Have you heard of the saying that all disease starts in the gut (by Hippocrates)? It’s actually not far from the truth. 70% of our immune system lives in the gut and when our gut is not functioning the way it should be, this affects our general health.
Our gut is not only responsible for supporting our immune system, it also plays a role in brain health, heart health and it even affects weight loss.
One of the things you can do to improve your gut health is to increase your intake of probiotics (good bacteria) either in a form of food or through supplementation. In this article, we look at the benefits of probiotics and any side effects they may have. We also look at what you should consider when buying a probiotic supplement – this is to make sure you only buy probiotics that will work for you (not all probiotic supplements are created equal).
The importance of a healthy gut microbiome
Before we dive deep into the benefits of probiotics, let me explain about gut microbiome and why it matters.
For our gut to function efficiently we need to have a healthy microbiome. The gut microbiome is a composition of various bacteria and other microorganisms living in your gut. There are many different types of microbes inside your body but the ones that are the most studied are bacteria (‘good’ and ‘bad’).
These bacteria are very important for your health and a good balance of them is crucial if you want to stay healthy. For you to be healthier, it’s important to have more good bacteria than bad but also, a higher diversity of bacteria is better.
Many people don’t have enough good bacteria in their gut for various reasons and this may result in bloating, excessive gas, constipation, diarrhea and other symptoms. But you may not have any symptoms at all and still have an imbalance of bacteria in your gut.
To see whether you have an imbalanced gut flora, you can do a gut microbiome test which tells you what bacteria you actually have and what might be missing. After doing this test, you will know better what types of probiotics (good bacteria) you should add to your diet or supplement with (yes, there are several types).
Supplementing with the right probiotics (or consuming them through diet) will result in a more balanced digestive tract and this will have many positive effects on our bodies.
We may not only experience a better digestion and calmer stomach, but the benefits may show in many other different ways.
Probiotics and immune system
As already mentioned, about 70% of our immune system lives in the gut and when your gut is functioning better, this means that:
When you consume more probiotics (which are right for you) and consequently, create a better balance in your gut flora, this could strengthen your immune system and prevent frequent colds and flu.
Probiotics and skin health
If you have skin issues, you should seriously consider supplementing with probiotics since it’s been shown that they promote healthier skin and can help to improve conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and acne.
Probiotics and weight loss
Some studies have shown that certain types of probiotics could help with weight loss. It has been found that certain bacteria, such as those from the Lactobacillus family, can help to inhibit the absorption of dietary fat.
Probiotics may also help to fight obesity in other ways, for example by increasing appetite-reducing hormone GLP-1 and increasing levels of the protein ANGPTL4 which may lead to decreased fat storage.
Probiotics and mental health
Probiotics are really powerful and they can even help us improve our mental health. Research has revealed that we can improve our mood, anxiety or depression just by altering the bacteria in our gut. It’s hard to believe but probiotics do affect our brain function and mood.
Probiotics and vaginal health
When it comes to female health, it has been shown that probiotics are helpful for establishing balance in the vaginal tract.
Many women experience frequent yeast infections in their vaginal tissues during their lifetime but when the probiotic supplement is added to their diet, this results in an improvement of their vaginal microbiota. It has been found that to restore and maintain a normal vaginal flora, a woman needs an oral dose of over one billion organisms per day (Probiotic Lactobacillus).
Probiotics and IBS
IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) is a common chronic illness with symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, cramping and constipation.
Probiotics may help reduce bloating and flatulence in some people with IBS.
But not all probiotics are beneficial for IBS – the strains of probiotics that have been shown to alleviate IBS symptoms come from Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus and Saccharomyces families. However, it’s worth noting that these probiotics may not work for everybody but since they are considered safe, there is no harm trying different types and see whether they work for you.
At the moment, unfortunately, more studies are needed to see which species and strains of probiotics are more effective for IBS and also, it needs to be clarified whether a combination is better than a single strain.
Probiotics and heart health
The good bacteria can bring some benefits to your heart too. Indirectly, probiotics may help to lower blood pressure although more studies are needed to research this area to see the effect of different products with different species and doses.
Probiotics could also help to lower your cholesterol, especially if your cholesterol levels are pretty high. It has been found that two types of Lactobacillus probiotics, L. plantarum and L. reuteri, were particularly effective in reducing cholesterol levels.
Probiotics side effects
While probiotics, in general, can be quite good for you, some people may experience side effects after taking them. These can be mild such as gas, bloating and diarrhea but they could also be more serious and may even cause infections that need treating with antibiotics. This is more likely to happen to people with existing health issues, however, it’s very rare.
It’s quite normal for your body to experience some uncomfortable symptoms when taking probiotics since this is a sign that your body is getting rid of the bad bacteria, replacing it with the good bacteria.
There will be always a transitional period when your body is getting used to a large dosage of beneficial bacteria but once your microbiome is more balanced, these symptoms will go away (it may take a few weeks though).
It’s worth noting that probiotic supplements are generally considered to be safe and most people do not experience any side effects at all.
Probiotics should not be taken by people with immune system disorders, pregnant women and those who are allergic to any of the ingredients these supplements contain.
What to look for when buying a probiotic supplement
So after learning all about probiotics’ benefits you may want to start supplementing. Here is what you should consider before buying a probiotic supplement:
- Type of probiotic – As mentioned in this post, some types of probiotics work better for certain conditions so make sure you buy the type that will bring benefits to you. First of all, ask yourself why you want to take the probiotics. For weight loss? For your mental health? Or to improve your IBS symptoms? Then see which probiotic strain is best for your condition or concern.
- Strength – The probiotic supplement should contain a large enough number of live microorganisms per unit in order to be effective. As a general rule, it’s recommended to take probiotic supplements with at least 1 billion CFUs (colony forming units, i.e., viable cells) but go for more if you can (at least 5 billion CFUs) to make sure it’s more effective.
- Is it gastro-resistant? – To reap the benefits of probiotics, you need to make sure the probiotics are able to reach your intestine alive. Many of them don’t make it to your colon because of the strong stomach acid which kills them off. To avoid that, buy only encapsulated probiotic supplements which have a special coating that provides a protective layer that can’t be eroded by stomach acid.
- Storage and shipping – Many probiotic bacteria are naturally sensitive to heat and moisture and if the probiotic supplements are not stored correctly then some of the good bacteria (or all) will die. That’s why many probiotic supplements require refrigeration (although not all of them). When buying a probiotic supplement online, check if it requires to be refrigerated and if it does, check with a retailer to make sure it’s being stored in the fridge. Also, ask about the shipping and make sure the supplements are delivered in a refrigerated box to avoid extreme heat, especially in warmer months.
Making sure you consume enough good bacteria daily is crucial for your health and comes with many benefits so don’t neglect this important aspect of your diet. Probiotic supplements are a good choice when you struggle with healthy eating, just make sure you buy the best quality and the strain that will work for your particular condition or concern. Although you can still take probiotics for general health, especially if you want to improve your immune system. If you are not sure which type of probiotics you should take and what dosage, consult a qualified nutritionist or dietitian.