What Are Probiotics?

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are living microorganisms such as bacteria and yeasts that help to maintain a balanced environment inside your body. They are also known as ‘good bacteria’ or ‘helpful bacteria’ because even though they are bacteria, they do not cause you harm. Instead, they maintain a healthy environment to prevent the build-up of bad bacteria which can cause illnesses and diseases. 

They are particularly important in your gut, providing your body with extra resilience against digestive disorders and reducing symptoms of digestive conditions, but also have a range of other benefits that can benefit your whole body.

There are many different ways you can introduce probiotics into your lifestyle. You may even consume them already without knowing. They are present in some foods such as yogurts and sauerkraut, or you can take a probiotic supplement that suits your personal needs. There are hundreds of different options for you to choose from. But if you are still not clear on how you can benefit from probiotics, then we have compiled this guide to answer all of your questions.

What Do Probiotics Do?

Probiotic supplements replenish and maintain the levels of good bacteria in your gut. This in turn improves your immunity and resilience against bad bacteria which can cause unpleasant symptoms and make you unwell.

There are many different strains of probiotic available. A common one is Bifidobacterium, which you can find in some dairy products such as yoghurt. You may find that this strain of probiotic can help soothe your symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

It is also thought that probiotics can affect the nerves which control gut movement. This enables them to ease symptoms of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and various causes of diarrhoea. There is also some research that has shown that taking certain probiotics can benefit your skin condition, urinary and vaginal health and improving your resilience against illnesses such as the common cold.

How Do Probiotics Work?

How Do They Work?

All of the microorganisms in your body, and in particular in your gut, form what is known as a microbiome. This is essentially the environment they live in and therefore create. Each one of us has a different population balance in our own microbiome, dictated in part by our genetics, lifestyle and health. The population balance of our microbiome can, therefore, affect our health – both long term and short term.

The more ‘good bacteria’ there are in our microbiome, the harder it is for ‘bad bacteria’ to flourish, and therefore our guts are more resilient against illness. This means that we are better able to prevent tummy upsets and even reduce the severity of symptoms caused by illnesses such as common colds.

Some good bacteria are already present in our bodies, but often they could do with their numbers being increased. Illnesses such as stomach bugs or food poisoning can cause a rapid decrease in the good bacteria in your gut by stripping them out when you have sickness and diarrhea. Similarly, stress can affect the population balance of good bacteria, as can a poor diet. Therefore, taking a probiotic supplement and increasing the probiotic-rich foods in your diet can greatly increase the numbers of good bacteria in your microbiome. This will replenish the good bacteria quicker after illness, reduce the severity and duration of your symptoms when illness does take hold, and even improve your immunity against such conditions by keeping the good bacteria at a steady level.

There is one theory that names the appendix as a store of healthy bacteria. The function of this otherwise seemingly redundant organ has widely been debated. It is thought that it may be a store of the good bacteria so that the microbiome can be essentially rebooted after an illness. While this is not proven, it is worth considering other ways that you can replenish your guts good bacteria, particularly if you have had your appendix removed.

Are Prebiotics The Same?

Prebiotics are slightly different to probiotics, but often you will see them incorporated into the probiotic supplements. While probiotics are the good bacteria themselves, prebiotics are the non-digestible food elements that enable the probiotics to flourish.

When you think about it, this makes complete sense. Probiotics are living organisms; therefore they need food. While we cannot digest fiber, the probiotic organisms thrive on its nourishment. The greater the amount of prebiotic available for the probiotics to eat, the more efficiently the bacteria will work and therefore the healthier your gut will be.

As we mentioned before, prebiotics are often included in your probiotic supplement (though not always), but you can give your probiotic even more chance of working by ensuring you are eating plenty of fruits and vegetables to provide extra fibers. You will also want to cut down on high starch or sugary foods, which can promote the growth of bad bacteria. Prebiotic foods include:

  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Garlic

  • Onions
  • Leeks
  • Jerusalem artichoke

Do Probiotics Prevent Illness?

