The condition of your gut impacts far more than you might realize. Researchers connect nearly every disease including obesity with gut health, or more specifically, the 100 trillion microbes or bacteria that live in your gut.
Your gut will always harbor some bad bacteria, but you want to maintain the right balance of gut flora. Gut flora imbalances (a condition called dysbiosis) — when too much bad flora takes over — can lead to weight gain, increased risk for disease, and gut problems including leaky gut.
According to The Cleveland Clinic, probiotics are a combination of live beneficial bacteria and/or yeasts that naturally live in your body. Bacteria is usually viewed in a negative light as something that makes you sick. However, you have two kinds of bacteria constantly in and on your body — good bacteria and bad bacteria. Probiotics are made up of good bacteria that helps keep your body healthy and working well. This good bacteria helps you in many ways, including fighting off bad bacteria when you have too much of it, helping you feel better.
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Probiotics are part of a larger picture concerning bacteria and your body — your microbiome. Think of a microbiome as a diverse community of organisms, such as a forest, that work together to keep your body healthy. This community is made up of things called microbes. You have trillions of microbes on and in your body. These microbes are a combination of:
- Fungi (including yeasts).
Everyone’s microbiome is unique. No two people have the same microbial cells — even twins are different.
Where do beneficial probiotics (microbes) live in my body?
Though the most common place linked to beneficial microbes is your gut (mostly large intestines), you have several locations in and on your body that host good microbes. These locations are in contact with the “outside world” and include your:
- Gut, mouth, vagina, urinary tract, skin and lungs.
How do probiotics work?
The main job of probiotics, or good bacteria, is to maintain a healthy balance in your body. Think of it as keeping your body in neutral. When you are sick, bad bacteria enters your body and increases in number. This knocks your body out of balance. Good bacteria works to fight off the bad bacteria and restore the balance within your body, making you feel better.
Good bacteria keeps you healthy by supporting your immune function and controlling inflammation. Certain types of good bacteria can also:
- Help your body digest food.
- Keep bad bacteria from getting out of control and making you sick.
- Create vitamins.
- Help support the cells that line your gut to prevent bad bacteria that you may have consumed (through food or drinks) from entering your blood.
- Breakdown and absorb medications.
This balancing act is naturally happening in your body all of the time. You don’t actually need to take probiotic supplements to make it happen. Good bacteria is just a natural part of your body. Eating a well-balanced diet rich in fiber every day helps to keep the number of good bacteria at proper levels.
What are the most common types of probiotic bacteria?
Though there are many types of bacteria that can be considered probiotics, there are two specific types of bacteria that are common probiotics found in stores. These include:
Probiotics are also made up of good yeast. The most common type of yeast found in probiotics is:
- Saccharomyces boulardii.
Some of the conditions that might be helped by increasing the amount of probiotics in your body (through food or supplements) include:
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Yeast infections.
- Urinary tract infections.
- Gum disease.
- Lactose intolerance.
- Eczema (atopic dermatitis).
- Upper respiratory infections (ear infections, common cold, sinusitis).
- Sepsis (specifically in infants).
Can I take or eat something to increase the good probiotics (microbes) in my body?
You can increase the amount of good microbes in your body through foods, drinks and supplements. You may already have certain foods in your daily diet that contain probiotics. Fermented foods in particular (yogurt and pickles, for example) are home to a host of good bacteria that benefit your body. There are also fermented drinks like kombucha (fermented tea) or kefir (fermented dairy drink) that introduce extra probiotics into your diet.
Foods high in probiotics can be introduced into your diet at any point of the day. You may even be regularly eating them now and not realize that they contain probiotics. You will want to check the food label for “live and active cultures.” A few suggestions for just some of the probiotic-rich foods you can add to your diet and some times to try them include:
For breakfast, try: Yogurt, Buttermilk, Sourdough bread.
For lunch, try: Cottage cheese, Kombucha, Tempeh.
For dinner, try: Fermented sauerkraut, Kimchi, Miso soup.
Make sure you are still creating a balanced and healthy meal each time you sit down to eat. Though adding probiotic-rich foods into your diet won’t hurt you, balance is still key. Adding too much of just one food prevents your body from reaping the benefits of other food groups.
Probiotic supplements may be combined with a prebiotic. Prebiotics are complex carbohydrates that feed the microorganisms in your gut.
- Basically, prebiotics are the “food source” for the good bacteria. They help feed the good bacteria and keep it healthy. Prebiotics include inulin, pectin and resistant starches.
When you have a supplement that combines a probiotic and prebiotic, it’s called a synbiotic.
Choosing a Probiotic
To choose the best probiotic, consider the following criteria shared by MaxLiving:
- Billions of organisms: The best probiotic contains billions (not millions) of microorganisms in several species including Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. One study found Lactobacillus could promote weight loss for people eating medium or low intakes of complex carbohydrates. Researchers found low levels of oral Lactobacillus could increase weight gain.
- Quality supplements: Probiotics have numerous barriers to cross before they arrive in your gut to optimize flora levels. Manufacturing, shelf life, and stability as probiotics move through the gastrointestinal tract can all impact that delivery. Probiotics are living creatures, and sitting on drugstore shelves for months or years mean very few of these organisms survive.
- A prebiotic-probiotic combination: To maintain optimal levels of gut flora, you want to enhance probiotics (which are living organisms) while also providing them with the fuel to thrive on (prebiotics). Studies show enhancing probiotics with prebiotics could complement and enhance their activity.
- Additional gut-supporting nutrients: Among its benefits, vitamin D — actually a hormone, not a vitamin — can support immune function, reduce inflammation, and protect the gut wall against problems such as leaky gut. The ideal supplement, then, contains the right blend of probiotics, prebiotics, and vitamin D.
What about Probiotic supplements?
Harvard Health explains that in the United States, most probiotics are sold as dietary supplements, which do not undergo the testing and approval process that drugs do. Manufacturers are responsible for making sure they’re safe before they’re marketed and that any claims made on the label are true. But there’s no guarantee that the types of bacteria listed on a label are effective for the condition you’re taking them for. Health benefits are strain-specific, and not all strains are necessarily useful, so you may want to consult a practitioner familiar with probiotics to discuss your options. As always, let your primary care provider know what you’re doing.