Gut health has made its way into popularity in recent years thanks to probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that live in the human microbiome.
From the Greek word meaning “for life,” probiotics are therapeutic for numerous health conditions, far more than just supporting a healthy gut.
What Are Probiotics?
Before birth, the human intestinal tract is sterile, but begins colonization with bacteria literally during the birthing process.
Bacteria from the mother and surrounding environment rapidly colonize the gut over the first weeks and months of life, and by the time a child turns one, they have a unique universe of gut bacteria that is all their own.
While humans are made up of trillions of cells (literally, the average adult has more than 37 trillion cells in their body), only 10 percent of those are from the body itself.
There are several larger family groupings of gut bacteria, with the most abundant being Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus.
Many factors can influence the types of bacteria that live in the gut. Diet, lifestyle, medications, and location are just some of them.
When the gut experiences major changes in the landscape of the microbiome, the whole body can be susceptible to infections, immune problems, insulin disorders, mental health challenges, oxidative stress, and inflammation.
10 Health Benefits of Probiotics
The bacteria that live in the gut play a vital role in numerous immune, physiological, metabolic, nutritional, and even cognitive processes. (3)
Without these “good guy” defenders, the negative bacteria would overwhelm the microbiome and the body, and we would not be able to survive or thrive.
These are the top 10 ways that these friendly bacteria can boost your health.
Weight Loss and Obesity
The bacteria in your gut can influence how your body stores fat, and even your weight influences the type and amount of bacteria that live there. (4, 5) Certain probiotic strains are more beneficial than others at promoting weight loss and reducing obesity.
The strains L. plantarum and L. gasseriare associated with decreased BMI and stopping the accumulation of fat in the midsection, which is considered to be the most dangerous kind. (6)
In order to support a healthy weight with probiotics, multiple good strains should be ingested in a broad spectrum supplement.
Greater success in body weight loss occurs as the diversity of the gut is populated with multiple strains of good bacteria, since gram-negative or “bad” bacteria tend to be dominant in the guts of people who are obese. (7)
Probiotics can also balance the hormones that are associated with appetite, leading to fewer food cravings and more satiety after meals.
Anxiety, Depression, and Mood
Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders are strongly associated with bacterial balance in the gut. Beneficial bacteria in the microbiome helps to stimulate the production of certain neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which is associated with greater mood stability.
When the bacteria balance in the gut is off, anxiety, depression, anger, low mood, and other mental disorders can result. (8) Even the state of the intestines can be associated with mental disturbances, with constipation being chronically related to a poor state of mind.
Probiotics can help to decrease symptoms and feelings of depression when taken regularly. They can even help reduce stress from all causes, such as academic stress, work stress, relationship stress, and health-related stressors.
The central nervous system, i.e. the brain, is closely connected to the enteric nervous system, which lives in the gut. When stress is high, mental symptoms can occur, but also those that involve butterflies in the stomach, nausea, diarrhea, or other gastrointestinal symptoms.
A broad spectrum probiotic can improve all mental health and stress-related symptoms when taken regularly.
Digestive & Intestinal Health
Probiotics naturally support the microbiome, since they’re an infusion of the good bacteria that live there.
But gut health is more than the microbiome, and probiotics are supportive of healthy digestion, absorption of nutrients in the small and large intestines, and even the synthesis of vitamins in the GI tract, as well as the body’s ability to use nutrients it takes in from food.
The good bacteria in probiotics can also decrease the pathogenic and gram-negative bacteria that are in the gut, reducing the chances of illness, gastrointestinal problems, bloating, and bowel irregularity. (9)
Probiotics can even off-set the digestive symptoms associated with medication side effects, leading to decreased digestive or intestinal discomfort and pain.
Heals Gut Lining
Leaky gut is a condition that refers to a damaged or weakened barrier function of the intestinal wall. When this occurs, particles that shouldn’t be found in the blood leak through the intestinal wall and enter the bloodstream. This can result in autoimmune reactions, inflammation, allergies, and more.
