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Probiotics are live microorganisms—mostly bacteria and some yeasts—that offer numerous health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. They are often referred to as “good” or “friendly” bacteria because they contribute to a balanced and harmonious gastrointestinal system.

Probiotics Explained: Living Microorganisms for Health

Gut health has been all the rage in health and wellness for some time now, and for good reason! Our intestines are home to trillions of tiny microorganisms, collectively known as the gut microbiome. This bustling community of bacteria, viruses, and even some fungi, plays a crucial role in helping us digest food, synthesize vitamins, and regulate our immune systems. Probiotics can be thought of as micro-biotic peacekeepers, ensuring that harmful microbes are kept in check.

There are countless microorganisms living mostly symbiotically within our bodies. As the name suggests, they cannot be seen with the naked eye, so even though they number in the trillions, they account for only 2 to 6 pounds (0.9 to 2.7 kg) of any given adult human.


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The human microbiota is incredibly diverse, and there are thousands of different bacterial species inhabiting the body forming a complex ecosystem. The composition of these bacterial communities can vary greatly between individuals and even within different regions of the same individual’s body.

The gut microbiome contains bacteria, viruses, fungi, and archaea. Most of the gut microbiome is made up of bacteria and viruses, while fungi and archaea comprise only around 1% each. However, both seem to play important roles. We now know that these tiny gut fungi are instrumental in human immunological response and the little-studied archaea seem to aid digestion by producing methane.

Viruses are much more numerous. We mostly associate them with disease, which is not wrong, but in the gut, they can positively influence digestion, immune response, and even cognitive function. While viruses are strange adaptable, replicating machines that can’t grow or make their own energy and so form a unique subcategory of zombie/android organism, bacteria are clearly alive.

Maintaining a healthy balance in the composition and diversity of the microbiota in your body is crucial for your overall health. Imbalances are often associated with gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune diseases, and metabolic disorders.

Bacteria are fascinating. They are found throughout the body, with the majority residing in the gastrointestinal tract. Other areas where bacteria are more concentrated include the surface of the skin and inside your mouth, respiratory tract, urogenital tract, and in various mucous membranes. These are also the parts of the body that are highly susceptible to bacterial infections.

For germaphobes or, for example, people with OCD, thinking about these small organisms can be triggering; however, we truly cannot survive without them. Probiotics show how bacteria can be beneficial for us.

What are probiotics?

“Probiotics” is the term now commonly used for live microorganisms, primarily bacteria, but also some yeasts, that have been shown to provide health benefits. These microorganisms are often referred to as “good” or “friendly” bacteria. Probiotics are usually consumed with food items or as supplements.

The scientific opinion on just how beneficial probiotics are for our health is divided, but it is clear these bacteria have a positive effect and do not cause harm.

The best-known probiotics belong to the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera, but there are many other strains and species used in various probiotic products. Foods that naturally contain these probiotics include:

  • yogurt
  • kefir
  • sauerkraut
  • kimchi
  • other fermented foods.

Probiotics can also be taken as dietary supplements in the form of capsules, tablets, powders, or liquids.

Probiotic Benefits: Balancing Gut Microbiota for Health

What do probiotics do in the body?

Probiotics have a variety of beneficial effects that primarily stem from the way these microorganisms influence the balance and function of the gut microbiota. The effects that probiotics take once inside the body depend on factors, such as the characteristics of the particular probiotic strain, your individual health, and the presence of other foods and substances inside your digestive system.

When probiotics enter the human body with food or in the form of supplements, they first encounter the acidic environment of the stomach, and then move into the gastrointestinal tract. Many probiotic strains are acid-resistant, meaning that they can withstand the acidity of the stomach with no problems and continue their way to the small intestine.

In the small intestine, probiotics encounter bile salts and digestive enzymes that can further challenge their survival. Nevertheless, some probiotic strains are resilient and capable of reaching the large intestine, which is where they provide their beneficial effects.

