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The Lowdown on Probiotic Supplementation: Benefits and Uses

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probiotic gut health

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  • Probiotic supplements help reseed your gastrointestinal tract with beneficial bacteria
  • Research has shown that several probiotic strains such as Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Lactococcus may positively affect your digestive system, mental health, immune system response and inflammation management
  • Probiotic supplements work best when taken on an empty stomach two hours before your first meal, or after the last meal of your day
  • When purchasing a probiotic supplement, look for strains such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and plantarum, and Bifidobacterium lactis, longum and bifidum, as they are known to benefit human health

The human body is a complex relationship of cells and microorganisms that work together to perform numerous functions. Well-known residents in your body include bacteria, which are responsible for various diseases and infections. However, did you know that there are “good bacteria” as well? This special group of microbes, also known as probiotics, lives in your gut and influence many biological processes throughout your body.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are “live organisms that can be found in fermented foods and cultured milk,” and are commonly called good bacteria.1 Aside from these food sources, probiotics can be taken as a supplement to help diversify your gut microbiome.2 Research has shown several probiotic genera can promote health, such as Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Lactococcus, Streptococcus and Enterococcus. A certain yeast genus, Saccharomyces, is found to be beneficial as well.3

Prebiotics and Probiotics: What's the Difference?

You may have encountered the word “prebiotics” and confused it with probiotics. In essence, prebiotics are the fuel used by probiotics to multiply and grow in your gut. Foods that contain dietary fiber such as inulin, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are regarded as the best sources of prebiotics. Consistently consuming fiber-rich foods can help boost gut health by making sure your probiotics are nourished.4

Aside from feeding the probiotics in your gut, dietary fiber can help you in several ways, such as reducing blood sugar spikes,5 lowering the risk of colon cancer6 and managing healthy weight by helping you feel full longer.7,8 Furthermore, fiber can help promote a healthy gut through regular bowel movements.9

6 Probiotic-Rich Foods to Add to Your Diet

Probiotic-rich foods are found in many cuisines the world over. While primarily known for containing beneficial bacteria, these foods are also inherently rich in various nutrients. Some of the most popular probiotic-rich foods and beverages include:

  • Yogurt This fermented dairy is several millennia old and carries Lactobacillus and Streptococcus strains.10 It is made by heating milk and adding a starter culture, then letting it set for several hours to activate the probiotics.
  • Kefir It is unique among fermented foods because aside from beneficial bacteria, it contains beneficial yeast strains. To make kefir, a specific ingredient called kefir grains ferment the milk.11
  • Sauerkraut Literally meaning “sour cabbage,” this dish is of Chinese origin, contrary to popular belief that it originated in Germany. It is prepared through lactic acid fermentation.12
  • Kimchi Another fermented cabbage dish similar to sauerkraut, the main difference between the two is that kimchi is left in a salt brine for a whole day before fermentation begins, along with a host of other spices, to create its distinct taste.13
  • Natto — This dish is made by stuffing boiled white soybeans into a casing. Upon storing, a natto fungus is introduced, producing its well-known gooey texture.14
  • Miso — A soup made from fermented soybeans, miso is a popular fixture in Japanese cuisine.15

All of these foods are rich in various probiotic strains, as well as other nutrients. But what if your gut microbiome is still unbalanced or if you cannot consume these foods on a daily basis? This may be the best time to take a high-quality probiotic supplement.

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Types of Probiotics Supplements You May Encounter

Probiotic supplements are divided into several types, depending on the strain used in the product. For example, Lactobacillus is one of the most common genera, making it a very common type of probiotic supplement. Other times, Bifidobacterium or Saccharomyces genera are used.16 But don’t just stick to one type when looking for probiotics. As you’ll learn later, a very diverse microbiome is better than focusing on one strain only.