Probiotics strengthen the barrier function of the intestines and protect the body from this damaging sequence of events. They can even help destroy the harmful organisms that enter the body, before they can enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc.
In particular, L. rhamnosus is a strain associated with protection against leaky gut and healing from it. It can also strengthen the integrity of the entire digestive tract, and help defend against ulcers in the stomach, and colon damage in cases of colitis.
It is even helpful in addressing antibiotic-related diarrhea, which is a common side effect of these medications.
In cases of chronic constipation, probiotics can restore balance there, too. Because they’re an influx of helpful bacteria, they can offset the negative effects of whatever type of bad bacteria have taken up residence there.
Inflammation is meant to be a protective response in the body to promote healing. But when it continues unchecked for an extended period of time, it results in damage to tissues and cells, leading to disease.
Probiotics and a healthy microbiome fight inflammation in the body and can reverse some of its damaging effects.
Beneficial strains have been shown to reduce inflammatory markers in numerous diseases, including psoriasis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other diseases involving systemic inflammation. (10) L. reuteri, in particular, can stem system-wide inflammatory activity. (11)
Probiotics aren’t only protective of neurotransmitters and mental health, but they also support and protect other functions of the brain, like cognition.
Probiotics help to protect brain cells from dying, boosting cognitive function, and defending against the type of changes that occur in Alzheimer’s and dementia. (12)
Memory is also improved and protected by probiotics, as well as the ability to learn and retain information.
Probiotics can also help improve brain function that is hindered by stress, inflammation, and sleep deprivation.
Insulin & Glucose
Diabetes and metabolic syndrome are two disorders that involve a malfunctioning relationship between insulin and glucose. Glucose is blood sugar, which the body gets from carbohydrate foods that are eaten.
Insulin is the hormone that draws glucose into cells to be used for energy. When the body becomes resistant to insulin’s actions, too much glucose remains in the blood, leading to elevated blood sugar and resulting in a host of chronic health problems.
Good gut bacteria helps to decrease insulin resistance and restore proper hormone signaling in cases of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. (13)
Probiotics help to improve how the body digests carbs, lowers fasting blood sugar levels, improves insulin sensitivity, and reduces overall metabolic stress. It can also reduce complications associated with diabetes, like slow wound healing, foot ulcers, bacterial infections, and obesity.
The immune system is mostly housed in the gut, and is strongly influenced by the health of the microbiome. The microbiome prevents the immune system from over-responding with inflammation, especially in the gut, and helps to modulate the immune system’s activity. (14)
When the gut microbiome is unbalanced, it leaves the immune system open to go rogue, and to over-respond or under-respond to threats like viral infections, bacterial infections, and other disorders that threaten organs.
It even allows the immune system to self-attack, which is when the body becomes sensitized to its own cells, through a miscommunication known as autoimmunity.
Probiotics help tell the immune system when it needs to simmer down, especially in the instance of autoimmunity. The good bacteria helps keep the immune system connected to what is “self” and what should be protected.
Probiotics can also boost the body’s defense against sickness and infections like viruses or bacteria, such as the cold, flu, or even strep throat.
Taking probiotics during sickness can shorten the duration and lead to faster recovery. They’re also protective of compromised people, such as the elderly or those with immune system deficiencies.
Heart Health & Cardiovascular Disease
Heart disease is one of the world’s biggest health problems. It kills one in four every year, which is more than 610,000 deaths.
Probiotics protect heart health and can defend against heart disease thanks to the therapeutic effects these good bacteria have on blood pressure, inflammation, and other biomarkers associated with artery problems and heart attack.
It can also boost HDL, the “good” cholesterol, and even though cholesterol is no longer implicated in heart disease, we need high levels of HDL for nutrient transport in the body.
The liver is the body’s largest internal organ, and without a healthy one, the body is at serious risk for toxicity and other disorders.
