Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics

Everything You Need to Know About Probiotics

Have you had your daily dose of bacteria? It is not as crazy as it sounds. Beneficial microorganisms, or probiotics, are naturally present in fermented foods like yogurt. More and more, scientists are discovering that taking probiotic supplements can be good for your health.   

What Are Probiotics? 

Human beings have billions of bacteria and yeasts that live in our bodies and help us in a variety of ways such as aiding in digestion, creating vitamins, breaking down medications so the body can absorb them, controlling inflammation and fighting off “bad” microorganisms that can make us sick. 

The collection of microorganisms living inside of us is called a microbiome. The majority of our microbiome is in our intestines, but some of it is distributed throughout the body in places like the mouth, urinary tract, vagina (in women), skin and lungs. Generally speaking, the function of the microbiome is to maintain a healthy balance in the body.

Sometimes, the microbiome is out of balance. This can happen from an external reason such as taking antibiotics which kill beneficial as well as harmful bacteria, using spermicide or taking birth control pills, or an internal cause. Scientists are not sure what internal conditions cause an imbalance in the microbiome, but at least one of the causes may be related to nutrition. 

That is where probiotic supplements come in. Probiotic supplements contain billions of cultures of live beneficial bacteria and/or yeast that establish themselves in your body to rebalance your health. Certain types of probiotics must be refrigerated to stay in a suspended state until they are ingested.

What Can Probiotics Help Treat? 

Some doctors recommend probiotic supplements for disorders like irritable bowel syndrome for which there is no conventional treatment. 

Studies have also found that probiotics may be effective in treating and/or preventing:

  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Acid reflux
  • Ulcerative colitis 
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Gum disease
  • Upper respiratory infections including ear infections, sinusitis and the common cold
  • Allergies and eczema in children 
  • Sepsis in infants
  • Vaginal and urinary tract infections in women

Some studies have shown that the microbiome in overweight people is markedly different from that of healthy weight individuals. Although this research is ongoing, it is possible that probiotics could be used in the future to assist with weight loss.

Types of Probiotics

While there are many species of bacteria and yeast that are considered to be probiotics, only a few kinds are commonly sold in stores as supplements. Each type of probiotics has specific health uses. Use the information below as a guide to choosing the best probiotic for your health concern.

Lactobacillus acidophilus

This type of probiotic, also referred to as lactobacillus or acidophilus, breaks down lactose, a sugar found in milk, into lactic acid. It also increases the amount of other “good” bacteria in the intestines like other strains of lactobacilli and bifidobacteria, which strengthens your body’s immune system.

Lactobacillus may be used to help prevent and reduce:

  • Cholesterol
  • Diarrhea caused by antibiotic usage and traveler’s diarrhea, especially in children
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Vaginal infections such as vaginosis and yeast infections
  • Cold and flu symptoms 
  • Allergies
  • Eczema 

Bifidobacterium bifidum

Like lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium is a beneficial bacteria species that lives in the intestine. Although there is less research on Bifidobacterium than on lactobacillus, studies have shown promising results in using bifidobacterium supplements to prevent and/or reduce: 

  • Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
  • Eczema in infants
  • Infection by helicobacter pylori
  • Lung infection
  • Constipation
  • Necrotizing enterocolitis
  • Pouchitis

Saccharomyces boulardii 

Unlike lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, saccharomyces is a type of yeast, not bacteria. It works primarily in the colon rather than the intestines. It is available as a lyophilized product, which is stable at room temperature and maintains high viability counts over time as well as in heat-dried preparations which require refrigeration. The lyophilized product was found to be more effective. According to research by the National Institute of Health (NIH), saccharomyces is effective in treating: 

  • Diarrhea (antibiotic-associated, acute, traveler’s, enteral nutrition-related, HIV-related and persistent)
  • Clostridium difficile infection
  • Helicobacter pylori infection
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Parasitic infections (amebic colitis, giardiasis and blastocystis hominis)

How to Take Probiotic Supplements

Probiotic supplements are available as capsules, pills, powders and liquids. Some are shelf stable and can be kept at room temperature while others must remain refrigerated. When you buy a probiotic supplement, read the label and follow the instructions for proper storage.

Probiotic supplements can be taken along with a prebiotic. Prebiotics are complex carbohydrates such as inulin, pectin and resistant starches that are a food source for the probiotic bacteria or yeast. Some supplements contain both prebiotics and probiotics; these are called synbiotics.

It is normal to experience mild stomach upset, diarrhea or gassiness in the first few days after starting to take probiotic supplements, but these symptoms go away once the body adjusts itself.

Risks of Probiotics

Probiotics are generally considered safe for adults and children. Nevertheless, taking a probiotic supplement is not for everyone. If you have a weakened immune system, a critical illness or have recently had surgery, use caution when using probiotic supplements. Some people may have an allergic reaction to probiotic supplements. If you are taking a prescription medication, the probiotic might interfere with it.

It is important to understand that probiotic supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That means that there is no guarantee that the product you ingest will contain what it says on the label or not contain contaminants. That said, certain probiotic brands have a good reputation for safety and efficacy. 

Ask your doctor about probiotics before taking any or giving them to your children. If your doctor approves probiotic use, ask for type and brand recommendations to select the best probiotic supplement.