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What Are Probiotics Good For? The Health Benefits of Probiotics

probiotic supplements on a yellow surface, what are probiotics good for

Beyond their benefits for the digestive system, the live superhero microorganisms called probiotics also wield a profound influence on our general health and well-being. Want to get the complete lowdown on what probiotics are good for? This article is for you!

Key Takeaways:

  • Probiotics are live microorganisms that benefit health when consumed in adequate amounts.
  • They are found in fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut, and also in supplements.
  • Probiotics support gut health, aiding in digestion and restoring balance after health disturbances.
  • They may improve immune health and reduce the risk of infections like acute-onset diarrhoea.
  • Probiotics can help with lactose intolerance by improving lactose metabolism.
  • Some studies suggest probiotics may benefit mental health conditions and cognitive functions.
  • They may lower LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels, benefiting heart health.
  • Early consumption of probiotics may reduce the severity of allergies and atopic dermatitis (eczema).
  • Probiotics could aid in preventing dental caries and treating periodontal disease.
  • Side effects like gas, bloating, and stomach discomfort are usually temporary.
  • People with weakened immune systems or recent surgeries should be cautious with probiotic use.
  • Probiotics are generally well-tolerated and can be consumed through food or supplements.

What are Probiotics?

Officially, probiotics are live microorganisms which confer a health benefit on the host when administered in adequate amounts. Typically, these are consumed as food. Many of the microorganisms that you find in probiotics are already similar to the microorganisms that are present in our bodies.

Mainly composed of bacteria and sometimes yeasts, probiotics occur naturally in fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi, and sauerkraut. You can also obtain them from dietary supplements or probiotic-fortified food products. Some types of unfermented foods may have probiotics, too.

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How Do Probiotics Work?

The exact mechanism of how probiotics work remains unclear to scientists. But from what we do know, probiotics may help:

  • Your gut microbiome maintain an environment that allows healthy microorganisms to grow and thrive, or restore your body to a healthy balance after a disturbance in your health. For example, if you had a brief bout of illness.¬†Sometimes, your gut microbiome may also be negatively impacted by following an unhealthy diet, such as eating too much fat or sugar.
  • Produce substances that have desirable effects. In other words, the substances they help create improve your health or state of wellness.
  • Influence your body‚Äôs immune response so you're able to fight infection and disease better. For example, probiotics have been proven to help reduce the risk of acute-onset diarrhoea, which may occur because of antibiotics.
  • Some species can have species-specific benefits too.

So, what's a gut microbiome?

The human gastrointestinal tract contains millions of microorganisms that live inside of it. The type of microorganisms and how they work can impact the state of health of the average human being. Collectively, they're also called gut microbiota, microbiome, or microflora.

The most common microbial strains of probiotics used commercially are Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia, and Bacillus. These are further subdivided into sub-strains, for example, Bifidobacterium animalis may help with digestion, boosting immunity, and fighting harmful food bacteria, while Bifidobacterium longum functions as an antioxidant and helps break down carbohydrates.

Probiotics vs. Prebiotics | What's the Difference?

Probiotics and prebiotics sound similar, but they work differently. Probiotics are beneficial substances which, when added to a host in adequate quantities, confer health benefits.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, serve as food sources for good bacteria. Typically high in fibre, prebiotics can be hard for the human body to digest. At the same time, they're readily consumed as food by the good bacteria in the gut microbiome.

Needless to say, a combination of probiotics and prebiotics, known as synbiotics, may confer the best health benefits (e.g. the Seed Synbiotic).

Examples of probiotic-containing foods: legumes, bananas, onions, garlic, oats, asparagus, and berries.

Examples of prebiotic-rich foods: kimchi, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt and other fermented foods

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Health Benefits of Probiotics

Probiotics provide a wide range of health benefits. Let's take a look at each of them:

Probiotics Work to Maintain Gut Health and Immunity

Probiotic organisms have shown benefits in the prevention and/or treatment of intestinal disorders and the improvement of the immune system.

For example, evidence suggests that probiotics may alleviate symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and mild ulcerative colitis .

The ability to modulate immunity has been observed in studies showing the benefits of probiotics in managing the risk of upper respiratory infections as well as urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women. However, more research is needed in this area.

Probiotics May Improve Lactose Intolerance

A condition called beta-galactosidase deficiency usually causes lactose intolerance. While some individuals are born with this deficiency, others may acquire it later in life.

Those suffering from lactose intolerance typically experience symptoms like diarrhoea, abdominal discomfort, and flatulence following the consumption of milk or dairy products.

There is evidence to suggest that probiotics may be helpful in improving lactose metabolism in some people, especially the specific probiotic strains - S. thermophilus and L. delbrueckii ssp. Bulgaricus

May Improve Some Cognitive or Mental Health Conditions

A few clinical studies indicate that probiotics may treat psychiatric disorder-related behaviours such as depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and memory abilities, including spatial and non-spatial memory. 

