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When you think of bacteria being in your body, do you ever think of it as a good thing? The truth is, oftentimes bacteria are critical to your body's normal functions.
Did you know that the microorganisms in our bodies outnumber human cells by 10 to 1? Part of this is because microorganisms are so small that millions of them could fit onto the eye of a needle.
In fact, the amount of bacteria in our intestines alone is much higher than the number of cells in our bodies. For the most part, these bacteria are quite harmless, and even make up the diverse “fauna” of our tummies.
It may seem gross at first, but microbes reside in or on almost every part of our bodies, including the skin, nose, and gut. It is true that some microbes lead to illness, but most of the time they actually help our bodies with vital functions that are essential for our survival.
It is only when the bad bacteria exceed the amount of good bacteria that things may take a turn for the worse with our health. (This is why we need to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and supplement it with other healthy foods and drinks, and make sure we drink clean water.)
As you’ll learn, your body is full of microorganisms called “probiotics.” In this article, we’ll talk more about this health concept, and specifically the 11 benefits of probiotics and why our bodies need them in order to stay healthy.
Side bar: One simple health habit you can build is to drink this superfood green drink, which gives you a boost of energy and supplies your body with the nutrients it needs to get through the day. (You can also read the review of it here.)
What You Will Learn
- What Are Probiotics?
- What Are the Benefits of Probiotics?
- 1. Improves digestion and absorption of food and nutrients.
- 2. Improves lactose tolerance.
- 3. Boosts immunity and decreases inflammation.
- 4. Helps decrease antibiotic resistance.
- 5. Protects against food allergies.
- 6. Promotes healthy yeast balance to prevent yeast infections.
- 7. May improve mental health.
- 8. Promotes healthy skin.
- 9. Helps lower blood pressure.
- 10. May help improve non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
- 11. May supplement diabetes treatment.
- Should Anyone Avoid Taking Probiotics?
- What Are the Probiotic Side Effects?
- Final Thoughts on Probiotics
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are known as being the “good” bacteria and yeasts in our digestive tracts. These microorganisms are either the same or very similar to the kind of bacteria that are already present in our bodies and work to digest food, kill dangerous microorganisms that could lead to illnesses, and generate vitamins.
There has already been significant research done on probiotics, but there’s still much to learn about how they work exactly. Probiotics were initially isolated in the early 20th century, and since then, researchers have continued to investigate their health benefits. The family of bacteria was named “probiotics” because it translates from the Greek words pro, meaning “promoting,” and biotic, meaning “life.”
They can be found in probiotic foods such as certain yogurts and cheeses, Lactobacillus milk or kefir, and kim-chi. Probiotic dietary supplements are also available. Check out the link below for a more complete list of priobiotic foods
What Are the Benefits of Probiotics?
While having the wrong bacteria in the wrong place may lead to health concerns, having the right bacteria in the right place is beneficial to your health.
1. Improves digestion and absorption of food and nutrients.
The most frequently talked about benefit of probiotics is their ability to promote proper digestive health. Probiotics are often used in the treatment and prevention of gastrointestinal diseases, including inflammatory bowel diseases like ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.
For IBS, probiotics can help reduce the pain and severity of symptoms. Evidence has also shown that probiotics are effective in treating several forms of diarrhea, such as diarrhea associated with taking antibiotics, acute diarrhea, and traveler’s diarrhea.
Probiotics also help your body absorb nutrients from food. After being swallowed, food is combined with digestive juices and enzymes in your stomach before being broken down into tiny molecules of nutrition.
These molecules are then distributed to the body's cells once they are absorbed through the walls of the small intestine. Probiotics help break down your food into the nutrients that you need to maintain health, and they create several vitamins directly, such as vitamin K2, folic acid, and biotin.
2. Improves lactose tolerance.
If you are lactose intolerant, it likely impacts your ability to eat dairy, but it may not decrease your desire to do so. Probiotics are a vital part of a lactose-intolerant diet. The live or active cultures help maintain a healthy digestive system.
With more healthy bacteria in your gut, your body may produce more lactase, or at least aid in the digestion of lactose. Adding probiotics to your diet can change the balance of bacteria in your gut and decrease symptoms of lactose intolerance.
Probiotics are still in the process of being studied, particularly regarding their role in immunity. But when they are used in conjunction with prebiotics, probiotics show a lot of promise in this area of health. (Prebiotics are a form of dietary fiber that aid the growth of good bacteria, while probiotics are live bacteria.)
When they are used together, scientists call pro and prebiotics “synbiotics.” One study found that probiotics may have potential for preventing a large range of immunity-related diseases that are caused by inflammation.
Because inflammation leads to many diseases and health issues, the fact that probiotics can decrease inflammation in the gut (which houses 80% of the immune system) is critical. Probiotics have shown themselves to be particularly helpful in improving the quality of life for seniors, and they may even help protect against the common cold or flu.
