You’ve heard of probiotics, but what exactly are they, and, even more intriguing, what are the benefits of probiotics? Probiotics are all about good bacteria in your gut and the health benefits that can be gained through smart dietary choices and supplementation. Read on to learn about gut health and what probiotics can do for your digestion, your heart health, and more.
Probiotics vs. Prebiotics: Definitions
Both probiotics and prebiotics have to do with gut health, but they are not the same thing. These definitions should clarify.
Probiotics: Live Bacteria
Probiotics are yeasts and live bacteria that are naturally created during the fermentation process of some foods, and are good for your digestive system.
Our digestive tracts are full of good bacteria that can sometimes be wiped out after a course of necessary antibiotics, to cure a bacterial infection, for instance. That is when it’s beneficial to replace our bacteria with either food or supplementary sources of probiotics. Foods with probiotics include yogurt, fermented foods like kombucha and kimchi, as well as dark chocolate.
While the exact nature of how probiotics work isn’t fully known, it’s nevertheless clear that they help to keep the balance between good and bad bacteria in our digestive systems. Probiotics help the movement of food through our bodies by stimulating the nerves that control intestinal mobility, and there are even findings that show specific types of probiotics can help even more health conditions.
These are a few of the best-known types of bacteria that are classified as probiotics.
- Lactobacillus: Perhaps the most common probiotic you’ll come across, as it hangs out in fermented foods and yogurt. Different strains of Lactobacillus can be helpful in calming diarrhea and easing the symptoms of lactose intolerance.
- Bifidobacterium: If you’re looking for probiotics for IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), look no further than foods like kefir (a thick milk drink from fermented kefir grains), sauerkraut, and yogurt. Bifidobacterium fights harmful bacteria, is an immune booster, and can be found in dairy products.
- Saccharomyces boulardii: This non-pathogenic yeast is known to help with diarrhea and other types of digestive problems.
Probiotics side effects may include some strains that trigger allergic reactions, and supplementation might lead to an artificial imbalance that causes yeast infections in women or conflicts with medication. The FDA considers probiotics foods and not medications, but if you’re using them as specific treatments, stay cognizant of your body’s reactions, and consult a doctor if symptoms persist after you stop taking a probiotic that disagrees with your body’s chemistry.
Prebiotics: Food for Bacteria
Prebiotics are food for good bacteria, and are specifically the types of dietary fiber found in foods like beans, chicory root, bananas, apple skins, Jerusalem artichokes, onions, and garlic. If you’d like to think of probiotics as “pro” biotics, grown-up and professional, prebiotics are the precursors to them.
Prebiotics serve to nourish the gut bacteria (including probiotics) that help your colon cells stay healthy and productive. Your digestive bacteria is your own garden of microflora, and you want the garden to be free of weeds, with nutrient-rich soil: prebiotics are that nutritional soil.
The Benefits of Probiotics
You may now be wondering, “What are probiotics good for specifically.” Well, here’s a quick run-down of who and what probiotics can help.
Balancing Friendly Gut Bacteria
The live microorganisms in probiotic foods join the good guys when they reach your digestive tract, and the balance they provide helps you avoid a lot of intestinal discomfort, and even situations as serious as mental health problems, obesity, and allergies.
Improving Your Mental Health Condition
Studies have shown a link between gut health and mental health and mood disorders. Supplementing with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus can improve mental conditions as far-ranging as depression, autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Probiotics have shown promise at helping to reduce anxiety, which has prompted deeper investigations.
Preventing and Treating Diarrhea
With diarrhea being such a common side effect of antibiotic intake, several studies have suggested that upping your probiotic intake while on necessary antibiotics helps to replenish good gut bacteria as you go, sometimes avoiding the issue entirely. Likewise incidents of infectious diarrhea can be reduced by specific strains of probiotics, like Lactobacillus rhamnosus.
The opposite problem of diarrhea, probiotics for constipation has been the subject of inquiry as well, with Bifidobacterium appearing to be most effective. Probiotics were able to slow the transit time of food/waste through the gut by about 12.4 hours, increase the number of bowel movements per week by 1.3, and make stools softer and thus easier to pass.
Men’s Health and Ulcer Prevention
Probiotics for men can help with regulating metabolism, cognitive function, immune health, liver function, detoxification, immunity, and clear skin. Men over 40 may find probiotics particularly beneficial due to advantages they could provide, including reducing the occurrence of ulcers, lowering cholesterol, preventing the onset of diet-induced insulin resistance, and easing the side effects of chemotherapy for those with prostate or other forms of cancer.
Women’s Health and UTIs
Probiotics for women have the particular upside of helping to prevent UTIs (urinary tract infections), especially valuable for those who get UTIs regularly. The microflora in premenopausal women includes their urogenital flora, and clinical trials on probiotics for UTIs have shown that not only are probiotics a safe treatment option, but also that the strain Lactobacillus rhamnosus stood out most favorably in the prevention of UTIs. Likewise Lactobacillus crispatus is in the running for MVP, as it’s been shown to reduce the risk of UTIs by 50%.
Kids’ Health and Eczema
Not just for adults, probiotics for kids may reduce the severity of certain allergies and eczema in infants and children. Infants fed probiotic-supplemented milk, for example, experienced an improvement in eczema symptoms more so than children who were fed regular milk. Another study uncovered that children of women who took probiotics while pregnant had a dramatic 83% lower risk of developing eczema before the age of 2.
Research into probiotics for weight loss has shown that some probiotics can prevent the absorption of dietary fat in the intestine. In other words, instead of being stored in the body, dietary fat is excreted. Not only can dietary probiotics help curb appetite, but one study showed that female dieters who took Lactobacillus rhamnosus over a 3-month period lost 50% more weight than female dieters who did not.
Heart Health and Lower Cholesterol Levels
Certain probiotics are lactic acid-producing and reduce cholesterol by reducing bile in the gut, which is a fluid made mostly out of cholesterol. This prevents the cholesterol from being reabsorbed into the body, and at least five studies have found that a probiotic yogurt eaten regularly over a 2-8 week period reduced LDL (“bad” cholesterol) by 5%. Coupled with probiotic supplements that help reduce blood pressure, they’re an all-around good deal for heart health.
Reducing Symptoms of Digestive Disorders
The symptoms of IBDs (inflammatory bowel diseases) like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis can be reduced by certain types of probiotics, including going so far as to provide the same effectiveness as the drugs that keep people with ulcerative colitis in remission. Likewise those with irritable bowel syndrome have also been shown to have reduced symptoms with probiotic treatment.
Arming Your Immune System
Probiotics are also known to not only inhibit the growth of gut bacteria that’s harmful, but to also promote natural antibody production. A review showed that probiotics could reduce the duration of respiratory infections and the risk of getting a respiratory infection in the first place.
The Promise of Probiotics
While researchers and scientists are still hard at work studying probiotics to find which strains best impact specific health problems, probiotics either in dietary or supplement form have shown great promise in many diverse health scenarios. Explore the options of what probiotics can do for you if you’re interested in supplementation to treat a specific condition, or just start including more probiotic foods in your diet to gain the value of their preventative powers.