Bacteria. The very mention of it conjures images of harmful microscopic invaders working to make you sick. Bacterial infections, bacterial illness, etc.
However, not all bacteria are created equally. Just as there are certain strains that can make you incredibly sick, so too are there strains that are hugely beneficial for your overall health.
Probiotics are one such type of ‘friendly’ bacteria that help to keep your gut healthy and functioning properly.
What Are Probiotics?
Put simply, probiotics are a collection of live bacteria and yeasts that have beneficial properties for your health. They are particularly good for your gut health.
Your body naturally produces a certain amount of ‘good’ bacteria on its own, but probiotics can be used as a supplementation to help restore a proper balance in your gut, especially if you’ve lost a certain amount of good bacteria due to antibiotic usage.
This is important because if you want your body to function properly, you will require a good amount of helpful bacteria to balance out the bad bacteria.
Types of Probiotics
There are many types of bacteria that are considered probiotics, and they each have their own varying health benefits. However, there are considered to be two main groups of probiotics:
Lactobacillus – These are considered to be the most common form of probiotic strains and they produce lactic acid, which helps the body keep the bad bacteria population under control.
Bifidobacterium – These types of probiotics are most commonly found in food and supplement products. They help boost your immune system and break down lactose into nutrients.
The Top 7 Health Benefits of Probiotics
1- Improved Digestion
Probiotics can be used to treat many different digestive issues, including bloating, cramping, and gassiness. Of particular note is their ability to ease symptoms of irritable bowel disease as well. (1)
In addition, since certain strains of probiotics break down lactose, they are great for individuals who are lactose-intolerant by easing some of the uncomfortable digestive symptoms that they experience.
2- Relieves Diarrhea
One of the most common reasons for probiotic supplementation is thanks to their ability to help prevent and relieve diarrhea.
Many people who are on a course of antibiotics experience diarrhea as a side effect due to lower amounts of healthy gut bacteria. (2)
Certain strains of probiotics are highly effective at treating diarrhea, even when the condition hasn’t been caused by antibiotic usage.
3- Immune System Booster
By ensuring a proper balance of bacteria in your intestines, including plenty of helpful good bacteria, probiotics help to keep your immune system strong and healthy. (3)
They have been shown to reduce the length and severity of many types of infections. When your immune system is functioning properly, it helps defend the body against the invasive harmful types of bacteria that can cause illness and infections.
4- Improves Skin Conditions
A proper balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut doesn’t just keep the inside of your body working properly.
It can also affect your outward appearance as well by clearing up certain skin conditions which can be caused by inflammation in the body. (4)
Probiotics have been found to be beneficial when it comes to clearing up acne, eczema, rosacea, and even skin blemishes related to the natural aging process.
5- Improves Mental Health
Probiotics have demonstrated some promising potential when it comes to helping relieve symptoms of depression. (5)
They have been shown to reduce stress signaling in the body and they may also help with converting the amino acid tryptophan into serotonin within the brain.
In addition to the role they play with serotonin conversion, their anti-inflammatory properties provide similar benefits as seen provided by antidepressant SSRI medications.
6- Improved Cholesterol Levels
Probiotics have fantastic benefits for your cardiovascular system by lowering both the levels of bad cholesterol (LDL) and total cholesterol in your bloodstream while also lowering blood pressure. (6)
This, in turn, helps lower your risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack and stroke. Even better yet, probiotics have been found to either slightly increase good cholesterol levels (HDL) or have no noticeable effect, depending on the strain. Either way leads to improved lipid levels and better overall health.
7- Prevent and Treat Urinary Tract Infections
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) can be commonly caused by a bacterial infection. The most commonly prescribed form of treatment for UTIs is antibiotics, which in turn will decimate both good and bad bacterial strains in your body.
Instead of turning to antibiotics, probiotics can help both prevent and treat UTIs by preventing bad bacteria from sticking to the bladder and causing infection. (7)
The Top 5 Healthy Probiotic Containing Foods
The most commonly known source of probiotics in food is also one of the best sources.
Made with milk that has been fermented by friendly bacteria, yogurt is an easy tasty and nutritious way to get your probiotics.
Just make sure that the yogurt you purchase specifically states that it contains live or active cultures.
A staple of many European dishes, sauerkraut is made of very finely shredded cabbage that has been fermented by lactic acid bacteria.
Sauerkraut is not only an excellent source of probiotics — it also contains plenty of dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In order to receive the probiotic benefits, be sure to choose unpasteurized sauerkraut.
An incredibly popular Korean side dish, kimchi is made with a mixture of salted and fermented vegetables.
It’s most commonly made with either napa cabbage or Korean radishes and also contains seasonings including garlic, ginger, chili powder, scallions, and salt.
In addition to containing probiotics, kimchi also features plenty of vitamins and minerals thank the vegetable content.
Pickles are simply cucumbers that have been bottled in a solution that contains salt and water.
Thanks to their naturally present lactic acid bacteria, the cucumbers ferment over a period of time.