Probiotics protect liver health and can even help repair it after alcohol-induced damage, as well as from complications of obesity and lipid problems in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Inflammation can be damaging anywhere in the body, but when the liver becomes inflamed, it is less able to rid the body of toxins.
Beneficial bacteria like L. rhamnosus, L. casei, and L. plantarum are all protective of liver health and can normalize liver enzymes, improve liver function, and even help to restore balance in cases of jaundice.
And even more!
Beyond these proven health benefits, probiotics can also:
- Help reduce the incidence of allergies.
- Help alleviate symptoms of asthma (but should never be used in place of an inhaler and medical treatment).
- Address symptoms of eczema and can reduce severity.
- Reduces histamine intolerance.
- Support healthy skin.
- Support healthy teeth and gums.
- Protect bone health.
- Promote wound healing.
- Support healthy hormone levels.
- Reduce fatigue.
- Support muscle recovery and athletic performance.
- Reduce pain associated with arthritis conditions.
- Support fertility in men and women.
- Addresses pain in endometriosis and menstrual disorders.
- Supports healthy pregnancy and postpartum.
- Protects against age-related cellular decline.
- Fights bacterial and yeast imbalance in the body, especially with candida and yeast infections.
How to Select Probiotics
Probiotics come in many different products. Generally, they’re in capsule or powder form, although can also be found in gummies or chewables.
It’s important to read the inactive ingredients, as some companies use fillers or additional ingredients that might take away from the beneficial effects, like preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or allergen ingredients.
Probiotics should clearly state what strains and dosage they contain, and in order to be effective, there need to be at least several million colony forming units, or CFUs. Doses in the billions are common and might be the most effective.
Probiotic organisms are subject to death, since they’re living organisms, so outdated probiotics won’t be as potent. Refrigerated or freezer products are likely to have a higher activity level than shelf-stable products, too.
Before taking a supplement, even probiotics, it’s important to check with your doctor to ensure there will be no interactions or other concerns.
Of course supplements aren’t the only way to get probiotics. They’re naturally found in fermented food sources, although determining the dosage you’re getting from food servings is nearly impossible.
Foods that are good sources of dietary probiotics include:
Yogurt: Skip the sugary stuff, since that’ll undo some of the benefits of fermented foods, but Greek or regular yogurt that is plain is an excellent source of beneficial bacteria. Kefir, a yogurt-like drink, is also a good source.
Sauerkraut and kimchi: Both are fermented vegetable dishes, often including cabbage, that have a sour taste. They are loaded with good bacteria and supportive of gut health thanks to the fiber content, too.
Kombucha: A fermented tea beverage, this provides probiotics, but watch out for those that are loaded with sugar to make them taste more palatable.
How to Take Probiotics
Probiotics should be taken daily to reap the greatest benefits from them. In most cases, take your dose after dinner or before bed, or follow your doctor’s prescribing instructions.
Probiotics can also be taken twice or more per day, depending on the product you’re taking and the dose you need.
If taking during a course of antibiotics, be sure to take probiotics at least two or three hours away from a dose of antibiotics. Always follow a course of antibiotics as directed by your doctor or pharmacist.
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- Blaabjerg S, Artzi DM, Aabenhus R. Probiotics for the prevention of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in outpatients—a systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Hempel S, Newberry SJ, Maher AR, et al. Probiotics for the prevention and treatment of antibiotic-associated diarrhea: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
- Zuccotti G, Meneghin F, Aceti A, et al. Probiotics for prevention of atopic diseases in infants: systematic review and meta-analysis. Allergy.
Aimee McNew, MNT, CNTP, is a certified nutritionist who specializes in women’s health, thyroid problems, infertility, and digestive wellness. She ate her way back to health using a Paleo diet, lost 80 pounds, and had a healthy baby after numerous miscarriages. She focuses on simple nutrition practices that promote long-lasting results.