Probiotics: Everything you need to know about our friendly bacteria
What are probiotics? Where do I find probiotics? How do probiotics affect my health? Can I eat too many probiotics? These are all questions that will be answered in this article.
What are probiotics?
Defined by the World Health Organization as any living microorganism that has health benefit when ingested in sufficient numbers, the word “probiotic” comes from two Greek words: “pro” which means the promotion of something and “biotic” which means life. Probiotics are good bacteria.
Probiotic bacteria are made up of cultures, the cultivation of bacteria, that has been proven to have specific health benefits such as supporting gut and immune health. These bacteria are important for the overall digestion and health of a body.
How do probiotics work? Simple. Humans naturally have between 300 to 1,000 different kinds of bacteria, known as gut flora, in our guts. By lining our gut, probiotic bacteria help our gut flora absorb the nutrients from the food you eat.
Mentioned in the Bible and sacred books of Hinduism, used in the Middle East and Asia to treat intestinal problems, and theorized by the Russians to be the fountain of youth, probiotics have a long history. The Romans recommended drinking fermented milk products to treat intestinal problems. Many of the products that were used so long ago are still used today. The biggest difference is that we know that what is in these products, the probiotics, are the curative medicine.
Types of probiotics
Probiotics are just the general and overall term for “friendly bacteria.” Within the term “probiotics” there are several different types of probiotic cultures. Each species/strain has its own health benefits. Some supplements combine more than one strain of probiotics together within the same supplement to expand the health benefits. These combined supplements are known as broad-spectrum probiotics or multi-probiotics.
Some of the most common strains include:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus: One of the most common types of probiotic and a bacteria found in your intestines, L. acidophilus is commonly found in yogurt, fermented foods, and cheese. L. acidophilus is beneficial for reducing cholesterol, as a diarrhea remedy, for improving symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and can help treat vaginal infections.
- Lactobacillus bulgarius: Living in our intestines, L. bulgarius is beneficial for repopulating the healthy bacteria within your gut after taking antibiotics, for example. L. Bulgarius is commonly found in yogurts, soy foods, and some juices.
- Lactobacillus reuteri: Living in our intestines and stomachs, L. reuteri promotes healthy hair and skin, lowers cholesterol, and promotes healthy gut bacteria. It can be used as an anti-inflammatory and speedy wound-healing anecdote.
- Streptococcus thermophilus: Found in milk and cheese products, S. thermophilus is good for improving diarrhea symptoms, raising our immune systems, and stimulates the growth of other healthy, friendly bacteria.
- Saccharomyces boulardii: A strain of probiotic bacteria that cannot be killed by antibiotics, it’s commonly encouraged to be taken while on antibiotics to promote and maintain gut and yeast health. S. boulardii is also good to take for diarrhea symptoms and IBS.
- Bifidobacterium bifidum: B. bifidum can be found in the colon. It’s most commonly used for diarrhea treatment, liver restoration, and digestion.
- Bacillus subtilis: This is the most resistant organism to hydrogen peroxide and is found in the gastronomical tract of humans.
How do we see probiotics? In what form?
It’s easy to see probiotics in everyday life because it comes in the form of food and pill supplements. The colony-forming units, known as CFUs is a microbiological term that tells us the density and amount of bacteria in a certain product. However, it can be difficult to know exactly how many probiotics are in most food products, especially because the amount will switch between food brands. That’s why, when you look at a bottle of yogurt, you may see that it “contains probiotics” but it likely doesn’t say how much of that friendly bacteria are inside the container.
A healthy probiotic dosage ranges from 1 to 10 billion colony-forming units, in general. However, some medical professionals may prescribe larger doses for certain medical conditions.
Due to the fact that these days most of our food is refrigerated and made with dangerous agricultural practices like soaking the food with chlorine or adding a ton of preservatives, our food contains a very little amount of probiotics, if any. A rather large amount of our food nowadays contains antibiotics that kill off the good bacteria in our bodies- having the opposite effect of probiotics. This is why it’s important to keep a healthy probiotic-strong diet.
Some foods high in probiotics are:
- Kefir: Kefir is a fermented dairy product similar to yogurt. While a rather sour tasting, it has been consumed for over 3,000 years throughout Russia and Turkey and means “feeling good.” It contains anywhere between 10 to 34 strains of probiotic bacteria. Because it is fermented with yeast and more bacteria, like yogurt, kefir ends up being high in the probiotic amount contained within.
- Coconut Kefir: A dairy-free kefir option, coconut kefir is made from fermented coconut juice. Though it is not as high as regular kefir in terms of the probiotic amount, coconut kefir still contains several strains of the healthy bacteria that are beneficial to one’s health.
- Raw Cheese: Buying raw and unpasteurized cheese from goat’s milk, sheep’s milk, and A2 cow’s milk is a great form of probiotic intake. Raw cheese contains thermophilus, bifidus, bulgaricus and acidophilus bacteria.
- Yogurt: If the yogurt has not been pasteurized and is coming from grass-fed animals, yogurt can rank as one of the highest probiotic foods on the market. Because of the variety of yogurt out there, three things to keep in mind in order to get the most/best probiotic yogurt are: make sure it comes from grass-fed animals, that it comes from goat or sheep milk, and that it’s organic yogurt.
- Soybeans: In products such as miso soup (soybean paste) or tempeh (soybean cake), probiotics are abundant.