The end result is pickles, also known as gherkins. They end up with a naturally sour taste from the fermentation process
5- Raw Cheese
Certain raw and unpasteurized varieties of cheese are excellent sources of probiotics.
Cheese that has been made from goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, in particular, are quite high in probiotics.
To assist you with finding types of cheese that contain probiotics, check the labels for the words ‘organic’, ‘made from raw milk’, or simply ‘probiotic’.
The Top 3 Healthy Drinks That Contain Probiotics
Kefir is a fermented milk product made by adding kefir grains into cow or goat’s milk.
Kefir grains are cultures of lactic acid bacteria that contain many great health benefits.
As a matter of fact, kefir is actually a better source of concentrated probiotics than even yogurt.
Kombucha is generally made with fermented black or green tea. It’s a healthy mixture of tea, sugar, and bacteria that has been used for over 2000 years, tracing its origin back to ancient China.
Following the fermentation process, kombucha ends up bearing a taste that is remarkably similar to apple cider vinegar, which also contains many benefits for your gut health.
3- Sparkling Probiotic Drinks
Sparkling probiotic drink brands like KeVita have created probiotic drinks made with coconut water and teas.
They have their own fermentation process that adds billions of live bacteria cultures. KeVita also adds fruit puree, vinegar, and certain flavors are sweetened with stevia as well.
The 3 Best Probiotic Supplements On the Market
1- BlueBiotics Ultimate Care
This probiotic blend from BlueBiotics contains an incredible 61 billion live probiotics per serving.
Each serving contains 11 proven bacterial strains, including S. Boulardi, which is considered to be one of the most effective, yet expensive, strains.
They come in small capsules which are designed to be resistant to stomach acids, making them an extremely effective source of probiotics.
2- Ultimate Flora Critical Care
The Ultimate Flora Critical Care probiotic supplement features 50 billion live probiotics per serving.
While the amount of live and active bacterial cultures are lower than the BlueBiotics Ultimate Care blend, these probiotics have an incredibly diverse mix of bacterial strains.
If you don’t have any chronic health conditions you are aiming to remedy with specific probiotics, this offering from Ultimate Flora makes an excellent all-around general health supplement.
3- Align Probiotic
This probiotic product from Align contains only one single culture strain — Bifidobacterium Infantis.
Thankfully, this single strain is an incredibly effective and proven culture that is used to remedy a wide range of digestive issues.
They contain a reasonably high percentage of living cultures and come in capsules that are designed to resist stomach acids much like the BlueBiotics product.
This is a well-rounded product that is suitable for the maintenance of general health and wellbeing.
Should I Take Probiotics? Who Should and Shouldn’t Supplement?
If you are wondering whether or not you should take probiotic supplements, it’s going to depend on a number of factors.
First and foremost, before beginning any probiotic supplementation routine, you should speak with your doctor to see if it’s a good idea based on your personal circumstances.
With that being said, if you’ve ever been on a course of antibiotics, and frankly, there are not many people out there these days who haven’t, you should consider taking a probiotic supplement.
Antibiotics do their job of wiping out the bad bacteria that are causing infections adequately; they unfortunately also take out the helpful, good bacteria at the same time.
In general, probiotics are safe and suitable for supplementation. However, individuals with severe chronic diseases should be wary of taking them without first consulting a doctor.
Likewise, pregnant or breastfeeding women should check in with a doctor first before consuming probiotics that contain the Saccharomyces boulardii strain for the sole reason that there have been no studies done to demonstrate their safety for pregnant or lactating women. (8)
That being said, it is highly unlikely that probiotics will be transferred into breast milk.
How Long Should You Take Probiotics For?
There is no one size fits all answer that exists when it comes to how long an individual should supplement with probiotics.
However, there are certainly some general guidelines that can be followed. Essentially, probiotics can be used indefinitely as they are quite safe for daily consumption.
They certainly provide plenty of health benefits to justify daily use as well.
If you are looking to supplement probiotics for a specific use, such as for the treatment of diarrhea or to help relieve some other digestive issue, the recommended time frame can vary.
Depending on the issue, as well as the probiotic strain, you will generally be looking at supplementing for between 2-8 weeks.
3 Potential Probiotic Side Effects
1- Gas and Bloating
Surprisingly, a common side effect of probiotics is an increase in gas and bloating.
This is a relatively short-term side effect that is most experienced by individuals with compromised gut health as they go through a transitionary period of rebuilding their healthy gut bacteria.
Once their bodies adjust, the probiotics will end up relieving gas and bloating rather than mildly causing it.
Just as with the gas and bloating described above, probiotics can infrequently cause diarrhea in certain individuals.
This is once again caused by a period of transition as your gut adapts to the influx of new healthy bacterial strains.
As your gut flora ends up falling back into a healthy balance, this unpleasant symptom tends to disappear.
3- Fungal Infections
There have been extremely rare instances of probiotics contributing to the development of fungal infections.
However, it should be noted that these cases occurred in individuals who already had compromised immune systems.
This is why it is strongly recommended to always consult your doctor before taking a probiotic supplement.
In general, individuals in good health needn’t be concerned about this potential side effect.