiotics to be “useful in the prevention or treatment of several gastrointestinal disorders.” 12 This includes diarrhea. There is also evidence that probiotics can help with irritable bowel syndrome.13
- Mental health issues: A study found that probiotics may contribute to changing the neurochemistry of the brain, helping with mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
- Cholesterol: Research has shown that specific strains of bacteria can help reduce levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol.
Probiotic imbalance can create problems all throughout the body, beyond the gut. Further, women’s health and men’s health can be differently influenced by having or lacking certain strains of bacteria. Lactobacilli strains of bacteria have been shown to benefit vaginal health, particularly in preventing and treating bacterial vaginosis. These strains are also important to rebalancing the amount of good bacteria in the urinary tract after antibiotics have been used, particularly to treat a UTI.14
How Probiotics Work
So, once you consume probiotics, what exactly happens that makes them so good for you? The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health outlined the various mechanisms in which probiotics can work once they travel to the gut: 15, 16
- They help sustain the right balance of microbes (remember the 85/15 percent ratio)
- They produce antimicrobial substances and enzymes that can destroy or halt the growth of bad bacteria
- They reinforce the gut’s barrier
- They “out compete undesirable microorganisms”; in other words, they crowd out the bad guys
- They help strengthen immune response
How to Choose the Right Probiotic Supplement
Understandably, you might be overwhelmed with the sheer number of probiotic options you have. In order for you to reap the benefits of probiotics, here are the most important factors to consider:
Number of strains: The human body houses over 500 different strains of probiotics.17 To optimize colonization of the probiotics you consume, aim for a supplement that offers multiple strains. Many supplements on the market tout multiple strains; go for at least five.
High CFU count: Getting the benefits of probiotics doesn’t stop at the number of strains; the quantity of probiotics themselves matter as much as the number of different strains. Aim for a supplement that contains at least 30 billion.
Effective delivery system: Your stomach acid destroys a lot of substances as food or supplements travel to the gut. Unfortunately, many probiotics don’t even make it to where they need to be to make any difference. Make sure your supplement offers some sort of technology or delivery system, so the live probiotics are protected until they reach your GI tract.
Effective types of probiotics: Some probiotic strains are studied and known for their health benefits more than others. The most popularly studied strains are the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium families.
- Bifidobacterium bifidum: A widely cited study has shown that this strain of probiotic bacteria reduced the number of days that stressed-out students reported having cold or flu symptoms compared to the group that took a placebo. 18
- Bifidobacterium longum: A particular subspecies of this strain, called B. infantis is unique in its ability to digest and consume human milk, and grows in in the company of human milk (in other words, a mother producing breastmilk). As such, it’s one of the first bacteria to colonize in a person’s gut.19 Further, B. infantis is a probiotic that’s well-known for its positive impact on irritable bowel syndrome.
- Lactobacillus acidophilus: Research has shown that this probiotic strain can drastically reduce E.coli bacteria and alleviate symptoms of physical digestive duress, including gas and bloating.20
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus: This strain is one of the most widely used. Research has shown it to effectively promote the body’s response to vaccinations, prevent allergic symptoms, and prevent and treat gastrointestinal infections and diarrhea, such as traveler’s diarrhea.21
- Lactobacillus reuteri: Many benefits result from this bacteria, including anti-inflammation, reduction of nausea, and gas, stimulation of the immune system, as well as several benefits to infants.
How to Slow Down Depletion of Good Bacteria
In addition to taking a daily probiotic and eating foods containing healthy bacteria, getting all the benefits of probiotics relies on a plant-based, whole-food diet with lots of fiber, particularly prebiotics. These are indigestible plant fibers that can pave the way for probiotics to work their best by “feeding” the probiotics you consume. In this way, prebiotics help improve the gut by promoting the growth of good bacteria. 22 The good news is a healthy diet can change the state of your microbiome very quickly, so don’t be discouraged if you’ve been eating sugary junk foods!
On top of that, find feasible ways to manage stress, as it can affect your digestive health. A study concluded that stress negatively affects the friendly bacteria in the gut, hindering the gastrointestinal tract’s ability to optimally function, making it more difficult for you to reap all the benefits of probiotics you include in your diet. 23 And as with any healthy lifestyle, make sure you get lots of quality sleep and exercise on the regular.
Finally, try to avoid medication, particularly antibiotics, which have all shown to contribute to gut flora imbalance. 24 Antibiotics, while useful, also deplete the number of probiotics in your system (not to mention they can cause antibiotic-associated diarrhea and contribute to vaginal health issues). In the same vein, don’t overuse antibacterial products found in cleaning supplies and hand washes – they eliminate the good along with the bad.
The great news is that reinstating the ideal balance of good bacteria requires only a few easy steps—all for major impact. The fastest track to health may simply be found in a probiotic capsule and your morning yogurt topped with blueberries!
1 Publications H. Health benefits of taking probiotics – Harvard Health. Harvard Health. 2005. Accessed January 10, 2017.
2 Probiotics: In Depth | NCCIH. NCCIH. 2016. Accessed January 10, 2017.
3 Hill C, Guarner F, Reid G et al. Expert consensus document: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic. 2014.
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15 Probiotics: Health Benefits, Facts, Research. Medical News Today. 2015. Accessed January 11, 2017.
16 ‘Bad’ And Total Cholesterol Reduced By Daily Doses Of A New Probiotic. Medical News Today. 2012. Accessed January 11, 2017.
17 Publications H. Health benefits of taking probiotics – Harvard Health. Harvard Health. 2005. Accessed January 11, 2017.
18 Langkamp-Henken B e. Bifidobacterium bifidum R0071 results in a greater proportion of healthy days and a lower percentage of academically stressed students reporting a … – PubMed – NCBI. Ncbinlmnihgov. 2015. Accessed January 11, 2017.
19 Underwood MA, German JB, Lebrilla CB, Mills DA. Bifidobacterium longumsubspecies infantis: champion colonizer of the infant gut. Pediatric research. 2015;77(0):229-235. doi:10.1038/pr.2014.156.
20 SE A. Effect of fermented milk (yogurt) containing Lactobacillus acidophilus L1 on serum cholesterol in hypercholesterolemic humans. – PubMed – NCBI. Ncbinlmnihgov. 1999. Accessed January 11, 2017.
21 Segers ME, Lebeer S. Towards a better understanding of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG – host interactions. Microbial Cell Factories. 2014;13(Suppl 1):S7. doi:10.1186/1475-2859-13-S1-S7.
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