12 Published Benefits of Probiotics to Your Health

Probiotics are some of the most studied topics in human health. There’s plenty of research documenting their benefits on various biological processes. Some of the most notable include:

  • Boosting cognitive function — Probiotics may help maintain brain function, such as boosting spatial and nonspatial memory, as well as managing anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.17
  • Uplifting mood — Probiotics may help reduce negative thoughts associated with a sad mood, according to a study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity.18
  • Improving bioavailability of nutrients — Certain probiotics can help produce vitamins, such as B219 and B12.20 Lactobacillus fermentum was also shown to increase the bioavailability of calcium, phosphorus and zinc.21
  • Managing depression Patients with major depressive order may benefit from probiotic supplementation. In one study, participants diagnosed with the disease and who took probiotics regularly exhibited better mental health, along with other positive health markers.22
  • Reducing anxietyTaking a probiotic supplement may help reduce anxiety, according to several mice studies.23,24,25
  • Combatting stress — If you’re currently experiencing stress for whatever reason, probiotic supplementation may help you manage it better.26,27
  • Managing weight — Probiotics may help decrease abdominal fat accumulation28 and help you lose weight, especially among people affected with metabolic disorders.29
  • Controlling blood sugar levels — Probiotics have been shown to help improve insulin sensitivity and good cholesterol levels.30
  • Controlling blood pressure Patients suffering from hypertension may manage their blood pressure levels by consuming probiotics.31,32
  • Improving gut health — Probiotics can help maintain a healthy gut, reducing your risk of common gastrointestinal issues.33,34,35
  • Boosting immune health — Probiotics can help improve your body’s ability to ward off diseases by stimulating the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and moderating white blood cell action.36
  • Managing inflammation Several studies indicate that intake of probiotics can help reduce inflammation throughout your body.37,38 One study notes that Bifidobacterium infantis suppresses pro-inflammatory cytokines.39

Using Probiotics for Adults

The 21st century marks a positive turn toward the acceptance of probiotic supplements. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), probiotic usage among adults increased by 3 million from 2007 to 2012. In other words, usage quadrupled in a span of five years. It ranked third among top natural products used, next to omega-3 fatty acids and glucosamine.40

Most people, including senior citizens, can reap the rewards of a healthy body by increasing their probiotic population. In a study published in the World Journal of Clinical Cases, researchers noted that elderly people had a less diverse gut microbiota. Taking a probiotic supplement can help reduce and manage the symptoms of antibiotic-associated diarrhea.41

Effectiveness of Probiotics for Kids

Probiotic supplementation is steadily increasing among children. The NCCIH reports that probiotics were consumed by 5 percent of American children in 2012,42 and there is a growing body of child-related research supporting its rise.

One study notes that probiotic supplementation may help alleviate the symptoms of infectious diarrhea by reducing duration and stool frequency,43 and another study posits similar findings.44 Likewise, probiotics may help address antibiotic-related diarrhea.45 In another study, probiotics were found to help boost immune health, as researchers found that increasing probiotic intake helped reduce the risk of respiratory tract infections in children.46

Taking Probiotics for Vaginal Health

According to Lynne McFarland, an associate professor of medical chemistry at the University of Washington in Seattle, there’s no difference between a male and female gut microbiome, and that there’s no advantage on how a probiotic supplement can benefit either a man or a woman.47

The only exception to this proposition is the realm of reproductive health. Certain probiotic strains can benefit the vagina, which is inherently acidic and colonized with Lactobacillus. McFarland goes on to say that the Lactobacillus reuteri and Lactobacillus rhamnosus strains can benefit vaginal health.48,49

Probiotics for Diarrhea: Do They Work?

Diarrhea is a condition wherein you excrete loose, watery stools three or more times a day. An acute infection usually lasts for a couple of days, but chronic diarrhea, which can come and go, can last up to four weeks. Most common causes include:50

  • Consuming bacteria-contaminated food
  • Being exposed to viruses and parasites
  • Taking medications such as antibiotics and antacids

Diarrhea can cause an imbalance in your gut microbiome,51 so the logical answer to this problem is increasing your probiotic population to bring your gut flora health back to normal. A 2011 study notes that increasing probiotics in your digestive system (most notably Lactobacillus) can positively affect diarrhea.52 Studies published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research53 and Clinical Review54 share similar findings.

