Probiotic yogurt is yogurt that has specifically been designed to include a high content of healthy bacteria. This yogurt can be used to improve your immune function, boost your antioxidant status, decrease risk factors for cardiovascular disease, treat gastrointestinal problems, and help your body improve its gut bacteria profile.
Probiotic yogurt is one of the original probiotic foods, and is increasingly being studied in medical research as a “functional food” to help people improve their health, thanks to these benefits.
Since the probiotic bacteria are actually growing in the yogurt itself, concentrations of bacteria are high and they have plenty of nutrients to use to grow and multiply. The right dose of probiotic yogurt delivers a dose of active bacteria that’s on par with the most highly concentrated probiotic supplements on the market, making it a powerful way to boost your body’s levels of probiotic bacteria.
Probiotic yogurt can boost your immune system. While you might normally think of your body’s immune system being situated in your bloodstream, a significant amount of your infection fighting ability is influenced by your digestive tract.
Initial research has found that, at least in some cases, taking probiotic yogurt can increase the functioning of your immune system. The first findings demonstrating this effect were on patients who were HIV-positive, and as a result, had a significantly reduced immune system.
One paper published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology in 2010 found that a probiotic yogurt increased levels of white blood cells among people who were living with the HIV virus (1).
When analyzing citizens of a village where HIV was prevalent, the researchers found that the HIV patients who consumed locally-made probiotic yogurt increased their white blood cell count faster than those who did not, even when controlling for use of prescription medication.
Other research published in the Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism found that these benefits extend to healthy people as well (2).
Consuming yogurt (probiotic or otherwise) was associated with a 10-25% increase in various kinds of immune cells in a group of healthy young women. This suggests that the immunity boosting benefits of probiotic yogurt don’t just bring sick people back to normal values; the yogurt can also increase overall immune function in healthy people.
Probiotic yogurt can help treat gastrointestinal problems. One of the first domains of health where probiotics were embraced as a medical treatment was in the treatment of digestive tract diseases linked to inflammation, like Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease.
The probiotic strains of bacteria contained in probiotic yogurt appear to offer substantial benefits both to people with these kinds of inflammatory digestive tract conditions and to people with more general gastrointestinal tract problems.
A study published by researchers at the University of Western Ontario in Canada looked at how patients with inflammatory bowel disease reacted to regular ingestion of probiotic yogurt (3).
In the study, 20 patients with digestive tract disease and 20 healthy people consumed probiotic yogurt for a month. The researchers found that the inflammatory bowel disease patients experienced a substantial boost in their anti-inflammatory levels, indicating promise as a treatment.
Probiotic yogurt can help heal your liver. Research on probiotics has extended to their abilities to improve liver function and assist in liver healing.
A study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology by doctors at the Medical College of Wisconsin investigated whether a probiotic yogurt supplement would improve liver function in a group of patients with cirrhosis, a disease involving scarring of the liver (4).
They randomly assigned patients to receive either a probiotic yogurt taken daily, or no treatment, and followed the patients over a period of 60 days. The researchers found that significantly more patients in the probiotic yogurt group experienced healing of their liver, and a reduction in biomarkers of liver inflammation, compared to the control group.
The researchers also found that compliance was very high in the probiotic yogurt group, which is often an issue when prescribing treatments for chronic diseases—with prescription medications, patients have a harder time remembering to take their medication and dislike the adverse effects.
This suggests that probiotic yogurt could be useful for all types of people with liver damage, and for diseases associated with liver damage like type 2 diabetes.
Probiotic yogurt can help reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease. The fact that probiotic yogurt reduces liver inflammation naturally leads to questions about whether it can help reduce other risk factors for chronic disease as well, as many of these factors are associated with inflammatory processes.
A study published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2011 tested the use of probiotic yogurt for reducing risk factors of cardiovascular disease among a group of patients with type 2 diabetes, a condition which markedly increases the risk of heart problems (5).
The researchers split the patients into two groups, one of which took 300 grams of probiotic yogurt with Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium lactis cultures, while the other receives no treatment and served as a control group.
The patients were followed over the course of six weeks, and the researchers measured levels of total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol throughout the study. They found that the probiotic yogurt group reduced their total cholesterol by an average of 4.5% and their LDL cholesterol by 7.5% compared to the control group.
Total cholesterol, and in particular, levels of LDL cholesterol, are strong predictors of cardiovascular disease: the higher your levels of LDL, especially relative to your total cholesterol, the greater your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Probiotic yogurt is a natural food, so its side effect profile is very minimal. There are really only two groups of people who should think twice about consuming probiotic yogurt.
The first is people who are lactose intolerant. While the presence of probiotic bacteria does assist with digesting the lactose in dairy products, people who are strongly intolerant to lactose might want to avoid taking probiotic yogurt, especially in large amounts, because it could cause gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas, and indigestion.
People who have a more mild form of lactose intolerance can often consume probiotic yogurt in smaller amounts and be just fine, as the levels of lactose in a fermented yogurt product are smaller than those in milk.