Additionally, research is currently being done to see if probiotics can improve inflammation in the gut for patients with HIV who have yet to undergo any treatment.
4. Helps decrease antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance is one of our biggest threats to global health. Bacteria can become immune to antibiotics because of the overuse and lack of diversity of prescription antibiotics.
By adding probiotics to your diet, you can help rebuild diverse gut bacteria that is often killed following a course of antibiotics. Probiotic supplements and foods can also improve the effectiveness of antibiotics and help stop the bacteria in your body from becoming invulnerable.
5. Protects against food allergies.
The prevalence of food allergies has continued to multiply over the past decade, and research suggests that changes in intestinal flora might contribute to this. But modifying gut microbiota with probiotics may alleviate food allergies and intolerances, and help restore one's ability to eat a triggering food.
Infants born without diverse gut bacteria have a higher chance of developing allergies during their first two years of life. Because probiotics help reduce chronic gut inflammation and regulate immune responses, they can help alleviate food allergies as well.
6. Promotes healthy yeast balance to prevent yeast infections.
Probiotics are very helpful in curing yeast infections. The Lactobacillus bacteria species in particular have been shown to restore the yeast balance in the body in clinical settings. A recent Italian study showed that women who suffer from chronic yeast infections who insert a probiotic tablet into the vagina saw their frequency of yeast infections decrease by 87%.
7. May improve mental health.
The gut is commonly referred to as the “second brain” because of the strong gut-brain connection. In fact, interactions between the gut and brain are thought to have an impact on several of the pathogenesis of mental disorders caused by inflammation, such as mood disorders, ADHD, MS, obesity, and autism spectrum disorder.
Based on animal studies, researchers think it is possible that changing the quality of bacteria in the gut could benefit both the digestive system and the abnormal behaviors that are exhibited in cases of autism.
Early research in animal studies suggests that probiotic supplements might help relieve symptoms of anxiety by reducing inflammation in the gut-brain connection. Human studies are currently being conducted to learn if probiotic supplements could improve cognitive and language development, as well as brain function and connectivity.
8. Promotes healthy skin.
A lot of research has examined the effects that probiotics may have on skin health, particularly in children. Multiple studies have shown that probiotic supplements can help soothe pediatric atopic dermatitis and infant eczema. While the reason is still unknown, the health of bacteria in the gut is also connected to the development of acne.
The anti-inflammatory impact of probiotics is connected to the reduction of skin irritation. L. casei, a specific strain of probiotic bacteria, can reduce inflammation and has benefits for both healthy and diseased skin.
9. Helps lower blood pressure.
A large study that looked at various research reports was able to determine that probiotics help lower blood pressure by improving lipid profiles including cholesterol and triglycerides, reducing insulin resistance, and activating antioxidants. The side effects of taking probiotics are typically minimal, if any exist at all, making it a great option for lowering blood pressure.
The positive effects of probiotics are the most obvious in people who already have high blood pressure, and continue to improve when the person consumes a variety of probiotic strains for a minimum of eight weeks.
10. May help improve non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a term that encompasses a wide range of liver conditions that are not caused by consuming alcohol. As its name implies, the main characteristic of this disease is excessive fat stored in the liver cells. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease impacts up to 100 million people in the United States, and can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and eventually cause liver failure or even death.
Studies on probiotics and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease have found that consuming probiotics can improve several factors for patients with this disease, leading the researchers to believe that modifying the gut microbiota is a possible new treatment for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
11. May supplement diabetes treatment.
Many studies have confirmed that probiotics are a beneficial natural remedy for diabetes. One study involving almost 200,000 subjects and 15,156 cases of Type 2 diabetes confirmed that increasing one's intake of yogurt that was rich in probiotics reduced the risk of developing diabetes.
Another study showed that probiotics benefit diabetes patients by improving insulin sensitivity and lowering diabetes' autoimmune response in the body. The results of this study have led to the initiation of large, randomized, controlled trials to determine if probiotics may be used to effectively prevent or manage diabetes symptoms.
Should Anyone Avoid Taking Probiotics?
While probiotics are great for most people, they might not be for everyone. There are certainly some people who should avoid consuming probiotics both in foods and supplements. People who meet the following four conditions should consult their doctors before taking probiotics:
1. People with an allergy to probiotics.
Each brand of probiotic supplements contains slightly different ingredients. Some people may develop an allergic reaction to a specific brand of probiotic supplements, but not another. This can happen if one or more of the ingredients in the supplement cause your immune system to react to the perceived threat of the allergen. This leads to a chemical release of antibodies, histamines, and other chemicals in the body.
The allergic reaction that can be triggered by probiotics may cause mild stomach discomfort, especially when you first begin to take them. This may involve an upset stomach, excess gas, bloating, or diarrhea.
