Do you wrinkle your nose when you hear the terms yeast or bacteria? Are you someone who thinks these microorganisms can only bring problems or discomfort? In truth, there are many types of bacteria and yeasts that can be helpful to the body. They are collectively referred to as probiotics.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are living organisms that function similarly to those same organisms we find inside the human gastrointestinal tract, according to research published by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Probiotics are typically some variety of bacteria or yeast, and they are naturally occurring in the human body. Probiotic bacteria and yeasts can be widely helpful to many different individuals, sometimes to treat specific health conditions and other times to simply manage the digestive system and gut health as a whole.
Probiotics can be sold and purchased as dietary supplements, foods, topicals and many other types of products1. Still, like any type of medicine, supplement or product used to administer potential health benefits, probiotics must be used safely — and as directed — in order for the individual to experience the best possible results.
Probiotics Are Also Known As
Probiotics go by a number of different names. They may often be referred to by their specific names (we’ll get to these in a minute), but they are also sometimes called good bacteria, healthy bacteria or friendly bacteria (NCCIH).
This is partly to make individuals more understanding of the fact that the human body can actually benefit from certain bacteria. These bacteria help parts of the body to function the right way (NCCIH).
Different Forms of Probiotics
There are a large number of probiotic supplements available for purchase, but the types you need to know can be easily broken down into three categories. These include:
Lactobacillus is a probiotic bacteria that can be found in the digestive tract and the genitals, according to the National Library of Medicine. It can also be found in foods and dietary supplements. There are many different types of lactobacillus-based probiotics for sale, but here are some of the most popular.
- Lactobacillus Acidophilus: Lactobacillus acidophilus can help with digestion problems and treat issues associated with the intestinal tract (National Cancer Institute). This bacteria has also been used for many years to treat liver problems2.
- Lactobacillus Plantarum: Lactobacillus plantarum is extremely adaptable when it comes to being used in food, supplements and other products3. This bacteria can strengthen many important processes in the body, including maximizing the number of compounds necessary to carry out regular bodily functions and boosting immune function.
- Lactobacillus Rhamnosus: Like many other types of probiotic bacteria, lactobacillus rhamnosus can help treat gastrointestinal issues, including diarrhea. A 2014 study mentions the effectiveness of lactobacillus rhamnosus for treating diarrhea in children4. It has also been found to enhance adaptive immunity (NCI).
- Lactobacillus Casei: Lactobacillus casei is usually found in the mouth and urinary tract. Like most other lactobacillus bacteria, it can help to treat diarrhea and digestive problems, but a recent study found it can also be effective for oral problems like canker sores and chronically-diagnosed halitosis5.
- Lactobacillus Reuteri: Lactobacillus reuteri can be effective for treating inflammatory diseases. According to a 2018 study, humans have seen a decrease in the natural buildup of this bacteria in their bodies over the years, which corresponds with an increase in inflammatory diseases6.
Bifidobacterium can also be found naturally inside the intestines. In many cases, supplements containing bifidobacterium are used to treat digestive problems, constipation and diarrhea (NLM).
- Bifidobacterium Animalis: This probiotic can often be found in fermented dairy items, and as cited in a 2007 study, it can be effective for regulating the body’s metabolic processes7.
- Bifidobacterium Infantis: This bacterium is sometimes used to treat irritable bowel syndrome, as expressed by Wiley Online Library.
- Bifidobacterium Breve: This probiotic can be potentially effective for treating all kinds of issues: from weight gain to mild skin problems to allergies. A recent study also found that it can be effective to give newborns bifidobacterium breve while they are in the hospital to boost immunity8.
- Bifidobacterium Longums: Bifidobacterium longums is one of the most popular probiotics for treating lactose intolerance, fighting infection, treating inflammation and simply improving gut health.
- Bifidobacterium Lactis: This probiotic is a good choice for those who are struggling with low immunity and digestive problems. A 2008 study also found it to be effective against the negative effects of wheat gliadin9.
Saccharomyces is a type of fungi that contains yeast. Most yeast-based probiotics are some form of saccharomyces boulardii, which is found naturally in the intestinal tract. Like other probiotics, it can be used to treat intestinal issues and diseases, but there are also many possible side effects associated with the use of saccharomyces boulardii10.
Probiotics and Prebiotics: Are They the Same?
Prebiotics are also dietary supplements, but these encourage the growth of good bacteria. They can help a person be more likely to grow healthier rather than harmful bacteria, but they are not filled with live microorganisms the way probiotics are.
Benefits of Probiotics
Different types of probiotics can be used in many different ways to minimize clinical issues, treat health conditions and simply make an individual healthier and happier in their day-to-day life.
- Probiotics can be used to treat digestive disorders. These can vary greatly between chronic issues, like IBS, Crohn’s disease and IBD, and short-term problems like diarrhea11.