Once inside the large intestine, probiotics have the opportunity to colonize and establish themselves. They interact with the resident gut microbiota, influencing the balance of bacterial species, and compete for nutrients and space with potentially harmful pathogens. Probiotic bacteria can metabolize various substrates and produce beneficial compounds by, for example, fermenting carbohydrates and dietary fibres to generate short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which is beneficial for our digestion.

Probiotics can also interact with the immune cells that reside in the lymphoid tissue in the gut, potentially helping the body to defend itself against infections and inflammation.

What are the benefits of taking probiotics?

By interacting with the gut microbiome, probiotics have the potential to positively influence many processes in the body, from managing inflammation to breaking down nutrients and even boosting mental health. However, the scientific study of these benefits is just beginning, so there is more to know before there we have a scientific consensus on these issues.

According to current knowledge, the main functions and potential health benefits of probiotics include:

  • assistance in the digestion of food, especially food items with complex carbohydrates or, in some cases, lactose
  • enhanced nutrient absorption
  • maintenance of a balanced and healthy gut microbiome
  • potential benefits to the immune system
  • prevention of pathogen growth
  • synthesis of essential vitamins, such as B group vitamins and vitamin K

Emerging research suggests a connection between the gut microbiome and mental health. Probiotics are being investigated for their potential role in managing mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

Some probiotics can also help individuals with lactose intolerance digest lactose more effectively by producing lactase, the enzyme needed to break down lactose.

If you are considering probiotics for a particular health concern, consult your healthcare provider for assistance in choosing the strains that best suit your needs.

If you are taking antibiotics, your provider may recommend probiotics to help replenish the beneficial bacteria that are also disrupted by antibiotics. Doctors used to believe that probiotics would interfere with the function of medicinal antibiotics, however, it is now thought that they do not cancel each other out and that probiotics can help speed the recovery process. Some healthcare professionals recommend waiting a few hours after taking antibiotics before consuming probiotics.


Can probiotics help with IBS and IBD?

Given that they interact with the digestive tract, probiotics have the potential to help with various health conditions linked with digestion. Some individuals with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) report experiencing relief from symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating and irregular bowel movements, when taking specific probiotic strains. However, the results vary and not everyone will experience health benefits.

This is reflected in scientific studies that generally have shown only a mild improvement with probiotics. Nevertheless, probiotics are generally safe to use even for patients with IBS, and they can still help maintain a healthier gut. Irritable bowel disease (IBD) is a more advanced condition in which such temporary symptoms become chronic and can lead to further problems. Maintaining a healthy diet can help you avoid such painful and distressing conditions.

When is the best time to consume probiotics?

The most effective timing for consuming probiotics will, of course, vary depending on individual preferences and your reasons for taking them. As consuming probiotics with food can help protect the probiotic bacteria from the harsh acidic environment of the stomach, it is often recommended they be taken with or just before meals. This also helps manage any digestive discomfort you may be experiencing.

Many people take their medicines and supplements at the same time each day, but this is not so important for probiotics. Follow the instructions on the label, or your doctor’s recommendation. If your body does not seem to respond well, consider changing the type and strain of the probiotics you uses and consult your healthcare provider for more detailed information.

Probiotics vs Prebiotics

“Probiotics” is the term we see most often on yogurt labels and in diet books, but there are also prebiotics. So, what are prebiotics?

PRObiotics are live microorganisms, but PREbiotics are non-living, non-digestible compounds that feed the organisms living in our guts. They are typically found in plant-based food items, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. They don’t contribute to human nutrition because we can’t digest them ourselves, but they support human health indirectly by stimulating the growth and activity of the beneficial probiotic bacteria. Examples of prebiotic compounds include inulin, some saccharide compounds, and resistant starch.

Foods rich in prebiotics include:

  • garlic
  • onions
  • mushrooms
  • asparagus
  • chicory root
  • whole grains
  • cocoa powder
  • seaweed
  • sunchokes

Some products and dietary supplements are labelled “synbiotics”, meaning they contain both probiotics and prebiotics. The idea is to provide a double benefit by delivering live beneficial bacteria along with the nutrients they need to thrive.

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