The Real Facts About Probiotics
Updated: Mar 9
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when ingested, provide a health benefit. Probiotics are usually bacteria, but certain types of yeasts can also function as probiotics. There are also other microorganisms in the gut that are being studied, including viruses, fungi, archaea, and helminths. You can get probiotics from supplements, as well as from foods prepared by bacterial fermentation. Probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kimchi.
Probiotics should not be confused with prebiotics, which are carbs — often dietary fibers — that help feed the friendly bacteria already in your gut. Products that contain both prebiotics and probiotics are referred to as synbiotics. Synbiotic products usually combine friendly bacteria along with some food for the bacteria to eat (the prebiotics), all in one supplement.
The most common probiotic bacteria are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Other common kinds are Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus.
Each genus comprises different species, and each species has many strains. On labels, you’ll see probiotics identified by their specific strain (which includes the genus), the species, subspecies if there is one, and a letter-number strain code. Different probiotics have been found to address different health conditions. Therefore, choosing the right type — or types — of probiotics is essential. Some supplements, known as broad-spectrum probiotics or multi-probiotics, combine different species in the same product.
Why are probiotics helpful?
Ease GI discomfort
It probably makes sense that, because probiotics live in the gut, they can heavily influence our digestive health. So if you have persistent belly discomfort, it might be a sign that your microbiome is top-loaded with unhealthy bacteria. Taking a daily probiotic supplement can help to relieve a number of symptoms, including gas, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating. If you suffer from leaky gut syndrome, probiotics can help to regulate any issues in your intestinal lining, which is linked to a number of different ailments, like diabetes, chronic fatigue, arthritis, acne, and obesity. Some people are genetically predisposed to this, but it can also be catalyzed from lifestyle factors like diets high in sugars, processed foods, and alcohol.
Get your lipid biomarkers in check
The benefits from probiotics aren’t just limited to your belly, though. Fermented foods like kimchi, kochujang, and kefir can improved lipid biomarkers like LDL, HDL, and total cholesterol, as well as triglycerides. As a result of these changes, probiotics and fermented foods are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. The mechanisms for these changes aren’t clearly known yet, but research suggests healthy microorganisms in our gut may help to keep cholesterol from being absorbed in our intestines.
Reduce glucose levels
Probiotic supplements have a clear connection to improved blood glucose control, both by helping to lower fasting blood glucose level and by improving insulin sensitivity. This is even the case in pre-diabetics and type 2 diabetics.
Support immune system health and fight inflammation
Ever heard that ‘most of your immune system lives in your gut?’ That’s because the bacteria in your colon are an important line of defense against their pathogenic counterparts. So giving your microbiome a boost with probiotics or fermented foods is like sending extra troops to the battlefront. In fact, research shows having daily servings of fermented milk like kefir can lower your risk for the common cold. Chronically-elevated inflammation levels can also weaken the immune system and leave you vulnerable to potential invaders. Luckily, probiotics can also help to lower inflammation markers.
Help with weight loss and maintenance
There’s pretty well-established evidence that probiotics can help influence weight loss. But relatively new research shows that a healthy gut microbiome might also play a key role in keeping lost weight off. As we mentioned above, your diet can heavily influence the types of bacteria that colonize your gut. So if you eat lots of high-sugar foods, bacteria which thrive on sugar will begin to take over – it seems like this shift, if not reversed, might drive weight regain in some individuals. So if you feel like you crave sugar, or consider yourself someone with a sweet tooth, your gut microbiome might be to blame (or thank, depending on your outlook).
Reduce muscle soreness
One study found that drinking fermented milk both before and after resistance training reduced muscle soreness, seemingly due to an improvement in the body’s ability to efficiently use glucose for muscle repair. No, the words “fermented milk” might not sound particularly appetizing, but kefir has a tang similar to Greek yogurt, and often comes in flavors like strawberry and blueberry. We carry some kefir options here in the store! Try swapping out your typical pre- or post-workout supplements for a week or so and see if there are any noticeable changes in your recovery times.
Improve markers of liver function
Looking to lower your liver enzyme levels? Probiotic therapies have been connected to reduced levels of AST and ALT. This can be especially relevant in people with current or family history of liver disease.
Modulate mood and cognition
The study of the connection between your gut and your brain is relatively new, but there appears to be a connection between your belly bacteria and things like mood and cognition. Certain strains of probiotics may also have anti-Alzheimer's effects. There still needs to be more research on the topic, but it’s a very promising field.
As you face the large selection of probiotics now available, you may feel overwhelmed. You’re not alone. The choice can be difficult. In the United States, probiotics are generally sold as food ingredients, drugs, or dietary supplements. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates each of these in different ways, most foods and supplements do not require approval before marketing. As a result, some companies take advantage of the buzz around probiotics to sell supplements they label as probiotic and make claims that aren’t backed by evidence. Looking for companies that follow best practices, such as third-party testing, can help you find high quality supplements.
Probiotics side effects
In the first few days to weeks of taking a probiotic supplement, you may experience side effects related to digestion, such as gas and mild abdominal discomfort. This is actually a positive sign that the probiotics are getting to work! Your body will adjust and your digestion should begin to improve within two weeks. In people with compromised immune systems, including those with HIV, AIDS, and several other conditions, probiotics can lead to dangerous infections so be cautious of this. Other than these two concerns, there is no significant studies that outline averse reactions to probiotics.
It's also important to remember that maintaining a healthy gut is about more than just taking a probiotic supplement. Day-to-day diet and exercise are just as important, as many lifestyle factors affect your gut bacteria. However, probiotic supplements may offer a wide range of benefits. As such, if you’re interested in improving your gut health, come see us! We help clients every day improve their gut health and balance their gut bacteria through diet, supplements, and lifestyle changes.