probioticsA Beginner’s Guide to Probiotics

Gut health has become a much-discussed topic in the health and wellness community. Fermented foods have never been hotter. Americans have flocked to kombucha in waves, turning the ancient drink into a $747.5 billion industry. On top of that, there’s a whole section of probiotic supplements gracing store shelves, promising health benefits that range from clear skin to weight loss to improved digestion.

Are probiotics the latest miracle supplement? The answer isn’t cut and dry. Here’s a little background on probiotics—what they are, what they can do and what they might do.

What is a probiotic?

Probiotics are good bacteria known for their ability to maintain digestive health and protect the immune system. Probiotics can be taken as a dietary supplement or consumed through food sources like kimchi, yogurt and other fermented foods.

The primary use of probiotics is supporting gut health. There’s good evidence, for instance, on these supplements helping patients with irritable bowel syndrome or other digestive concerns.

What are the health benefits of probiotics?

Research on the topic of probiotics only began about 20 years ago. While there is a whole host of promising information, whether these bacteria live up to all of the hype still requires further study. Here are some of the key benefits associated with taking these supplements, and the latest research on each area.

Immune health: The bacteria in your colon is connected to your immune system. The state of your personal microbiome can affect how your immune system responds to incoming colds, cases of flu and infectious diseases. A 2012 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that certain probiotic strains increase immune system function. But whether that translates into meaningful long-term benefits remains to be seen. Studies have been inconsistent, for example, on whether taking probiotics will actually curb colds and other upper-respiratory infections. In 2011, a Cochrane review came to the conclusion that probiotics could be useful in preventing infections. Still, the study looked at a limited dataset, with no information on the effects of probiotics in older adults.

Weight loss: Some say that probiotics can help users lose weight. The Journal of Nutrition found people who drank a type of fermented milk over a 12-week course saw a reduction in body weight, as compared to those consuming a placebo drink. The Journal of Functional Foods conducted a similar study with yogurt containing two “novel” strains of probiotics. Participants saw minor losses in fat composition but no change in their weight.

Oral health: Bacteria don’t just live in the large intestine. For better or worse, they’ve also have taken up residence in the mouth. Some experts believe that probiotics could help stave off gum disease, bad breath and throat infections. Not surprisingly, the market has been flooded with probiotic lozenges aiming to boost your oral health.

Additional benefits linked to probiotics include treating urinary tract infections, yeast infections, anxiety, diarrhea and ulcers. They could also play a role in colon cancer prevention, though definitive research has yet to be released on this subject.

Is it better to take supplements or eat probiotic-rich foods?

This is a complex question. Humans can theoretically get enough nutrients from food alone. But dietary restrictions, convenience, poor food quality and human nature often get in the way of achieving the perfect balance, and quantity, of key nutrients. Taking a probiotic supplement is a safe way to ensure you’re getting your daily dose of good bacteria.

Eating probiotic-rich foods such as kombucha, kimchi and yogurt can provide an added boost of probiotics. But because there’s no right way to measure how much of these critical nutrients you’re consuming, high-quality probiotic supplements can give your body an extra line of defense.

If you’re planning on purchasing a probiotic supplement, be sure to check the expiration date. Bacteria will start to die off after a certain point, so the fresher the supplement, the better. Also keep in mind that slow-release supplements can prevent your stomach acids from killing off incoming probiotics—ensuring good bacteria actually makes it into your large intestine.

Are there any risks associated with taking probiotics?

Probiotics are safe for most people, so long as you do your research and choose a quality supplement. However, if you have a serious condition such as short bowel syndrome, pancreatitis or an autoimmune disease, probiotics may cause more harm than good.

In some cases, probiotic supplements could cause an allergic reaction or an infection. Healthy users could also experience mild side effects. It takes a little while for your body to get used to taking probiotics, so don’t be surprised if you see some gas and bloating initially.

In most cases, probiotics will provide more benefits than skipping out on this interesting source of nutrients. Still, if you’ve never used probiotics before, talk to your doctor before adding any new supplements into your regimen. And if you’re exploring probiotics for weight loss, read reviews of these other supplements to see if they’re the right choice for you.

Cory is a veteran health industry writer and content creator. His work has been featured in major publications such as MyFitnessPal, Healthy Living, and Low Carb Fanatics. His health industry writing career spans over nearly two decades.

In his free time, Cory enjoys snowboarding, fictional writing, and online chess.