These days, probiotics seem to be everywhere - touted in the soft-serve at your local fro-yo joint and the kimchi on your fancy-schmancy sandwich. But unlike with some other nutritional trends, there's solid research confirming probiotics' benefits. "We all live on a bandwidth of health," says Colin Hill, Ph.D., president of the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics. "Probiotics can shift you in the right direction or delay a progression in the wrong direction, especially if you take them prophylactically." In other words, this is one bandwagon worth jumping on.
To put it simply, probiotics are live microorganisms, such as strains of bacteria, that in adequate amounts give you a health benefit. They can be developed and grown in a lab and put in pills, powder, yogurt, or other foods or drinks. When probiotics are present in your gut, they act like peacekeepers, helping to restore order and keep things humming. And scientists are finding that using probiotics to tinker with the gut's bacteria balance may offer a new way of treating illness and keeping people healthy.
They take up temporary residence in your gut. Probiotics don't move in permanently - you have to keep consuming them for maximum benefits. It requires about five days of habitual ingestion for probiotics to build up a presence, says Daniel J. Merenstein, M.D., a probiotics expert and an associate professor of family medicine at Georgetown University. (Taking them in less frequently may help a little.)
They suss out the environment. Probiotics are smart. "Some of the ones that help with diarrhea also help with constipation. We think they go in, figure out what's needed and respond by either downregulating inflammation or upregulating your immune response," says Gregor Reid, Ph.D., director of the Canadian Research & Development Centre for Probiotics.
They negotiate with "terrorists." Most pathogens don't want to do real harm; they're happy to just eat and hang out. In layman's terms, probiotics might say, "We'll let you live, but you can't release your toxin." Then they might produce compounds that prevent a toxin's release, rendering bad bugs harmless, Reid says.
They improve the gut's barrier. "In your gut, only one layer of cells stands between you and death," Reid says. Although dramatic, that accurately describes your GI tract's ultrathin barrier, which allows nutrients from food to pass through and repels toxins. If that barrier is disrupted, pathogens could enter your bloodstream, making you very sick. Probiotics tighten the binding between cells and may stimulate mucus production, shoring up the barrier and making it difficult for problematic bugs to wreak havoc.
They clean up the slime. "In the case of an infection, bacteria often create a biofilm, which is like the slime that builds up on the underside of a boat. Certain probiotics produce a soaplike material that breaks up that film," Reid says.
They starve out pathogens. Since they compete with the bad guys for food, probiotics keep harmful bacteria in check by making it hard for them to thrive.
Two of the biggest reasons to take probiotics are to prevent or manage GI issues and to lower your odds of catching a bug. "If you're traveling or stressed, or not eating or sleeping well, that's when you'll notice that probiotics really work," Dr. Merenstein says. But newer research suggests that probiotics also have the potential to help prevent or treat other conditions, such as high cholesterol, allergies, and even anxiety. Probiotics have such far-reaching effects because your gut does, too: It houses more nerve endings than any place in the body (besides the brain), and it's ground zero for your immune system's function.
As you may know, to build a strong immune system, people need exposure to a wide variety of microorganisms, something modern-day Americans don't typically get. Plus, we use antimicrobials - found in some soaps and even toothpaste - that kill good bacteria as well as bad. Probiotics may fill the gap, says Hill. And unlike disease-causing germs, probiotics create almost no harmful side effects (some people experience gas or a change in bowel movements). Nearly everyone can take probiotics, but if you have a digestive disorder such as leaky gut or celiac disease, talk to a doctor first.
There don’t seem to be any risks associated with probiotics that can harm you or cause any long-term discomfort, but research has shown that they may increase bloating or gas depending on the strain and your personal response to it. Of course, if you have any food or drug allergy you’ll want to check the label and ingredients list carefully to minimize your risk of a reaction or potential sensitivity to cross-contamination with an ingredient to which you’re allergic.
There’s no single food or supplement that can help you lose weight, period. But with that in mind, the study of probiotics and obesity is promising, though the specific link not entirely clear. That’s because there are a few main ways that our weight status and our gut bacteria may be connected, and various factors that can be at play: Dietary factors that can lead to weight gain over time may also be factors in changing your gut microbiome, and there may be specific DNA linked to increasing your risk of obesity-which makes it difficult to determine exactly what influences which outcomes, and genetic susceptibility to obesity and other chronic diseases. Some interesting (and developing) areas of research include the the relationship of your gut bacteria to appetite hormones and how much energy in the form of calories you personally will absorb based on this layer of bacteria in your digestive tract.
Taking probiotics as a supplement has been linked to treating intestinal infections, chronic disease risk, depression and anxiety, inflammatory bowel disease, and obesity, as well as an intervention reducing the duration of the common cold. However, there are still risks associated with taking probiotics in the form of a supplement, and there’s a lot more research that needs to be done on the subject before any universal recommendation can be made for everyone across the board.
The main benefit to be found in getting and maintaining probiotics in your GI tract seems to be linked to the diversity of strains, especially when it comes to decreasing risk of chronic disease. The good news: Since food, too, can provide the much-needed diversity to keep your body’s own probiotics in abundance, eating a variety of prebiotic and probiotic foods is the only tried and true way to give your GI tract that much-needed help it needs to function optimally. When consumed together, prebiotics and probiotics are called symbiotics, working hand-in-hand to help with digestion and absorption, as well as production of metabolic byproducts that can be used for various immune functions and inflammation-fighting pathways.
That said, there are some indications in which taking a supplement that provides a variety of different probiotic strains can help you boost your body’s own defenses, e.g., a stomach bug that wipes out your GI bacteria (both good and bad) or certain medications you’ve recently taken (like antibiotics), but much of the research has indicated that your response to taking a probiotic in supplement form can have varying effects, and depends highly on your genetic makeup and the composition of your gut bacteria. In other words: It’s super individualized and you may find tremendous relief (or none at all!).
Check with your doc before adding any new supplement, including probiotics. Since specific strains have been linked to specific benefits, you’ll want to consult with your doc before starting anything new or adding a supplement to your daily regimen. That’s for two reasons, specifically: First, dietary supplements aren’t overseen by the FDA, meaning there’s no guarantee that, across the board, you’ll get exactly what you’ve paid for. Nor is there a guarantee that the strains of bacteria, amount of colony forming units (CFU’s) and symptom relief or efficacy for you, personally, will be realized. That’s why we recommend focusing on foods, first, to reap the best benefits of probiotics and prebiotics from a variety of nutritious, delicious sources that come without risks and can only serve to help benefit your immune system overall.
You can consume probiotics from fermented foods and drinks (miso, tempeh, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha) and dairy products (yogurt, kefir, fermented milk, some cheeses). Look for at least five strains of live and active cultures, as listed on the ingredients’ list. Unsweetened Greek yogurt has the benefit of providing both a variety of cultures (and therefore, has a greater chance of helping to diversify and essentially feed your body’s existing probiotics), and since it’s higher in protein than many other probiotic and prebiotic containing foods, it’ll help you stay fuller, longer.
Probiotics are being added from everything from sugary beverages to candy, but the more processed versions are never ideal.
These aren't bacteria at all, but rather naturally-occurring soluble fibers (such as inulin and oligofructose) that feed the good bacteria already living in your gut, helping them survive and thrive. You can find them i(100% whole-grains like oats, barley, bran; various fruits, artichokes, asparagus, onions, shallots, garlic, leeks, all legumes and pulses). Eating more of these foods has been linked to reducing your risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, some cancers, and type II diabetes.