- Diarrhea is one of the issues most often treated with probiotics. When infections cause this symptom, it can sometimes be minimized with the help of these friendly bacteria. Antibiotic associated diarrhea can also be treated with probiotics, specifically lactobacillus rhamnosus and saccharomyces boulardii12.
- Probiotics can be helpful for strengthening immunity in some individuals, as evidenced in the research collected for a 2014 study13.
- Unfortunately, though, people with weak immune systems have sometimes experienced serious side effects when using probiotics. As a result, it is best to seek a doctor’s advice before using probiotics, especially if you have a weakened immune function.
- Treating allergies (such as seasonal or food-related allergies) with probiotics is a relatively new idea, but it has gotten results in some cases, a sentiment also echoed by the NCCIH.
- A study from 2016 stated probiotics may be helpful in the treatment of atopic dermatitis or eczema14.
- Dental issues, such as gum disease, tooth decay and others, can sometimes be treated with probiotics as well, especially lactobacillus casei15.
Harvard Medical School extols the virtues of probiotics, stating that research has found them to be helpful with treating other conditions than those normally associated with their use, such as pouchitis, urinary and vaginal infections and H. pylori, which can cause ulcers. In addition, probiotics have been found to be effective for overall gut health, vaginal health and sometimes even weight loss16.
Daily Recommended Allowance
It’s important to be aware of the recommended allowance of probiotics that your body can handle. Like with any other type of supplement, overdoing the amount you take in can be dangerous. Taking one or two capsules several days out of the week is usually effective but won't flood your body with too many helpful bacteria. In most cases, there are anywhere from 1 billion to 10 billion CFUs or colony forming units in one probiotic capsule.
Of course, all the different types of probiotics deviate from one another, contain differing amounts of CFUs and cause diverse effects. It’s usually best to stick with one capsule a day or fewer in order to play it safe, especially when you first start taking probiotics. Over time, you may be able to increase the amount you use with the help of a doctor's recommendation.
How to Use Probiotics
Essentially, probiotics can be effective in many ways for different health conditions and needs. Still, medical research and clinical trials associated with probiotics are not nearly as extensive as they must be to prove definite, positive effects in most users17. In addition, some individuals have been known to experience negative side effects. One must remember that, when looking at the benefits of probiotics, the same precautions should be taken as when using any other kind of supplement or medicine.
Other helpful tips for taking probiotics
Chlorine can actually minimize the effects of probiotics, since its job is to kill bacteria. Because chlorine is often added to municipal water supplies, it’s best to take your supplement with bottled water or any water that is non-chlorinated.
Make sure to eat your daily amount of fiber — and prebiotic fiber — in order to help your body better process the probiotics. Some foods that can help with this are onions, garlic, asparagus, bananas and oats.
Take your probiotics on an empty stomach to get the most effective results possible, unless this is not a healthful option for you.
Finally, make sure you talk to a healthcare provider before you start a regular routine with probiotics. There’s a possibility you could experience side effects associated with a medication you’re taking or even because of a condition you have. Never start taking supplements unless you have discussed their use with a medical professional first.
Symptoms of Probiotic Deficiency
Being able to recognize when the probiotics in your body have become depleted is important. After all, most people only need probiotics when this has occurred or if they are dealing with another health issue. Below are some of the signs that you might need supplemental probiotics to help you stay healthy.
Signs of probiotic deficiency
- Food cravings, especially for sugar, or a diet of mostly sugary foods
- Bad breath
- Stomach problems
- Sensitivities to certain foods
- Irritated skin
- Mood swings
- Lowered immunity
Who Is at Risk of a Probiotic Deficiency?
The people who are most likely to experience issues with a probiotic deficiency are those taking antibiotics. Antibiotics kill the bad bacteria in your system, but unfortunately, they can also take down some of the good bacteria.
Those with weakened immune systems may also be victims of probiotic deficiency. However, you’ll want to discuss taking probiotics with a doctor before you do so, as the National Institute on Medicine warns that some individuals with weak immune systems experience serious side effects from these supplements.
Foods that Contain Probiotics
If you’re not sure you want to obtain additional probiotics from the use of supplements, you can also find them in certain foods. Yogurt is one of the best-known probiotic foods, but there are several others that can be extremely effective, including
- Probiotic milk drinks like kefir
- Dark chocolate
- Gouda and cheddar cheese
- Cottage cheese
Foods that are naturally fermented will pack a probiotic punch too. This includes almost any food that is pickled and, surprisingly, beer18!
Probiotics and You
So, there you have it! While probiotics are not exactly the miracle-working, life-saving organisms they’re made out to be, they can still be extremely helpful and healthful, especially if you’re struggling with a specific condition or issues that lead back to gut health. If these situations are relevant to your own, it is possible that you could benefit from the use of these friendly bacteria.
Citations and Sources
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