Are probiotics safe?
Probiotics are safe to take in the right amounts and have many healing benefits. Several studies have proven that probiotics help support your immune system and digestive system by providing a regular source of “friendly” bacteria for the intestinal tract. They may also help maintain the balance of bacteria in the intestinal tract. A collection of studies put together by Harvard claims that it is unknown whether or not this friendly bacteria safe for every person.
However, unfortunately, probiotics are not regulated like drugs and food and some manufacturers have overused the word “probiotics” in order to sell their products. Some manufacturers will use bacteria in their products that haven’t been scientifically proven to have any health benefits, and sell it under the label of “probiotics”. Because of this, the European Food Safety Authority has banned the word “probiotic” on all foods in the European Union. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that a probiotic, sold as a dietary supplement, go through safety and effectiveness testing as they do with drugs.
Overall, probiotics are safe in the correct amount and provide healing benefits. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep in mind the product you’re buying (food, supplement, etc.) and how many real probiotics it may or may not contain.
How do probiotics affect the body?
While everybody is different, there are many potential benefits to probiotics. However, the benefits will differ by type of probiotic bacteria and quantity consumed.
Probiotics can affect the brain by:
- Increase in vitamin B12: There can be an increase in the vitamin B12 production when using a probiotic supplement or food. Vitamin B12 plays a key role in the functioning of our brains.
- Depression and anxiety: The probiotic strains Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum have been proven to lessen the symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with clinical depression.
Among a wide variety of stomach ailments that probiotics can help with, a few of those include:
- Improved Digestion: Digestion improves with a probiotic increase because the good bacteria overtakes the bad bacteria. If we have good bacteria in our guts, there’s nowhere for the bad bacteria to hang out. When we have enough good bacteria in our guts, our digestion should work without a hitch.
- Healing from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): In a study done on females with IBS, the symptoms of abdominal pain and irregularity decreased when they were given a probiotic supplement.
- Antibiotic-Associated Diarrhea (AAD): In an analysis recently published by the American Medical Association, probiotics were found to be useful for fighting against the gastrointestinal problem of AAD. This is due to the fact that antibiotics kill not only the illness-causing bacteria but also the healthy, friendly bacteria in our intestines that help us digest.
How probiotics affect the rest of the body:
- Stronger immune system: In one study, participants were given a fermented drink instead of milk. The result showed a rise in lymphocytes, an immune response, which shows that our immune system barriers increase when using this friendly bacteria.
- Weight loss/fight obesity: A Stanford study in 2006 found that obese people have a higher level of gut flora (bacteria) than leaner people. This means that gut bacteria play a role in overall weight. Preliminary research shows that probiotics can be useful in order to keep off weight after a weight loss surgery. It’s been theorized that this friendly bacteria also aid in weight loss, although there is less concrete evidence about how significant a role they may play when losing weight.
- Women’s health: Vaginas, just like out guts, rely on a balance of good and bad bacteria. When the bacteria gets off balance, bacterial vaginosis (an infection that can lead to a yeast infection) and yeast infections are prone to happen. Some studies have discovered that L. acidophilus can help prevent and manage vaginal infections.
- Urinary tract infections (UTI): By keeping the bacteria in the urinary tract healthy and high in number, UTIs can be fought using this friendly bacteria. Due to the fact that Urinary Tract Infections are so common, especially in women, and that UTIs are treated with antibiotics, it’s always smart to take some probiotics if the symptoms of a UTI start.
- Increased energy: Our gut flora helps produce vitamin K and some B vitamins.
- Better breath: Probiotics destroy candida, the main bacteria that causes yeast infections and bad breath – especially with the overuse of antibiotics.
- Healthier skin: Said to improve eczema and psoriasis, essentially fancy names for inflamed, red skin. It is also said to help clear up acne and dermatitis.
- Inflammation: Probiotics have been known to reduce systemic inflammation, a large contributor to the progression and worsening of some disorders.
Side effects of probiotics
While probiotics are usually well tolerated, you can experience gas, bloating, and mild abdominal discomfort within the first few days. This is because the good bacteria are cleaning up your digestive system. However, probiotics are natural and when taken with the correct dosage, side effects are unlikely to happen. After the first few days, your digestion should be healthier than before.
However, with people who have compromised immune systems like HIV, AIDS, and cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, probiotics can lead to dangerous infections. For example, sepsis, heart infections, or bacterial infections.
There are no known (bad) interactions between probiotics and medications.
Benefits of probiotics
This friendly bacteria is incredibly beneficial. According to recent research, the regular consumption of probiotics can help maintain the balance of intestinal microflora, the bacteria in our large intestine, which helps our intestines work properly. More research suggests that the probiotic cultures, the healthy and friendly bacteria, help not only treat but can also prevent a wide variety of ailments; such as leaky gut syndrome.
What happens if we have too many probiotics?
If we don’t get enough, the side effects can be digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, candida, skin issues, and frequent colds and cases of flu.
However, what happens when we have too many? Can we have too many? The answer is yes, we can. If we have too many probiotics, our bodies will get rid of the excess bacteria through fecal waste. While there are not any concrete studies proving or disproving that the idea that an overdose exists, the saying still goes, “too much of a good thing can be bad”.
What do you eat to keep a healthy gut? Do you have any recommended brands of probiotic supplements? Let us know in the comments below!
Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.