The importance of probiotics
Cultivating friendly bacteria in the gut through eating foods and taking supplements that provide probiotics can help you lose weight, bump up immune function, improve your digestion, and even cut your risk of developing chronic diseases. (1, 2)
The importance of having a healthy gut doesn’t always get the attention it deserves, but research indicates it is just as vital as food choices, good sleep and exercise.
We have ten times as many bacteria in our bodies as we do cells, and most of them live in the gut.
When these microorganisms are happy, we enjoy health benefits; when bacterial colonies aren’t thriving, we may suffer a range of negative effects. (3)
Certain types of yeast can also act as probiotics, but most of the conditioning required for keeping the gut healthy is performed by colonies of bacteria.
Probiotics can be taken in supplement form, and may also be ingested by eating foods prepared through fermentation processes that encourage the growth of friendly bacteria.
Some popular fermented foods include kefir, kimchee, sauerkraut, tempeh and yogurt.
You may also be familiar with prebiotics, which are dietary fibers that actually feed friendly gut bacteria. (4)
Researchers have identified dozens of types of bacteria known to impart health benefits; two common groups include bifodobacterium and lactobacillus, which are further broken down into sub-species. Within these species, many more individual strains exist.
Each kind of probiotic appears to affect different aspects of overall health, so selecting the right type or combination of types is important.
Supplements that contain several types of probiotic are known as multi-probiotics, or broad-spectrum.
The study of how probiotics affect health is relatively new, so evidence regarding some of the potential benefits may not be conclusive at this time. (5)
How Microorganisms Work in the Gut
Communities of bacteria live mostly in the large intestine; this is the final stretch of the digestive tract we refer to as the colon.
These “gut flora” are made up of hundreds, or possibly thousands, of different types of bacteria, viruses and yeast, although there are more bacteria than other kinds of microorganisms. (6)
The way these communities work together metabolically is similar to an organ. For example, gut flora manufactures some of the B vitamins as well as vitamin K. (7)
It can also turn fiber into short-chain fatty acids that perform other functions, such as feeding the gut wall and activating the immune system. (8)
Bacterial communities work to maintain the integrity of gut wall, which is vital in preventing substances in the colon from leaking into other parts of the body and stimulating an immune response. (9, 10, 11)
Besides friendly bacteria, harmful gut flora also exist, and when the balance gets out of whack, it can lead to diseases like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, colorectal cancer and many more. (12, 13, 14, 15)
Both prebiotics and probiotics can help correct imbalance and insure optimal function of gut flora. (16)
The Effect of Probiotics on Digestive Health
This is the area where the most research has been done on probiotics, especially in regard to diarrhea associated with taking antibiotics. (17)
Diarrhea often occurs after a course of antibiotics is taken to treat a medical condition, and can persist for long periods of time. Antibiotics eradicate many bacteria in the gut, and this can shift the balance so bad bacteria dominate and thrive.
Many studies indicate probiotics can cure this problem (18, 19), as well as being effective in reducing bloating, gas, constipation, and other intestinal problems, including symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). (20, 21)
Probiotics can assist in treating ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease (22), and may also help fight helicobactor pylori infections, which are caused by the bacteria that leads to ulcers and raises the risk of stomach cancer. (23)
Anyone who has digestive issues that have been difficult to resolve might consider taking a probiotic supplement.
Other Health Benefits Associated with Probiotics
If you’re carrying around a significant amount of extra weight, chances are your gut flora are different than someone who is thin or of normal weight. (24)
Researchers playing with this concept transplanted gut flora from thin animals into obese animals, and the result was dramatic: fat animals began to lose weight. (25)
Data from a study conducted in 2013 with more than 200 people suffering from central obesity (large amounts of belly fat) offered encouraging results: over three months, participants taking the probiotic lactobacillus gasseri had an average decrease of 8.5% in belly fat mass. (28)
It took only a month for test subjects to gain back the belly fat they lost after they stopped taking the probiotic.
Another study indicated that Bifidobacterium and lactobacillus ramnosis may help in preventing obesity and supporting weight loss. (29)
The use of probiotics has been associated with improvements in a range of other health conditions, including:
- Drops in blood pressure for patients with hypertension (30)
- A reduction of systemic inflammation (31)
- Enhanced immune system function (32)
- Lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol measurements (33)
- Improvements in skin conditions such as rosacea, acne and eczema (34)
- Reduced symptoms in patients suffering from depression and anxiety (treated with these strains: bifidobacterium longum and lactobacillus helveticus) (35)
Potential health benefits resulting from these effects may include a decreased risk of developing chronic Western diseases like autoimmune diseases, mental disorders, arthritis and heart disease. Further research is likely to reveal even more health advantages associated with healthy gut flora.
Side Effects and Dosage
Taking probiotics is completely safe for most people, though some experience digestive side effects during the first few days; abdominal discomfort, bloating and gas are the most common problems. (36)
Improved digestion usually follows these initial symptoms.
Those with compromised immune systems, such as patients diagnosed with AIDS or HIV, have had issues with infection after taking probiotics, and anyone with a medical condition should talk with a doctor before making a decision about supplementing. (37)
If you’re looking to treat a specific health issue, it’s important to do your homework and find out which strains of probiotics have been successful in specific applications; always purchase probiotics from a trusted manufacturer.
Summary: Providing assistance to your body for cultivating friendly gut bacteria in the form of probiotics can be helpful in improving a range of health conditions, including immune system function, weight management, depression and systemic inflammation.