If you’re on antibiotics for an infection, or you have some mild digestive disturbances such as diarrhea, friends, family members, and your physician have likely advised you to take probiotics to help with digestion or to fight off getting a cold or other virus. While you can take probiotic supplements, many foods have naturally occurring probiotics already in their makeup. However, probiotics are still bacteria, and the difference between “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria” is worth explaining. Read on to learn about what probiotics are and how they help, what the different types of probiotics are, and the risks of any potential side effects.
What Are Probiotics?
The word “bacteria’ often has a negative connotation. We take antibiotics to ward off harmful bacteria; we use antibacterial soap. The list goes on and on regarding the different ways to ‘fight” bacteria or bacterial infections. However, not all bacteria are bad, and there are “good bacteria” as well. Probiotics are tiny live microorganisms naturally occurring in some foods (such as yogurt), but they can also be added to supplements or over-the-counter remedies. Not only do probiotics boost the immune system, but they also help regulate the digestive tract by maintaining the balance of bacteria. In other words, if you have a healthy balance of both “good bacteria” and “bad bacteria” in the digestive tract, it is likely healthy. There is no avoiding the bad - it will exist in your digestive system nonetheless - it is maintaining the balance that is important.
When you have an imbalance in the digestive tract (also known as dysbiosis), then you may have a corresponding disease of the intestinal or digestive tract. Some of these diseases may include ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), celiac disease, or Crohn’s disease. Probiotics can also help with bloating and diarrhea. Those with an imbalance are also more prone to type 1 diabetes or the development of type 2 diabetes.
How Do Probiotics Work?
There are already prebiotics in the gut, which serve to help the probiotic function by acting as its nutrient (or food). This activation causes synbiotics to occur, which stimulates the gut microbiome to provide certain health benefits to the patient (such as helping to boost the immune system). In more precise terms, the probiotic connects with already-occurring substances in the gut, causing an overall health effect. Probiotics also help to filter out toxins in the digestive tract, leading to that overall balance for optimal health. Probiotics may seem like a new buzzword, but as they are naturally occurring in some foods, they have been relevant for quite some time. In fact, a newborn receives several probiotics from its mother during delivery. Because of research into probiotics and their benefits, more supplements are now available for those who don’t receive enough probiotic nutrients naturally through food.
Different Types of Probiotics
There are different types of probiotic strains that are found in varying supplements or foods. The most common of all is Lactobacillus, found in yogurt and other fermented foods. Lactobacillus also appears naturally in the digestive tract. Its consumption is associated with the prevention of yeast infections and urinary tract infections (UTIs), as well as lactose intolerance and certain skin disorders. Bifidobacterium occur naturally in the digestive tract and are associated with a healthy colon. It is also thought to help with glucose tolerance and to keep IBS symptoms at bay. Saccharomyces boulardii is the only yeast probiotic and is used for treating acne as well as fighting off H. pylori infections. Other probiotics include Streptococcus thermophilus, which helps with lactose intolerance, Enterococcus faecium, and Leuconostoc, which is often added to different foods.
Probiotics Can Help with Mental Health, Digestive Disorders, and More
The benefits of probiotics are many, ranging from weight loss to mental health. Because of the way that probiotics help balance the digestive tract, they are widely used to treat diarrhea, especially diarrhea that occurs as a result of taking antibiotics. Studies have also shown that certain strains of probiotics have helped with mental health disorders. Patients saw an improvement in their symptoms related to anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and memory. It is also thought that probiotics can help with heart health by keeping the “bad” cholesterol at bay. Other conditions probiotics are known to help with include eczema and skin disorders, allergies, diabetes management, and management of symptoms related to autism. The topic of probiotics is still being heavily researched, and more is being revealed with each new study.
Probiotics May Help You Lose Weight and Belly Fat
There are further benefits of probiotics, as some probiotics prevent the absorption of dietary fat, meaning that taking them regularly can help you lose weight and get rid of belly fat. Of course, this is in conjunction with an overall healthy diet and exercise program, but regular probiotic intake can help jumpstart your weight loss program. It is believed that probiotics help you burn more calories and store less fat.
Foods That Contain Probiotics
Some foods naturally contain probiotics. While probiotic supplements are widely available and are advantageous, it is always best to get probiotics, vitamins, and minerals directly from the source when possible. Some of these foods include:
- Kefir - Commonly sold as a “milk” product.
- Kimchi - A fermented vegetable made from Chinese cabbage.
- Yogurt - The most common and simple way to get probiotics in your diet.
- Sweet acidophilus milk - A lactose milk that contains probiotics.
- Other foods - Such as sauerkraut, sourdough bread, aged soft cheese, and sour pickles.
The most researched foods include the kefir, kimchi, yogurt, and milk. While the other foods do contain probiotics, adequate research has not been conducted in order to outline their benefit clearly.
Side Effects of Probiotics
Like any supplement or addition to the diet, probiotics can have side effects and may not be a viable choice for all patients.
One of the first things to consider is to ensure that your probiotic is coming from a Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved manufacturer. Remember that probiotics are still live bacteria, and buying from an unregulated company could result is mislabeling or illness. It is highly recommended that you ingest probiotics via your diet and not through probiotic supplements, but probiotics supplements are acceptable for a patient not getting adequate supplementation through diet alone.
It is true that probiotics occur naturally in the body, but in some patients, the addition of more may trigger an allergic reaction. While probiotics are naturally designed to help with diseases of the digestive tract and problems such as diarrhea, if you suddenly introduce probiotics into the diet, you may actually experience problems, such as diarrhea or upset stomach for a few days. If these issues persist, it’s best to consult a physician and suspend use of probiotics until your physician has a chance to weigh in.
If you are considering adding a probiotic supplement to your child’s diet, always consult a physician before doing so. Probiotic supplements in children have been found to be beneficial as with adults, helping with digestive problems as well as with other issues, such as managing autism symptoms. If you need more information on probiotics, would like to introduce them to your diet, or would like to request an appointment, contact Dr. Sameer Islam today.