How Probiotics Work

How Probiotics Work

What they are and why they’re important

Probiotics are usually a mix of different strains of bacteria, and sometimes yeast, and are currently a popular topic among scientific research and everyday conversation. These microorganisms can enhance digestive health and our mental well-being, boost our immunity, help with allergies, clear acne, help with weight loss, and reduce symptoms of eczema and psoriasis.

Our bodies host a variety of good and bad bacteria. Probiotics are the good bacteria as they promote a balanced gut microbiome which is essential for efficient digestion, nutrient absorption, and immune system. They work by crowding out the harmful bacterial, using up the resources and taking up space in the gut.

Taking antibiotics frequently or consuming different microorganisms (i.e., eating and drinking in Mexico) can change our microbiome causing an imbalance and lead to an unhealthy gut. 

Our microbiomes differ from person to person so much so that they are even more identifiable than fingerprints!

Probiotics for digestive disorders

Probiotics can help alleviate bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation and have been most effective with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Boost your immune system

A significant portion of our immune system resides in our gut. Probiotics help strengthen the gut barrier, reducing the risk of infections and boosting overall immunity.

Probiotics for allergies

Probiotics may help reduce the risk of developing allergies by controlling the immune response and reducing inflammation. They also help reduce allergy and asthma symptoms.

And beware, some probiotics can cause allergies – see Types of probiotics below.

How they affect mental health

Emerging research suggests a connection between the gut and the brain, often referred to as the gut-brain axis. In fact, the stomach has been called the second brain. Probiotics may help boost our mood and our cognitive function and lower stress, depression and anxiety. 

Weight loss and metabolism

Some studies suggest that certain probiotic strains can help with weight management by promoting a healthy balance of gut bacteria associated with weight regulation and improved metabolism. 

Clearing up acne

Research shows that probiotics may reduce skin eruptions, as acne can be linked to the condition of the digestive system and its microbiome.

Eczema and psoriasis

Although the research on eczema and probiotics is currently inconclusive, eczema has been linked to gut health.

Types of probiotics

There are about 300-500 bacterial species living in our microbiomes. Different probiotic strains offer various health benefits. Aim for diversity in your probiotic sources to maximize benefits. Here are some of the more common strains:

Bacillus coagulans helps with FODMAP intolerances and improves IBS symptoms.

Bifidobacterium longum thrives in the colon, helps prevent pathogens, improves lactose tolerance, prevents diarrhea, reduces allergies, may help prevent cancer, reduces the risk for atheroscelerosis and stroke and alleviates constipation and stress.

B. bifidum is found in the large intestine and vagina, helps break down simple sugars, increases immune function, helps treat candida and fights pathogens.

B. infantis helps with pain, bloating and constipation and plays a critical role in breaking down the complex carbohydrates that our bodies can’t digest.

B. lactis (or B. animalis) is beneficial in people with constipation IBS, it protects intestinal cells from damage by gluten in celiac disease and stimulates the production of antibodies.

Lactobacillus acidophilus helps to digest carbohydrates, is highly resistant to stomach acid, and helps with FODMAP intolerances.

L. bulgaricus, L. buchneri, L. helveticus, L. hilgardi, and L. reuteri can cause histamine reactions.

L. casei can also cause a histamine reaction. It’s found in our mouths and intestines and in fermented foods, it inhibits Helicobacter pylori infections, helps in antibiotic and infectious diarrhea, speeds the recovery of pneumonia and helps chronic fatigue syndrome.

L. plantarum is found in fermented foods and the gastrointestinal tract and prevents pathogens. It has antioxidant, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antidiabetic properties and helps with weight loss.

L. rhamnosus is very resistant to stomach acid and bile, it’s found in the mouth, gastrointestinal tract, vagina and urinary tract in women, treats rotavirus diarrhea, eczema but can cause infections in those with weakened immune systems.

Saccharomyces boulardii is a yeast that promotes anti-yeast activity, prevents and treats diarrhea, stimulates the immune system, inhibits inflammation, and treats travellers’ diarrhea.

Streptococcus thermophilus helps digest lactose but can cause a histamine reaction in some people. It has antioxidant, reduces the risk of some types of cancer, is anti-inflammatory and stimulates our immune systems.

Where to find them

Probiotics can be found in fermented foods and in supplements. Common fermented foods include yogurt (look for live and active cultures), kefir, sauerkraut (look for unpasteurized), kimchi, miso, kombucha and tempeh.

Supplements come in capsules, tablets, and powders. Some need refrigeration while others are shelf stable. It’s best to purchase them from a health food store, where they understand the appropriate storage conditions.

What to look for when buying

When buying probiotics, you want to look at the number and types of different bacteria, the number of active cells, whether they need to be refrigerated or not, the number of Colony Forming Units (CFU), and the dosage. Some probiotics may be found in the store’s refrigerator only to extend their shelf life, while others need to be refrigerated to keep their potency. CFU is the number of alive and active microorganisms in one serving. When comparing different probiotics, keep in mind the dose. You might need to take it once a day versus three times a day. 

Know that probiotics only temporarily modify your gut bacteria, so you need to take them regularly.

Consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian to choose the right supplement for your specific health concerns.

Dose and timing 

Probiotics have a better chance of surviving our stomach acid when taken with food. If you’re on antibiotics, the general rule is to take your probiotics at least 2-3 hours before or after a meal. Follow the instructions on the bottle of your probiotic.

Side effects

Side effects are rare but some people may experience mild stomach upset, diarrhea, gas or bloating for the first few days. Sometimes the body just needs to get used to an increased number of good bacteria, or it could mean you have an imbalance in your microbiome.

To reduce the side effects, you can try taking them at night when you have less food in your stomach or decrease the dose for a couple of days and then gradually increase it.

Our guts do a lot more than digest our food. Maintaining a healthy biome with probiotics makes for a healthier you!

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