2. People with an immune system problem or another serious health condition.
If you have a problem with your immune system, or another serious health condition, you may be at an increased risk of experiencing issues if you take probiotics. Some studies have connected probiotics to serious infections, which is more likely to happen to those who suffer from immune system problems, people who have recently had surgery, and people who are critically ill.
If you have any of these issues, you should avoid taking probiotics, or talk to your doctor before doing so. For people who have compromised immune systems because of a disease or active treatment for a disease (such as chemotherapy), taking probiotics could possibly increase their chances of becoming ill.
3. People who are too young.
While the microbiome is important for children’s health, enhancing the microbiome for children requires a deep level of scientific understanding that researchers do not yet have.
Scientists do know that the workings of the microbiome are very complex, and it is difficult to know which microbes a child needs, the amounts, and the duration of treatment. Because there’s not a universal probiotic that improves everyone's health in the same way, it is best to avoid giving them to children.
4. People who are pregnant or nursing.
Because there are a wide variety of probiotics and we only have limited research, it is best to avoid them while pregnant or breastfeeding. Until more is known about the possible effects of probiotics on an infant, it is best to talk to your doctor before taking probiotics if you are pregnant or nursing.
What Are the Probiotic Side Effects?
It is best to get your probiotics from a food source. Live bacteria should be carefully monitored, stored, and combined when taken, but supplements are not currently regulated in the U.S. with the same discretion that food or medication is.
Because you cannot be sure which probiotics are the ones your body needs, there is a possibility of experiencing negative side effects. Most people do not experience side effects, but the possibility exists.
1. They may lead to uncomfortable digestive symptoms.
While uncommon, the most frequently reported side effect of taking bacteria-based probiotic supplements is a short-term increase in gas and bloating. Probiotics that are yeast-based can cause constipation and increased thirst as well. These side effects usually go away after a few weeks of continued use of probiotics. If gas or bloating continues for more than two weeks, discontinue taking your probiotic supplement and consult your physician.
2. The amines that are found in probiotic foods may cause headaches.
Some foods that are rich in probiotics, such as yogurt, miso, and kim-chi, contain amines that form when the food ages. The most commonly found amines are histamine, tyramine, tryptamine, and phenylethylamine. These substances can aggravate the nervous system, alter blood flow, and trigger headaches for people who are sensitive.
Studies have shown that low-histamine diets reduce headaches in 75% of participants. But studies have also shown that dietary amines do not lead to headaches. More research is needed in this area to be sure.
3. Some strains of probiotics may increase histamine.
Some bacterial strains in probiotic supplements can produce histamines inside of the human digestive tract. This molecule is typically produced by the immune system when it senses a threat.
As levels of histamines rise, circulation increases to bring more blood to the affected area, and blood vessels become more penetrable so immune cells can target the relevant tissue to fight foreign pathogens. This process leads to redness and swelling in the impacted area, and may trigger common allergy symptoms such as trouble breathing, itching, watery eyes, and a runny nose.
People who suffer from a histamine intolerance are unable properly break down the histamine in their bodies because they do not produce enough of the chemical that is needed to combat it. This leads to excess histamine being absorbed in the intestinal tract and the bloodstream, which causes symptoms similar to those of an allergic reaction.
Some strains of probiotics that produce histamines include L. buchneri, L. helveticus, L. hilgardii, and Streptococcus thermophilus.
4. Some ingredients can lead to adverse reactions.
Probiotic supplements can possibly contain allergens such as yeast, milk, dairy, eggs, and soy. These ingredients should be avoided by those who are allergic because they may cause an allergic reaction.
Because people with lactose intolerance may suffer from unpleasant gas and bloating when taking supplements that contain lactose, it is wise to choose lactose-free products.
Some probiotic supplements also contain prebiotics, which are plant fibers that cannot be digested, but are consumed by bacteria as food. Some people experience additional gas and bloating when taking supplements that have both pro- and prebiotics. People who experience this side effect may want to choose a probiotic supplement that does not have prebiotics in it.
5. Probiotics may increase the risk of infection for some people.
While they are safe for most people, probiotics can enter the bloodstream of susceptible people and lead to infections. The people who are most at risk for this are those with suppressed immune systems, people who have been hospitalized for a long period of time, people who have venous catheters, and people who have recently had surgery.
But the risk of developing an infection is very low, and studies have never reported a serious infection. An estimated one out of every one million people taking probiotics will develop an infection, which can typically be treated by an antibiotic or antifungal.
Keeping a food diary with notes of symptoms you experience can help you understand if any fermented foods lead to side effects for you. If you find that foods rich in probiotics trigger a symptom for you, taking a supplement may be a better option.
To reduce your chances of experiencing side effects, begin with a low dose of probiotics and increase to a full dosage at a slow pace over a few weeks, which will help your body adjust to them.
Final Thoughts on Probiotics
If you are not in one of the “at risk” categories of people that are listed for taking probiotics, then I recommend adding them to your diet as a daily health habit.