Learn about the benefits of adding probiotics into your diet and how to choose which one might be right for you.

What are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live microorganisms, such as yeast or bacteria. They’re similar to the “good” bacteria naturally found in your gut. There are different strains of probiotics that offer different benefits.

Probiotics help keep bad bacteria at bay in your gut, acting as a defense to protect the diverse microbiome of your intestines. Probiotics are essential for maintaining gut health–they line your gut so you can ward off infection and absorb the nutrients from your food. In general, you can populate your gut with probiotics by taking a supplement or by eating probiotic-rich foods.

Yogurt and granola in a bowl

How are probiotics different from prebiotics?

Prebiotics are food for bacteria, while probiotics are the bacteria themselves. It’s important that probiotics have prebiotics to feed off of so they can grow and survive. Prebiotic foods contain an indigestible fiber that makes its way to your gut as food for probiotics. Prebiotics work in tandem with probiotics; both are necessary for a healthy gut microbiome.

Note: this post is for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider for recommendations related to your individual situation.

Can we get probiotics from food?

Yes! Eating foods that likely still had dirt on them is traditionally how our ancestors got both probiotics and probiotics. Food sources of probiotics are easily recognizable and usable by our bodies. Look for natural foods with probiotics that have no added sugar, since sugar is food for “bad” gut bacteria.

Keep in mind, though, that food sources of probiotics contain less strains than a probiotic supplement and may not completely survive the acidic environment of the stomach. If you need probiotics in your life, consider both food sources and supplementation.

Kimchi in a bowl of rice

Who should take a probiotic?

There is still research to be conducted on probiotics’ role in our overall health. It’s also important to note that different probiotic strains have different benefits; you can tailor what strains you take to your specific health needs, or you can take a probiotic with a variety of strains.

Many people have experienced beneficial changes from probiotic supplementation and it’s widely recognized that probiotics are unlikely to do serious harm in generally healthy people if used correctly. They populate your gut with good bacteria, which is beneficial for almost everyone.

Here are some common reasons to use probiotics

1. Digestive Disorders or Distress

Probiotic supplementation has been found to be useful in treating digestive issues such as diarrhea. Probiotic supplementation was especially helpful in diarrhea associated with antibiotic usage. Probiotics can also be beneficial for a variety of gastrointestinal disorders, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

2. Lactose Intolerance

Traditionally fermented milk products such as yogurt seem to be easier for those with lactose intolerance to digest. This may be due to the presence of probiotics in the milk products; therefore, it may be beneficial to consume probiotics alongside dairy for optimal digestion.

3. Allergies

Probiotics can improve mucosal barrier function and improve your immune system, which mediates immune response in those with allergies. Studies have found that those exposed to bacteria early in life may protect against allergies. So, it is assumed that probiotic supplementation can also help with allergies.

4. Atopic Dermatitis

Some conditions of atopic dermatitis improved when affected children were given specific strains of probiotics.

5. Oral Health Issues

Oral health issues such as halitosis (bad breath), dental caries (cavities), and periodontal disease were improved with the application of probiotics.

Smiling woman

6. Mental Health Issues

Gut health and brain health are intrinsically linked via communication between the central and enteric nervous systems, also referred to as the “gut-brain axis.” Gut health affects mental health, so supporting your gut health with probiotic supplementation may help mental health as well.

How to Pick a Probiotic

Different strains of probiotics offer different benefits. Look for brands proven to survive stomach acid, and ones that undergo third-party testing. There are several genera that you may want to have included in your supplement, especially lactobacillus and bifidobacterium.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between spore-based probiotics and the conventional probiotics you may find on the drugstore shelf. Spore-based probiotics contain spore bacteria, which are claimed to survive the harsh acid of the stomach to reach the gut alive.

In one study, spore-based probiotics were shown to reverse symptoms of leaky gut. There isn’t any definitive research on the benefits of spore-based probiotics over the traditional lactobacillus offerings, but it’s a promising area of research. Consider the benefits you want when choosing a spore-based probiotic or a traditional lactobicillus probiotic. Learn more about spore-based probiotics.

Here are some of the major strains in most probiotic supplement formulations on the market:

  • Bacillus coagulans
  • Bifidobacterium bifidum
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus
  • Saccharomyses boulardii

FAQs

Can probiotics help IBS? Can probiotics worsen IBS?

Research is continuously being conducted on the effect of probiotics on IBS symptoms, but the bifidobacteria genera has been shown to help. Look for a probiotic with the strain bifidobacteria infantis for IBS symptom relief. And, of course, be sure to ask your doctor first if this is appropriate for your situation.

Should I take a probiotic on an empty stomach? When should I take my probiotics?

There’s no definitive proof of the best time to take a probiotic supplement. Some argue that probiotics should be taken on an empty stomach, while others argue that you should take them alongside food so they’re less likely to be killed by stomach acid.

Because there are warring viewpoints and no definitive answer, take your probiotic when it’s convenient for you. General recommendations are to take probiotics either in the morning and/or the evening. Check with your doctor to see what he or she recommends.

Can probiotics help me lose weight?

A probiotic likely won’t make or break your weight loss journey. However, the health of your gut affects your overall health in several ways. More research needs to be conducted, but there are promising studies showing how the health of the gut microbiome directly impacts obesity.

Probiotic supplementation may help prevent or treat obesity by altering the gut microbiome–specifically, shifting the bacteria population to crowd out “bad bacteria” that may contribute to weight issues. Furthermore, healing leaky gut should help reduce inflammation and any inflammation-related weight gain; a probiotic supplement can help reverse and heal leaky gut.

Conclusions

Both probiotics and probiotics are important for health. Consider both food and supplement sources of probiotics to help maintain healthy levels of the good bacteria.

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