Does It Help Illness?

There are many studies which have found that taking probiotics can improve your immunity and resilience against many illnesses. As well as improving your digestive function and reducing the chances of stomach upsets, taking probiotics can even help to ward off illnesses such as the common cold, or reduce the severity of symptoms.

Probiotics can work wonders for your immune system, boosting your resilience against infection and in turn improving your overall health and wellbeing. However, just because you are taking probiotics doesn’t mean that you are immediately going to avoid all illnesses. For example, probiotics may not be able to prevent you from picking up potent viruses, but you may find that your symptoms are less severe or not as long-lasting. Taking probiotics can have long-term benefits, but you may not notice benefits immediately after taking them

If you are keen to prevent illnesses, here are some ways you can cut down your risk, alongside taking probiotics:

  • Practice basic hygiene – wash your hands after using the bathroom and before eating or handling food. Using soap and water is very effective at washing germs away.
  • Use hand sanitizer – it isn’t as effective as washing your hands, but if you haven’t got access to a sink, then alcohol gel is a good compromise, particularly in places such as hospitals.
  • Cook food thoroughly – undercooked meat such as ground beef is one of the leading causes of E. coli. You should also prevent cross-contamination such as raw chicken to other foods.
  • Keep your surroundings clean – if someone is unwell in your home, be vigilant about cleaning surfaces and common items to try and minimize the spread to other people.
  • Get vaccinated – vaccines such as flu shots are developed for a reason – to prevent the spread of disease. Follow physicians’ advice and get your shots regularly.
  • Close the lid when you flush – flushing the toilet creates aerosol plumes which can travel up to 15 feet (4.5m), meaning it can spread germs to your face and around your bathroom.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet – eat plenty of protein, and vitamins to boost your immune system to ward off bugs and cut back on sugary foods that enable bad bacteria to thrive.
  • Don’t over-do prevention precautions – it is possible to compromise your immunity by not exposing yourself to enough bugs which enable you to build up your immune system.

Using Probiotics When Travelling

Probiotics Whilst Travelling

When you are going away for a well-earned vacation, the last thing you want is for it to be ruined by you being unwell. Sadly, tummy upsets are a common occurrence during vacations, where changes in food, climate and hygiene standards can play havoc with our bowels. It can even affect you if you are traveling to a well-developed country where the water balance may be different from what you are used to.

Many studies, such as those reviewed in this meta-analysis have found that taking probiotics in the run-up to and during traveling can prevent and reduce the severity of traveler’s diarrhea. Many different strains of probiotics have been reviewed for there efficiency, but Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum are two which were found to have significant efficacy. Across the 12 studies reviewed in the meta-analysis, no adverse reactions were reported from taking the probiotics.

Can Probiotics Help With Acne?

Acne

There has not been a great deal of research into the benefit of probiotics for acne yet, but the limited research there has been so far has given promising results. It is thought that the role of probiotics in influencing inflammation, lipid content of tissues and glycaemic control can have a beneficial effect on the treatment of acne. Similarly, probiotics have been found to be linked to a reduction of the symptoms of eczema.

What And Who Are Probiotics Good For?

Who Are Probiotics Good For?

In addition to keeping your digestive system working efficiently and comfortably, probiotics can also give you many more benefits, including:

  • Reducing the severity of allergies
  • Improving some mental health conditions
  • Reducing cholesterol
  • Lowering your blood pressure
  • Reducing the reoccurrence of UTIs
  • Aiding your metabolism

Do Probiotics Help With Weight Loss?

Weight Loss?

There is varied evidence that shows a relationship between taking probiotics and weight loss. Not all strains of probiotics are beneficial for weight loss, but one study, in particular, found that when taking a certain strain of probiotic – Lactobacillus rhamnosus, women successfully lost weight, while men did not. Many different studies have considered the different mechanisms by which probiotics can help you to lose weight. They have found that probiotics can:

  • Help you to feel fuller for longer
  • Prevent the absorption of dietary fat
  • Burn more calories

However, certain strains of probiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus may lead to weight gain in some people. More studies are needed to determine relationships between probiotics and weight control, but you can often read on the packaging of the probiotic you choose to find out whether the particular strains it contains may be beneficial for weight loss.

