What are probiotics?
Probiotics are a mix of live beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally exist in your body. Bacteria is usually perceived negatively as something that causes illness. However, you have two types of bacteria consistently present in and on your body — good bacteria and bad bacteria. Probiotics are made up of good bacteria that helps in maintaining your body’s health and functionality. This good bacteria supports you in various ways, including combating an overgrowth of bad bacteria and promoting well-being.
Probiotics are part of a broader concept involving bacteria and your body — your microbiome. Imagine the microbiome as a diverse community of organisms, similar to a forest, that work together to sustain your body’s health. This community is composed of microorganisms known as microbes. Your body harbors trillions of microbes on and within it. These microbes consist of:
- Fungi (including yeasts).
Each person’s microbiome is unique, and even identical twins have distinct microbial cells.
In order for a microbe to be classified as a probiotic, it must possess several characteristics. These include being:
- Isolated from a human.
- Able to survive in your intestine after ingestion (being consumed).
- Proven to benefit you.
- Safely consumable.
Where do beneficial probiotics (microbes) reside in my body?
While the gut (mainly the large intestines) is the most commonly associated location for beneficial microbes, there are several sites in and on your body where good microbes thrive. These sites have direct exposure to the external environment and include your:
- Urinary tract.
How do probiotics function?
The primary role of probiotics, or good bacteria, is to maintain a healthy equilibrium within your body. Think of it as keeping your body in a state of balance. When you are ill, harmful bacteria enter your body and multiply. This disrupts the balance within your body. Good bacteria work to combat the bad bacteria and restore the equilibrium, promoting a sense of well-being.
Good bacteria contribute to your health by supporting your immune function and regulating inflammation. Certain types of good bacteria can also:
- Aid in digestion.
- Prevent the overgrowth of bad bacteria that can cause illness.
- Generate vitamins.
- Protect the lining of your gut against harmful bacteria that may have been consumed through food or drinks, preventing their entry into your blood.
- Help in the breakdown and absorption of medications.
This balancing act occurs naturally within your body at all times. In fact, you don’t necessarily need to take probiotic supplements to facilitate this process. Good bacteria are inherent to your body. By consuming a well-balanced diet rich in fiber each day, you can maintain proper levels of good bacteria.
What are the most common types of probiotic bacteria?
Although numerous bacterial strains can be classified as probiotics, there are two specific types commonly found in stores. These include:
Probiotics also include beneficial yeast, with the most prevalent type being:
- Saccharomyces boulardii.
Can I use probiotics to address medical conditions?
Research is currently being conducted to explore the potential benefits of probiotics for various medical conditions. While there are numerous potential positive outcomes, researchers are still striving to establish definitive answers regarding the effectiveness of probiotics in different scenarios.
Nevertheless, there are some medical conditions in which probiotics may offer assistance. It should be noted that their efficacy may vary among individuals, and the specific probiotic being used can also influence the results.
Some conditions that may potentially benefit from increased probiotic intake (through food or supplements) include:
- Diarrhea (both antibiotic-associated diarrhea and Clostridioides difficile (C. diff) infection-related diarrhea).
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Yeast infections.
- Urinary tract infections.
- Gum disease.
- Lactose intolerance.
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis).
- Upper respiratory infections (ear infections, common cold, sinusitis).
- Sepsis (specifically in infants).
Can I consume or ingest something to increase the beneficial probiotics (microbes) in my body?
You can boost the population of beneficial microbes in your body by incorporating certain foods, beverages, and supplements into your diet. Chances are, you may already consume certain foods that naturally contain probiotics. Fermented foods, such as yogurt and pickles, are examples of food items that host a variety of good bacteria beneficial to your body. Additionally, there are fermented drinks like kombucha (fermented tea) or kefir (fermented dairy drink) that introduce extra probiotics into your diet.
Apart from food, probiotics can be consumed through dietary supplements. Since these supplements are not classified as drugs, they do not require approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, it is crucial that you consult with your healthcare provider before embarking on any dietary supplement routine or making significant changes to your diet.
Can probiotics be obtained through food?
Absolutely! You can certainly increase the population of beneficial microbes in your body through the foods you consume. Certain foods contain probiotics (good bacteria) that can support your microbiome’s health.
These probiotic-rich foods can be incorporated into any meal of the day. Moreover, you may already be consuming some of these foods regularly without being aware of their probiotic content. It is important to check food labels for the presence of “live and active cultures.” Here are a few suggestions for probiotic-rich foods that you can add to your diet and some recommendations for when to consume them:
For breakfast, consider:
- Sourdough bread.
For lunch, try:
- Cottage cheese.
As a snack, consider:
- Fermented pickles.
For dinner, try:
- Fermented sauerkraut.
- Miso soup.
Do remember to maintain a balanced and nutritious diet, even when consuming probiotic-rich foods. While adding these foods to your diet won’t harm you, maintaining balance in your overall nutrition is key. Overconsumption of any specific food may prevent your body from benefiting from other essential food groups.
How do I consume a probiotic supplement?
Probiotic supplements are available in various forms, such as:
- Capsules or pills.