Probiotics for Urinary Tract Infections

A urinary tract infection (UTI) is a condition that arises when bacteria travel up the urinary system and multiply in the bladder. Commonly affected organs include the urethra and bladder, but the kidneys can fall to this disease as well.55

While taking antibiotics is the conventional way to treat UTI, probiotics can be a safe alternative especially if the pathogenic bacteria become resistant to antibiotics. In a 2006 study, researchers noted that restoration of Lactobacilli in the urogenital tract in women can help treat UTI. Strains found to be the most effective include Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14.56

Probiotics for Managing Bloating

Bloating is a condition wherein your belly feels full due to the buildup of gas, which is commonly caused by constipation. As stool stays longer in your intestines, the bacteria have more time to ferment, thus producing more gas than usual. Other causes of bloating include irritable bowel syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth and gastroparesis (delayed stomach emptying).57

If you’re experiencing bloating, probiotic supplementation may offer relief. Research published in Gastroenterology & Hepatology notes that probiotics, particularly the Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis strains, may help reduce the severity of bloating.58 Another study published in 2004 displays similar results.59

Probiotics and Pregnancy: Can the Two Mix Together?

Pregnancy can cause many microbial changes in a woman’s body,60 and the mother’s gut health can affect the baby’s well-being once delivered. Supplementing with probiotics during pregnancy may help return gut flora levels to normal and reduce the risk of health complications, such as preeclampsia, gestational diabetes mellitus and vaginal infections.61

The benefits of the probiotics may also extend beyond the mother’s body — another study notes that probiotic supplementation during pregnancy may also help lower the risk of eczema in newborn children.62

When Is the Best Time to Take Probiotics?

Timing is key when taking a probiotic supplement, as it can help maximize your product’s colonization abilities. Ideally, probiotic supplements are best taken on an empty stomach a couple of hours before your first meal, or after the final meal of your day. Minimizing intake of sugar and unhealthy foods also increases the effectiveness of the product.

But, if you’re currently taking an antibiotic due to a health condition, you may be better off taking a sporebiotic instead of a probiotic, in order to combat the drug’s side effects. A sporebiotic is a derivative of the Bacillus genus that makes use of spores to reestablish your gut microbiome. Once taken, it may enhance the other probiotics in your gut.

Probiotics Side Effects You Should Know About

The benefits of probiotic supplementation are documented by numerous studies, and the general consensus is that it is safe for most people. However, certain individuals can experience side effects, which are thankfully minor and easily manageable, such as:

  • Digestive discomfort — Bacteria-based probiotics can cause bloating and flatulence.63
  • Increased histamine levels — Certain probiotic strains can increase histamine production.64,65,66 When this occurs, blood vessels dilate and can cause redness and swelling in the skin, as well as triggering allergic reactions.67
  • Higher risk of infections — Under certain circumstances, probiotics may cause more harm than good. Probiotic strains can enter the bloodstream and cause sepsis,68,69 a life-threatening condition that can cause multiple organ damage.70

Probiotics may cause grave complications, such as sepsis, endocarditis and liver abscess, among severely ill or immunocompromised patients. If you’re currently suffering from any debilitating condition, consult with a doctor first.71

The Verdict: Probiotics Are Beneficial for You, but Choose Wisely

The vast amount of research regarding the benefits of probiotic supplementation (or probiotics in general) is a testament to how good bacteria are essential for optimal health. But before you head off to the local health store and grab the first probiotic supplement you find, here are some important purchasing tips:

  • Choose a company with a good track record of making high-quality products
  • The product should be manufactured while following current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP)
  • Look for a potency count of 50 billion or higher, which are the amounts of bacteria you will receive per dose
  • The package should be resealable to prevent spoilage of the product
  • The probiotics are not made with bioengineered ingredients
  • The probiotics indicated in the product should be diverse, or have multiple strains
  • Important strains to look for include Lactobacillus acidophilus and plantarum, and Bifidobacterium lactis, longum and bifidum

Frequently Asked Questions About Probiotics

Q: Are probiotics good for you?

A: Yes. There are many documented studies on how increasing probiotic intake can benefit your health, such as increasing iron levels,72 improving bioavailability of minerals73 and protecting brain from neuronal cell death.74

Q: Can probiotics cause diarrhea?

A: No. On the contrary, research suggests that probiotics may actually help lower the risk of diarrhea, or manage the symptoms if you already have it.75

Q: How long does it take for probiotics to work?

A: Within a couple of weeks, you may be able to see an improvement in your health once you start taking probiotics.76

Q: Are probiotics safe?

A: Probiotics are generally safe for most people to use. However, consult with a doctor first before taking a supplement to rule out possible complications.77

Q: Do probiotics cause gas?

A: Probiotics can cause gas and bloating, but the effects are only temporary.78

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