When many of us think about bacteria, we tend to view them as germs that are harmful to our bodies and that might make us sick. However, a whopping 39-300 trillion bacteria live inside of us – mostly in the gut. Most of these bacteria in the gut are harmless, and some are even beneficial. The key is to have the right balance of “friendly” bacteria: enter probiotic supplements. Read on to find out everything you need to know about probiotics in our complete guide below. 

Close up of man pouring supplements from a jar into hand

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics consist of microorganisms that belong to the “friendly” bacteria category. We can find them in supplements and some foods, such as yogurt. These microorganisms are similar to the bacteria that naturally live in our bodies. People take probiotic supplements to help introduce more “helpful” bacteria into the gut to balance out gut bacteria. People also take them for the variety of health benefits that they may offer. Probiotics are usually live bacteria, but there are some types of yeast that can also work as probiotics. 

What are the most common types of probiotic bacteria?

The most common type of bacteria and yeasts found in probiotics belong to these groups:

  • Lactobacillus: You might recognize the words L. Acidophilus or Lactobacillus Acidophilus from your yogurt label. That’s because this is probably the most common type of probiotic found in supplements. It helps to break down lactose found in dairy products. L. Acidophilus is just one of the strains that belong to the Lactobacillus genus of bacteria. Probiotic supplements may consist of a combination of different strains of these bacteria. 
  • Bifidobacteria: This is another common family of bacteria used in probiotics. They are naturally found in our intestines and may help to digest fiber. Although they are beneficial for the body, one study suggests that they make up less than 10% of our microbiome. 
  • Saccharomyces boulardii: Sometimes called S. boulardii, this is actually a type of yeast that acts as a probiotic in the body. Saccharomyces boulardii may help with digestive issues such as diarrhea. 
Most Common Probiotics: Lactobacillus, Bifidobacteria, S. Boulardii

The importance of microorganisms for your gut

So now that you’ve learned a little more about what probiotics are, you may be wondering why they’re so important for your gut health. All the different types of microorganisms, or microbes, exist in the gut and make up what is called the gut microbiome, gut flora, or gut microbiota. They work together, essentially functioning as an additional organ in the human body. 

This microbiome has several important functions in the body. This includes creating vitamin K and some B vitamins. It may also, for example, play a role in supporting the immune function in the body. The gut flora also helps to transform fiber into short-chain fats, including butyrate and acetate. These fats help to strengthen and support the gut wall which is important for digestive, and overall, health. 

We can play a part in impacting our gut microbiota. This is because it’s influenced by what we consume. Eating whole grains, probiotics, and fermented foods and including a diverse range of foods in the diet can help to diversify the bacteria and microbes in the gut. This can have a positive impact on the gut.

Where do beneficial probiotics (microbes) live in my body?

The majority of the microbes in our bodies exist in the gut. Some also live on our skin, mouth, and lungs. Most of our gut microbes live in the cecum, a pocket-like section of the large intestine. 

How Do Probiotics Work?

People take probiotics to help maintain the balance between the “good” and “bad” bacteria in the gut. Having more “good” bacteria in the body can help to support immune function and inflammatory responses. The purpose of probiotics is also to introduce more “helpful” microbes into the body after an imbalance. This might be, for example after taking antibiotics which causes a loss in bacteria. 

Can I get probiotics from food?

Some foods contain probiotics either naturally or have had probiotics added to them. Fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, kefir, kombucha, pickles, and sourdough bread. Those who do not frequently include fermented foods in their diets might consider taking a probiotic supplement instead. 

5 Probiotic-Rich Foods: Yogurt, Kimchi, Miso Soup, Pickles, Sourdough

How do I take a probiotic supplement?

You can take probiotic supplements either on an empty stomach or with food, depending on the manufacturer’s instructions. They may come in the form of capsules, powders, tablets, lozenges, beads, or liquids. Some research suggests that capsules and beads are among the most effective methods of taking probiotics. This is because they are better able to withstand digestive acids. Therefore, they are more likely to deliver the probiotics where they need to go. 

How effective are probiotics?