Early research suggests that probiotics may also have a beneficial effect in modulating the central nervous system.

Probiotics May Help Improve Heart Health

There is evidence to show that consuming probiotics may help with lowering low-density lipoproteins (LDL)-cholesterol and improving the LDL/high-density lipoproteins (HDL) ratio, as well as lowering blood pressure, inflammatory mediators, blood glucose levels, and body mass index. That can sound like a mouthful!

The short and simple version is that probiotics may be good for heart health, moderating blood sugar levels, and, in effect, also helping you moderate your weight.

May Alleviate Allergies and Atopic Dermatitis (Eczema)

Research suggests that consuming probiotics early on in life may help protect against allergy and improve what's known as the mucosal barrier function, a property that has been linked to moderating the way the body responds to an allergy.

Specific strains have been found beneficial in combating food allergies and atopic dermatitis (eczema). For example,  B. lactis and L. hamnosus GG were seen to be beneficial in reducing the severity of eczema in breast-fed infants who had the condition.

Early research also suggests that probiotics may be helpful in the treatment of Allergic Rhinitis or Hay Fever. Again, more research is needed to make specific recommendations on the types of probiotics which can be used.

May Help Prevent or Treat Dental Disorders

Early research indicates that probiotics might help prevent dental caries in infants and young children. However, more research is needed to substantiate this.

Other research points out that specific types of probiotics can help as supplementary treatments for periodontal (gum) disease, aiding in the reduction of disease-causing bacteria.

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Types of Probiotics and How To Take Them

a bowl of yogurt with nuts and fruits in them and a yellow checkered napkin under it, what are probiotics good for

You can consume probiotics directly from foods or take them as supplements. We've covered examples of food sources of probiotics above.

In terms of dietary supplements, you can find probiotics in various forms, such as pills, capsules, and powders. If you're otherwise a healthy adult, you may not need to consume probiotics.

However, some disease states may benefit from the consumption of extra probiotics. Always consult your healthcare provider or a qualified nutritionist for the best recommendations.

Side Effects of Probiotics

Some people may experience some unpleasant common side effects when they start taking probiotics, such as constipation, gas, bloating, and stomach discomfort. But these typically go away on their own as the body adjusts to the probiotic intake.

In cases where probiotic-rich foods cause headaches, switching to probiotic supplements could be a more suitable option.

It's important to note that people with weakened immune systems, those dealing with critical illnesses, or those who have recently undergone surgery face a higher risk of infection when consuming probiotics.

For anyone considering probiotics, it's advisable to begin with small doses, allowing the body time to adjust gradually to avoid any adverse effects.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Probiotics

Q1. What are the health benefits of taking probiotics?

Probiotics have shown benefits in maintaining a healthy balance of good gut bacteria, preventing and treating gastrointestinal conditions, improving symptoms of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, boosting immunity, improving heart health, preventing and treating dental disorders, and fighting allergies. Scroll further up in this article to learn how science backs this up.

Q2. Is it good to take a probiotic daily?

Probiotics are generally safe for most people because they resemble microorganisms we already have in our body. Some people may have an allergic reaction for a few days after taking them for the first time, but this usually dissipates over time.

A few people may have an increased risk of infection on probiotics, such as people who already have a weak immune system, people with a critical illness, or people who recently had surgery.

It's best to avoid administering probiotics to infants who are unwell without checking in with healthcare providers.

If you're interested in consuming probiotics, the safest way to consume them is through food. Remember to start with small doses.

Q3. What are some food sources of probiotics?

You can find probiotics in fermented foods such as yoghurt, cheeses, kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, kombucha, certain pickled vegetables, some apple cider vinegar types, and kefir.

Some types of unfermented foods may also have probiotics, but this depends on the specific bacterial or yeast strain and how it works.

Q4. Is it better to take a probiotic supplement or consume probiotic foods?

Deciding whether to opt for probiotic supplements or foods really boils down to what you're looking for in your health regimen.

If you have particular health issues or dietary restrictions, probiotic supplements can be a great choice. They're tailored to deliver specific strains of bacteria and are usually free from common allergens.

But if you're someone who enjoys a variety of tastes and textures, and you're aiming for a more natural intake, then probiotic foods are your go-to.

They not only bring a mix of live cultures but also pack extra nutrients. Plus, certain foods can help those good bacteria survive the journey through your gut.

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Final Thoughts

In summary, probiotics act as your body's best friend, performing incredible tasks behind the scenes to maintain your health and vitality. They help maintain your digestive health, enhance your immune system, improve stomach function, and can even elevate your mood.

Extensive scientific evidence underscores their benefits, and research continues to explore their potential. Imagine your body as a complex system; probiotics are akin to diligent workers ensuring its smooth operation.

So, for a healthier and sunnier you, consider looking at probiotics. They're the unsung heroes working tirelessly to keep you in top shape, both inside and out!

Darcy Ogdon-Nolan

Author

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