How Probiotics Benefit Women

Probiotics For Women

Some illnesses strike women more than men – for example, urinary tract infections (UTIs). This nasty infection is painful and can spread to other parts of your body causing even more serious kidney infections. It is usually treated with antibiotics, but frustratingly it often recurs after the first incidence, even after antibiotic treatment. Studies have found that using a probiotic can reduce the recurrence of UTIs.

Probiotics can also prevent and reduce the reoccurrence of thrush. Thrush often occurs when there is an imbalance between the good and bad bacteria, for example after antibiotic treatment. High-sugar diets also increase your risk of thrush. While probiotics are not a fast-acting treatment, they are a long-term solution for preventing it. It is worth considering, however, that as thrush thrives on sugar, using sugary yogurt as your source of probiotic may not be the right answer in this situation. Instead, consider choosing a probiotic supplement specifically tailored to women’s health.

If you are interested in finding out more about the best probiotics for women, have a read of our review of what we think are the best products available to decide which one can help you.

Can You Take Probiotics While Pregnant?

The American Pregnancy Association states that it is probably safe to take probiotics during pregnancy. However, there are hundreds of different brands available and there is limited research into the effects of taking probiotics in pregnancy and therefore it cannot be deemed completely safe. From the limited research that there is, the NLM and NIH decided that appears to be no risk for pregnant or lactating mothers in taking probiotics. However, it is a good idea to consult with your midwife or obstetrician before taking probiotics, particularly if you have not taken them before.

How Probiotics Benefit Men

Probiotics For Men

While men can also enjoy the benefit of reduced risk of UTIs, they already affect men less. However, there are still plenty of ways that probiotics can benefit men in addition to the improvements in gut-health. For example, there are studies which have found that taking probiotics can reduce pylori, which is a bacterium which can lead to the development of ulcers.

According to an article on NHS Choices, a study has found men are more susceptible to type 2 diabetes and that they can develop it with a far lower BMI than women. It is therefore of great benefit that probiotics can help your body to manage healthy blood-sugar levels. Some studies have found that even after just one month of taking probiotics, you can experience healthy blood sugar levels.

By improving the balance of your microbiome, you can improve your overall health, so it is unsurprising that it can lead to an improvement in hormone levels. This can, in turn, boost your reproductive health and therefore your fertility.

If you are interested in finding out more about the best probiotics for men, visit our review of what we consider to be the top products available, so see which would suit you best.

How To Take Probiotics

How To Take Them

If you are going to start taking probiotics supplements, then you may as well give them the best chance of working. As we have already mentioned, you can begin by ensuring that you have a healthy diet. In particular, you need to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables to give the probiotics lots of fiber to nourish them and help them to flourish. Cutting back on processed, sugary and other carbohydrate foods will also make it a less pleasant environment for bad bacteria.

When Is The Best Time To Take Probiotics?

Most probiotics are taken daily, but you should check the dosage requirements on the packet of the type that you choose as some may vary. For probiotics that are taken daily, it is a good idea to take them at roughly the same time of day each time. This not only means you are more likely to get into a routine and therefore not forget a dose but also it means there is steady dosing of the probiotic, rather than irregular spaces in between supplements.

How Often Should I Take Probiotics?

Regarding probiotic supplements, follow the manufacturer’s guidance on how often and how many capsules to take closely. Often it will be one capsule once per day, but this may vary. Try not to skip a dose of probiotic, but don’t worry if you do miss the occasional one – it is not as much of a problem as when you are taking medications.

On the other hand, if you are incorporating probiotics like miso into your diet, have them as often as you want! But remember to be mindful of sugar or salt contents of dietary probiotics!

Should I Take Probiotics On An Empty Stomach?