The other group of people who should seek medical advice before taking probiotic yogurt is people who have compromised immune systems.
This advice applies to all sources of probiotic bacteria, including regular probiotic supplements. In very rare cases, probiotic bacteria sources have led to infections in people with very weak immune systems, but this is not a risk for people who are otherwise healthy.
Research on probiotic yogurt is fairly new, and there haven’t been very many large clinical trials that set standardized doses.
Further, different brands of probiotic yogurt have different amounts of probiotic bacteria in them, so even a constant amount of yogurt might result in different levels of bacterial doses. Even so, most research so far has settled on a fairly constant 100 to 300 gram per day dose.
This appears high enough to get all of the benefits of probiotic yogurt, and while there isn’t enough research yet to know the optimal dose, we do know that 100 to 300 grams per day is an effective dose.
In terms of how long you need to take probiotic yogurt to get a therapeutic effect, most studies observe their subjects for four to six weeks. There’s less research on whether the benefits continue to accrue over longer periods of time, but expect a minimum of one month before you start seeing substantial results.
Q: What makes a probiotic yogurt better than regular yogurt?
A: Probiotic yogurt is specifically designed to have a large amount of bacterial cultures that are active and growing in the yogurt when you buy it and eat it.
Regular yogurt may have bacterial cultures, but not at the requisite levels needed for an effective probiotic yogurt. Many of the top brands have a “Live & Active Cultures” seal from the National Yogurt Association, which guarantees that there at least 100 million live cultures per gram of yogurt.
Furthermore, these active cultures must come fro specific bacteria strains that are known to be beneficial for your health. At a standard dose used in a clinical study (100 to 300 grams), this would result in 10 to 30 billion active cultures of bacteria, which is on par with many of the best probiotic supplements.
Q: What should I look for in a probiotic yogurt?
As noted above, strive for a brand with a “Live & Active Cultures” seal, or a similar independent certification attesting to the level of probiotic bacteria present in the yogurt.
In addition, watch out for levels of added sugars. Some brands, especially flavored yogurts, include a lot of extra sugar, which is not healthy for you. While the official FDA rules regarding listing added sugar amounts has been indefinitely delayed, many companies already have adapted to the new nutrition label rules that require the explicit listing of “added sugars.”
Check the serving size and examine how much added sugar you’d get if you consumed half a cup or one cup of probiotic yogurt—the amount should be below 25 grams of added sugar, ideally, as this is the limit of added sugar in your diet recommended by the American Heart Association (6).
According to Harvard Health Publishing, you should also check the amount of protein in your probiotic yogurt (7). Yogurt products vary substantially in their protein content, due to different processing techniques and fermentation.
Greek yogurt typically has the highest levels of protein; these can be over three times as high as some other types of yogurt. If you are using yogurt as part of a diet for weight loss, the high protein content will increase your feelings of satiety, or fullness, which will help you eat less at future meals.
Q: Do I have to keep probiotic yogurt refrigerated?
A: Yes, in order to preserve the probiotic bacterial cultures (and to prevent the growth of other bacteria that is not beneficial for your health) you need to keep probiotic yogurt in a refrigerated environment.
According to research published in the International Journal of Dairy Technology, probiotic yogurt preserves the viability of its bacterial cultures best when stored at temperatures between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius, or 36 to 47 degrees Fahrenheit.
Q: How long does probiotic yogurt stay good?
A: When stored at the appropriate temperature, probiotic yogurt preserves its quality for at least 20 days. That’s according to research published by a team of scientists in Lebanon in LWT Food Science and Technology, a scientific journal (8).
However, the shelf life of probiotic yogurt declines rapidly if it’s stored outside its optimal temperature range. Higher temperatures in your refrigerator can cut this shelf life in half or more. If you notice your probiotic yogurt going bad, use a thermometer to check the temperature inside your refrigerator to see if it’s too warm.
Q: How much probiotic yogurt should I eat?
A: The best studies so far use doses of 100 to 300 grams of probiotic yogurt per day, but unless you have a food scale handy, it’s hard to figure out how much yogurt you need to hit that dosage.
Fortunately, one cup of yogurt weighs about 250 grams, so it’s an easy threshold for figuring out the right serving size of probiotic yogurt.
Probiotic yogurt is a natural and tasty way to boost your immune system, heal your liver, lower your risk for cardiovascular disease, and treat gastrointestinal symptoms.
The most effective dose is between 100 and 300 grams per day, and consuming one cup of probiotic yogurt is enough to get close to the high end of this recommended dose.
Look for a brand of probiotic yogurt that has a certification for “Live & Active Cultures,” as this means it meets minimum requirements for levels of healthy bacteria. Check to make sure that your chosen probiotic yogurt is high in protein and low in added sugars, especially if you are incorporating it into a diet for weight loss.
Though it may take up to a month for you to start seeing significant health benefits, probiotic yogurt is a very easy way to improve your gut bacteria makeup and therefore your overall health.