December 23, 2020

What are Probiotics?

Probiotics were introduced as a health trend several years ago, only to maintain their popularity as one of the most favored supplements behind daily vitamins and minerals. In fact, they’ve always played a big part in maintaining optimal digestive health and immune function, they just never received as much attention before. As people are increasingly seeing the benefits of how probiotic organisms aid the body, the first question is: what are probiotics, and what makes them beneficial to the health of my digestive system? 

Although bacteria usually carries a negative connotation, there are two types of bacteria, good and bad. Probiotics are made up of the good kind and exist to counteract the harmful bacteria.  A community of microbes exists on and in the body, making up your unique microbiome. The microbes are a mix of bacteria, yeasts, fungi, and protozoa, but aren’t considered a probiotic unless it’s survived in the body with a proven health benefit for you, which is why most probiotics are associated with benefiting gut health.

However, good microbes can also exist in the mouth, skin, lungs, urinary tract, and vagina. The purpose is to balance the number of bad bacteria in the body to keep you feeling healthy. Not all probiotics are made with the same combination of microbes or are intended to help with the same health conditions. It’s best to choose probiotics that have been tested for the symptoms or health conditions you want to improve. 

What Do Probiotics Do?

Taking probiotics results in several health benefits that help keep the body healthy. If you’re wondering, “What do probiotics do after I consume them?” here are a few examples of how they take action against bad bacteria in the body. 

Promotes Proper Digestion 

The simple probiotics definition is “good bacteria,” which is found naturally in the body. However, probiotic supplementation may be necessary to even out the good with the bad. To be recognized as a true probiotic product, it must contain live and active bacterial cultures. These microorganisms aid in the proper breakdown of food and help with several gastrointestinal issues, including diarrhea, gassiness, irritable bowel syndrome, and lactose intolerance.

As the body changes during different stages of life, the ability to naturally digest food may become more challenging. By eating probiotic-rich foods and/or taking probiotic supplements, you introduce more good bacteria to the body to ease stomach issues and regulate the digestive system.

Boosts the Immune System

Although gut health is the primary reason why most people take probiotics, they can also aid in boosting the immune system by preventing harmful bacteria and supporting the production of natural antibodies. A study conducted by the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine concluded that live probiotic organisms (specifically, Streptococcus thermophilus and Lactobacillus acidophilus) protect intestinal cells from the harmful effect of a highly invasive pathogenic bacteria (enteroinvasive Escherichia coli), which can lead to high-fever infections.

Reduces Risk of UTIs

Probiotic supplementation provides a key health benefit for women by reducing the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs). Research compiled by the University of Washington, Seattle, Department of Medicine in a trial of 100 women with a history of recurring UTIs found those who received the probiotic bacteria experienced recurrent UTIs approximately 50 percent less compared to those who received the placebo. 

Probiotics have also been shown to reduce the risk of infection in other areas of the body, including the upper respiratory tract, skin, and mouth. Results vary based on the different types of probiotics that are taken and how the body reacts to them since each person has its own microbiome that houses different levels of good and bad bacteria. If one type of probiotic strain doesn’t create change in the body, you may have to perform trial and error until you find the one that works for you.

Improves Mental Health

In addition to a person’s physical health, probiotic microorganisms have also been known to improve certain mood disorders and mental health challenges. In a collaborative study between the neuroscience departments from the University of Tübingen, Germany and University of Trento, Italy, results concluded that doses of probiotics (Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus) improved mental health disorders, including anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, as well as memory abilities. 

This is only a sample of the types of conditions probiotics can prevent or reduce symptoms in both adults and children. However, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health summarizes research for several other health problems including:

  • Diverticular disease
  • Constipation
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Periodontal disease
  • Acne

With the range of health benefits available, the way probiotics impact each person differs depending on the frequency or severity of a certain condition, a person’s general health, and other health factors that go into their day-to-day way of life. 

Once you know how to incorporate probiotics into your daily routine, what to look for in probiotic supplements, and some of the frequently asked questions about beneficial bacteria, you’ll be able to gain a better understanding of why people rely on these to improve their health.

Ways to Consume More Good Bacteria

When first answering the question of, “What are probiotics?” the idea of introducing good bacteria may seem purely scientific when really there are numerous ways you can ingest it. Start with foods that naturally contain probiotics, such as: 

  • Yogurt
  • Cottage cheese
  • Sourdough bread
  • Tempeh
  • Kombucha
  • Kimchi or sauerkraut
  • Miso soup

Reaping the health benefits of probiotics requires balance. Slowly incorporate a few of these foods into your diet. You may not like or want to eat all of them, but if there’s a way to add yogurt to your breakfast or a scoop of cottage cheese at lunch, this is a way to easily introduce more gut-friendly bacteria into the body simply with the foods you eat. 

There’s also the option of supplementation. Probiotic supplementation is available in the form of drinks, capsules/pills, liquids, powders, and multivitamins. Determine which probiotic food or supplement will be easiest to add to your daily diet and provide the most impact for you. 

What to Look for in Probiotics?

Probiotic supplements in all their forms can now be found in most supermarkets and drugstores. It’s important to check labels for all-natural ingredients and a sell-by date. Each product may also have different dosage recommendations. Also, most probiotic supplements suggest a once-a-day regimen, though there are some that may recommend multiple times a day. Effective levels range by supplement, more isn’t always better. 

When altering your diet in any way, whether it’s eating probiotic-rich foods, drinks, or taking supplements, pay attention to immediate side effects. Loose stools and gas are normal reactions when first taking probiotics and should subside after a few days. Take probiotics at the same time every day, preferably after a meal to prevent symptoms, to determine how your body is reacting and benefiting from it. 

Frequently Asked Questions about Probiotics

For many, the world of probiotics may be a fairly new area of wellness to discover. Here a few frequently asked questions that you may be wondering about as well:

Do probiotics provide more health benefits for women than men? 

Probiotics offer health benefits to both men and women, although there are certain conditions specifically attributed to women, such as UTIs and yeast infections, that probiotics help with preventing recurrence. 

Why don’t probiotics work for me? 

The probiotics definition is simple, yet there are different kinds of probiotics, all of which function in various ways, based on the type of bacteria it’s made of. If one type of probiotic supplement or probiotic-rich food doesn’t prove beneficial for you, you may want to try another kind. Give enough time for the body to adjust before making the switch, but know that certain probiotics are specifically designed to work for specific symptoms or conditions.

Should I take a probiotic supplement every day? 

It’s recommended to follow the dosage on the package since that’s what it’s been tested for, which is usually at least once a day. Taking a probiotic supplement also creates regularity for your system, rather than taking them on what you may consider an “as needed” basis. If you are wondering, “how long does it take for probiotics to work?”, it’s important to note that as with any other health habit, consistency is key to see results. 

Must all probiotics be refrigerated? 

Although microbes survive better at lower temperatures, it doesn’t necessarily mean refrigerated probiotics are more effective than those that don’t require refrigeration. Choose products with a shelf life and listed expiration date, and refer to the recommendations of how to store and preserve the live bacteria.

What are prebiotics and should I take these as well?

Prebiotics are found in foods such as beans, asparagus, bananas, and fermentable fiber. They promote the growth of healthy bacteria in the body. While not necessary to reap the benefits of probiotics, they work as a “jumpstart” to activate the good live bacteria in the body. 

As with other supplements or dietary changes, ensure you’re taking care of your health in other ways as well. Following a daily regimen of following a balanced diet, drinking plenty of water, and getting adequate amounts of quality sleep all play a part in how your body functions and will complement the effects of probiotics.


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