Once again, it is always best to read the information provided by the manufacturers of the probiotic supplement that you are taking to ensure you are following the correct instructions too. Over the years there has been some conflicting advice about whether to take your probiotics with food or on an empty stomach.

The basis of most of these conflicting ideas is the effect that your stomach acid has on the probiotic. When you eat, the pH of your stomach acid changes, resulting in a different receiving environment for supplements. However, most probiotic supplements are enteric-coated, which means they are coated in a polymer barrier which prevents the supplement being broken down in your stomach.

A study in 2011 found that the survival of probiotic bacteria was best when given with a meal or half an hour before. Survival was significantly higher for those taken with a meal (milk and oatmeal) compared to those that were taken with water or apple juice. This suggests that a good time to take your probiotic may be soon before you have breakfast, but read and follow your product-specific instructions first.

How To Store Probiotics Correctly

As important as your decision about when to take your probiotics is knowing how to store it. It is important to remember that the probiotics are living organisms, so incorrect storage can damage and kill them, rendering them useless. Many probiotics now are known as shelf-stable, which means they have been formulated to be able to be kept at room temperature, without becoming damaged.

However, some probiotics must be kept in the fridge, even before they are opened, and this is so important that they are shipped with a cooling pack to keep them cool during transit! Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions on how to store your probiotic, as they may vary slightly.

Another consideration for probiotics that you don’t have to keep in the fridge is ensuring they are stored out of direct sunlight and not in a humid environment. You may find that your probiotic is contained in a colored bottle to prevent damage from light, but even then, consider keeping it in a cupboard or on a shelf out of direct sunlight.

How Long Do Probiotics Last?

Again, this varies from different formulations of probiotic. They are living organisms, so they may not have a particularly long shelf life. Similarly, the shelf life given assumes that you are also storing them correctly. Probiotics will become less effective after the shelf life has ended, and a while after the use-by date has passed there is a chance they could do more harm than good, so we advise you to follow the storage instructions carefully and not to use them after the use-by date given.

Are There Side Effects Of Taking Probiotics?

Side Effects?

Like any supplement, it can take your body a while to get used to taking probiotics. Similarly, because every one of us has a different microbiome, we may experience slightly different effects or results from each other. However, unless you are allergic to an ingredient in the probiotic supplement or have a compromised immune system, side effects of taking probiotics are usually mild and may be short-lived while your body gets used to the new balance of bacteria.

Side effects of taking probiotics may include gas and bloating, but often these mild reactions will pass after a short time as your body adjusts. If it doesn’t pass, consider choosing a probiotic which does not contain prebiotic fibers, but make sure that you increase your dietary fiber instead.

You may need to take more care in choosing the right probiotic for you, however, if you have allergies or sensitivity to certain ingredients, such as lactose.

Can Probiotics Cause Constipation?

While everyone is different, probiotics can reduce constipation. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014 found that probiotics can improve your gut transit time and improve stool frequency and consistency, although they emphasized that more research was needed in this area to confirm which probiotics are of most benefit for this complaint.

However, some people find that constipation is a more common side effect when they are taking yeast-based probiotic supplements. It may also be a short-term side effect while your body gets used to the probiotic, or if you take to high a dose of probiotic.

Can Probiotics Cause Diarrhoea?

Diarrhea is not a typical side effect of taking a probiotic – in many cases, it can be treated or reduced by taking probiotics. For example, taking probiotics has been found in multiple studies to reduce both the risk of and the duration and severity of travelers’ diarrhea. Taking probiotics can also prevent medication-induced diarrhea.

However allergic reactions or sensitivity to other ingredients can cause diarrhea. It can also occur when you first start taking probiotics, as your gut adjusts to the new bacteria balance in your microbiome. This should be short-term, however, so if symptoms persist for more than a week or two, consider switching to a different probiotic, or consult your doctor for advice.

Can You Overdose On Probiotics?