Probiotic supplements may also be combined with prebiotics, which are complex carbohydrates that serve as nourishment for the microorganisms in your gut. Essentially, prebiotics act as a “food source” for the good bacteria, thereby promoting their growth and well-being. Commonly used prebiotics include inulin, pectin, and resistant starches.
When a supplement combines both a probiotic and prebiotic, it is referred to as a synbiotic.
How effective are probiotics?
Researchers have yet to determine the exact effectiveness of probiotic supplements for treating various conditions. Ongoing research is continuously shedding light on the topic. Numerous studies have yielded positive results regarding the impact of probiotic supplements, but further investigation is still required.
Furthermore, it is important to note that dietary supplements, unlike medications, do not require FDA approval. Consequently, supplement manufacturers can market their products with claims of safety and efficacy.
Always consult with your healthcare provider (or pediatrician) before initiating any supplementation or making significant dietary changes. Supplements may potentially interact with other medications you may be taking. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your provider prior to consuming any supplements.
Are there any storage instructions for probiotics?
Several probiotic strains are highly delicate and need to be shielded from heat, oxygen, light, and humidity. Excessive exposure to these elements can cause the probiotics to degrade or perish. Therefore, refrigerating certain probiotic strains is necessary to ensure their viability and full benefits. Always refer to the labels on any probiotic product you purchase to determine the appropriate storage requirements and expiration date.
How safe are probiotics?
Given that the microbes used as probiotics naturally exist within your body, probiotic foods and supplements are generally considered safe to consume. In some cases, they may trigger allergic reactions or cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort, such as stomach upset, diarrhea, flatulence, and bloating, particularly during the initial days of intake.
However, caution must be exercised when administering probiotic supplements to certain individuals, such as those with a weakened immune system (e.g., individuals undergoing chemotherapy), individuals suffering from critical illnesses, or individuals who have recently undergone surgery.
Special care should also be taken when giving probiotics to very sick infants.
Always consult your healthcare provider before initiating a probiotic supplementation regimen.
Can probiotics be detrimental?
For the majority of healthy individuals, probiotics do not pose any harm. They are generally considered safe and are often recommended as a potential solution to various medical conditions. Extensive research is being conducted on the topic of probiotics to determine their appropriate usage, efficacy, and potential adverse effects. It is always best to consult your healthcare provider before commencing any supplementation program. They can guide you in selecting the most suitable probiotic, dosage, and timing. When it comes to your health, engaging in a conversation with a healthcare professional is always a worthwhile endeavor.
Are there any risks associated with probiotics?
Probiotics are generally regarded as safe. However, there are some potential risks associated with their supplementation. These risks increase in individuals with weakened immune systems, recent surgical procedures, or other serious medical conditions.
Although unlikely, it is possible to experience:
- Development of an infection.
- Development of resistance to antibiotics.
- Generation of harmful byproducts as a result of probiotic supplementation.
Should I give probiotics to my children?
Probiotics can be beneficial for both adults and children. If your child is undergoing antibiotic treatment to combat an infection, administering probiotics as well can help alleviate symptoms. Probiotics can also assist in relieving constipation, acid reflux, diarrhea, gas, and eczema in children.
Introducing probiotics to your child’s diet through food is typically deemed safe and effective. Foods like yogurt and cottage cheese are often part of a balanced diet and can introduce good bacteria without significant risk.
There are commercially available probiotic supplements specifically formulated for infants and children. Nevertheless, it is crucial to consult with your child’s pediatrician before initiating any probiotic supplementation or implementing significant dietary changes.
Do I need to take probiotics after completing a course of antibiotics?
Antibiotic medications are often necessary to combat infections. However, while antibiotics eliminate harmful bacteria, they may also disrupt the population of beneficial bacteria in your body. Some individuals may experience conditions such as diarrhea following antibiotic treatment. In other cases, this imbalance may allow pathogenic bacteria, such as C. diff, to dominate the gut. Research has suggested a positive correlation between the intake of probiotics after antibiotic treatment and relief from diarrhea. However, this connection has yet to be conclusively proven, and the effectiveness of post-antibiotic probiotics may vary among individuals.
The rationale behind reintroducing probiotics into your system following antibiotic treatment is to repopulate your gut with the good bacteria that were eliminated by the antibiotics and promote a healthy microbiome. The additional influx of good bacteria helps restore equilibrium to your gut and combats any lingering bad bacteria. While many individuals believe that supplementing with probiotics is worth a try, it may not work for everyone.
Should I consider trying probiotics?
If you are interested in incorporating probiotics into your diet, it is worthwhile to discuss this with your healthcare provider. Many providers may recommend giving probiotics a try to evaluate their potential impact on your overall health. It is important to remember that not all probiotics behave in the same manner and have the same effects. Each probiotic strain offers its own unique set of benefits. Generally, probiotics do not cause harm. A simple way to begin incorporating probiotics into your routine is by consuming probiotic-rich foods, such as yogurt.
Before initiating any supplementation, always consult with your healthcare provider. They can guide you in selecting the most suitable probiotic, dosage, and timing. Engaging in a conversation with a healthcare provider is always worthwhile when it comes to your health.