The efficacy of probiotics varies from person to person. Some people find that taking probiotic supplements offers a variety of benefits for their digestive and general health. One important factor that may impact how effective probiotics are is consistency. Those who take probiotics on a regular basis may benefit more from them rather than those who only take them every now and then. 

Woman holding a glass of water and a tablet

Health Benefits of Probiotics

There are several health benefits that a probiotic may offer to those who use them consistently. 

Impact on Digestive Health:

A poor diet, certain medications, and underlying health conditions may be factors that contribute to an unbalanced gut microbiome. Probiotics may positively impact digestive health because they offer a way of introducing “beneficial” bacteria into the gut. Certain types of probiotic strains might be beneficial in easing symptoms of diarrhea, bloating, and other digestive issues. Some people take them to help regulate their digestion.

There has also been more research conducted on the connection between gut health and immune function. Paying attention to digestive health might be one way to help support a healthy immune system. You can read more about how to help keep your immune system balanced here.  

Impact on Weight Loss:

If you’re wondering if probiotics can magically make you lose weight, the straight answer is no. More research is needed to fully grasp the connection between probiotics and weight loss. However, some studies suggest that there may be a connection between gut flora and weight management. Others indicate that some strains of probiotics may have effects on weight regulation when used in combination with a healthy diet and exercise. 

Can I use probiotics to help with medical conditions?

If you have a pre-existing medical condition, it is always advisable to discuss the use of supplements with your physician before you begin using them. This is also the case with probiotics since they are categorized as dietary supplements

Do I need to take probiotics after I take antibiotics?

Like with any medication, it’s best to discuss the use of probiotics after a course of antibiotics with your doctor. Some may recommend using probiotics because antibiotics work by destroying the bacteria in your gut, both “good” and “bad”. They might suggest taking probiotics afterward because they may help to introduce the “good” bacteria that was lost back into the gut. 

Safety and Possible Side Effects of Probiotics

If you are unfamiliar with probiotics, you might have questions about their possible side effects. Most of the time, adults in good health experience limited side effects of probiotic supplements. Some people may experience possible side effects of probiotics such as increased gas, bloating, and constipation. However, these effects are typically experienced by first-time users or people who have had a long break. Because of this, these side effects are usually only temporary. It is important to always check the ingredients prior to use. Side effects may also occur for some people if the product in question contains an allergen. 

How safe are probiotics?

Probiotic supplements are generally considered to be safe when used by healthy adults who don’t have underlying illnesses. It is important to take the product according to the instructions provided on the label. It also might be a good idea to discuss the use of probiotics with your doctor if you aren’t sure whether or not they are suitable for you. 

Can I give probiotics to my kids?

Some companies formulate probiotic supplements specifically for children. However, it is always best to discuss giving your child probiotics with their pediatrician first. 

Are there any storage instructions for probiotics?

Some types of probiotics might be sensitive to external factors such as heat, light, humidity, and oxygen. Because some strains are more fragile, they might break down or die if they are exposed to these elements. Some probiotic supplement brands recommend refrigerating the probiotics so that they last longer. Always be sure to double-check and follow the storage instructions provided on the product label. It is also advisable to check the label for the expiration date so that you aren’t using expired products as these may be less effective. 

The Bottom Line: Should I try probiotic supplements?

Here’s a quick rundown of what we’ve covered in our guide to probiotics:

  • Consist of microorganisms that are considered “good” bacteria
  • They may help to balance the gut microbiome 
  • People use probiotics for health benefits that may include supporting digestive health and inflammatory responses
  • There are many types and strains of probiotics, the most common ones include strains from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria groups 
  • Fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi also contain probiotics
  • Probiotic supplements can come in many forms including capsules, pills, or tablets
  • Remember to check the label for instructions on suggested use, proper storage, and expiration dates 

With all that in mind, if you want to try out probiotics it might be a good idea to discuss it at your next doctor’s appointment. You might be wondering how to choose the right probiotic supplement for yourself. We’ve made it easy for you – check out the top probiotic supplement for digestive and gut health in 2020

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