It is unlikely that you will overdose on probiotics. However taking too high a dose may increase your risks of side effects. You may find that you become more thirsty if you take too high a dose of probiotics, or you may be more likely to feel constipated. You may alternatively find that you experience short-lived gas or bloating. If you are concerned about taking too many probiotics, start with a small dose and gradually build up to the recommended dose. The recommended doses are there for a reason – to give you the best results from taking them, so it is a good idea not to exceed the recommended daily allowance which you will find on the packaging of your probiotic product.

Natural Probiotics – What Food Have Probiotics?

Natural Food

As we have mentioned, a great way to ensure you are getting enough probiotics is to take a probiotic supplement. This enables you to choose particular strains which will be of most benefit to you. However, there are also ways that you can increase your dietary probiotic intake. You will probably notice that many probiotic-containing foods have the similarity of being fermented. These are some of the foods which naturally contain probiotics that you can eat alongside your probiotic supplement:

  • Yogurt – many types of yogurt are probiotic – both natural and added, but yogurt can also be high in fat and sugar, which can mean some are not as healthy for you to choose from.
  • Pickles – for example, gherkins, which are pickled cucumbers. They are low in calories and high in vitamins. However they are also high in salt, so you don’t want to overdo them.
  • Sauerkraut – fermented, shredded cabbage. Not only is it rich in probiotics but it also contains vitamins, iron, antioxidants. Ensure you choose an unpasteurized variety though.
  • Miso – a Japanese paste made from fermented soybeans that comes in many varieties. As well as probiotics, it is high in protein and fiber and has been linked to many health benefits.
  • Kefir – a fermented, probiotic milk drink. It is a diverse probiotic which contains strains of good bacteria and yeasts and can often be tolerated by people who are lactose intolerant.
  • Tempeh – a fermented soy product that is high in probiotics. It can benefit your bone health and lower your cholesterol and cancer risk. It can also balance your blood-sugar levels.
  • Kombucha – a fermented, sugary tea. It contains a range of strains of probiotic and has a wide range of benefits including reducing inflammation and preventing stomach ulcers.
  • Buttermilk – a bi-product of the process of making butter. Some types of buttermilk are rich in probiotics which result from lactic acid fermenting the sugar in milk.

How Long Does It Take For Probiotics to Work?

The speed at which you notice the benefits of taking probiotics will vary from person to person, along with which probiotic you take. You may start to notice a positive effect of taking probiotics within a day or two from your first dose, or it may take a little longer for your body to adapt to them.

If you are taking them to ease particular symptoms, such as diarrhea or bloating, you may find that for a short period of time they get worse before they get better. Don’t worry if this happens. It should pass, but if it still hasn’t begun to settle after a week or two, consult or your doctor or consider switching to a different probiotic supplement.

Are Probiotics Bad For You?

While it may seem counterintuitive to consume bacteria on purpose, probiotics are good bacteria that will not cause you harm. On the contrary, they can help you feel better and prevent or reduce symptoms of illness in the future, when taken regularly. While it is not essential to take a probiotic supplement as you can include them naturally in your diet, as we have demonstrated above, they can be extremely beneficial in regulating your healthy gut flora.

Are Probiotics Right for Everyone?

Healthy adults can consume probiotics daily and get many benefits from taking them, as we have already mentioned. However, if you have a compromised immune system, due to, for example, cancer treatment, HIV or other illnesses, make sure that you consult your doctor before taking probiotics. In some, rare circumstances probiotics can cause serious infection in people with a very weak immune system.

Conclusion

So now you should have a greater understanding of probiotics and how they can benefit you. As you can see, there are many ways that probiotics can improve your health and resilience and you can easily incorporate them into your daily life. To find out more about what probiotics can do for you, visit our blog.

Amy Tribe

I discovered my passion for research when studying for my degree in Medical Imaging. Once graduated, I worked as a diagnostic radiographer and as a member of the hospital’s gastrointestinal imaging research team. I love learning about new technologies, particularly in the health and beauty field, and enjoy writing about how they can benefit both our every day and long-term health and well-being.

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