The word "probiotics" is everywhere these days — at the grocery store, on commercials, and in supplements. But what exactly are probiotics? A marketing ploy to sell yogurt? The arch-enemies of antibiotics? While you might be confused about what exactly probiotics are, you probably know one thing is for sure — they're good for you. Adding probiotics to your diet can alleviate or eliminate a host of medical issues, from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) to certain skin conditions.
What Are Probiotics?
The word "bacteria" usually strikes fear into our germophobic hearts because we immediately associate it with infection, disease, and sickness. We depend on antibacterial soap, hand sanitizer, and cleaning solutions to protect us against its evils. In reality, though, not all bacteria are bad. The world of bacteria has both villains and heroes, and probiotics are the latter.
Also called "good" or "healthy" bacteria, probiotics are microorganisms — yeasts and live bacteria — that are beneficial to your health, particularly your digestive and immune systems. Even the etymology of the word suggests the benevolence of these bacteria —"pro" comes from the Greek word for "promoting," and "biotic" from the Greek word for "life." Probiotics occur naturally in your intestine and help promote digestive health, but you can also get probiotics through supplements, yogurts, and even chocolate bars.
The Two Types of Probiotics
Probiotics fall into two categories. The differences between the two will help you and your doctor determine the type that will benefit you the most:
- Lactobacillus: the more popular type of the two, this is the group that's in live-cultured yogurt and other fermented foods, including miso soup. These strains have proven to help with diarrhea and might also ease digestion for those who are lactose-intolerant.
- Bifidobacterium: although less common, you can also find this group in dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. These strains may help with IBS symptoms.
Out with the Bad, in with the Good: How Probiotics Work
Think of your gut like a constant war between good and evil — bad bacteria vs. good bacteria. When the bad bacteria start to outnumber the good bacteria, digestive disruption ensues. As you now know, probiotics are the good guys. Consuming them helps maintain a healthier balance in your digestive system, ensuring that the good bacteria triumph. Here are a few examples of how probiotics work:
- Probiotics replace depleted stores of good bacteria. For example, when you take an antibiotic, the antibiotic is not sophisticated enough to know not to kill the good guys along with the bad. As a result, you end up deficient in good bacteria. Probiotics can help replenish those reserves.
- Probiotics can reduce the amount of bad bacteria in your body. The more good bacteria you have, the better protected you are against bad bacteria that can lead to infection and other illnesses.
- Probiotics restore balance in your system. The balance of good and bad bacteria in our bodies is constantly changing due to factors such as medication, diet, and stress. Your body will struggle to function properly if you have chronic imbalances between the good and bad bacteria. Regularly taking probiotics helps restore that balance.
The Functions of Probiotics
Probiotics help the body digest food and absorb nutrients by moving food through the digestive track. The way probiotics were discovered sheds some light on their potential benefits. In the early 20th century, Elie Metchnikoff — referred to as "the father of probiotics" — noticed that the rural people of Bulgaria had extremely long lifespans in spite of harsh weather and severe poverty.
His research proposed that changing the intestinal microflora with the friendly bacteria found in sour milk could improve health and delay senility. Subsequent research has consistently supported Metchnikoff's theories, although popular interest in probiotics didn't emerge until the early nineties. While we'll discuss their benefits in more detail in later sections, several studies have found that probiotics are generally effective in treating:
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Antibiotic-induced diarrhea
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Diarrhea caused by parasites, viruses, or bacteria
Improving Digestive Health
The benefit of probiotics that is probably best-supported by research is improving the landscape of the intestinal tract. We have trillions of organisms that live in our guts, and, as mentioned earlier, probiotics can promote digestive health by maintaining a balance among them.
For one, many studies have found that probiotics can shorten episodes of viral and infectious diarrhea as well as antibiotic-related diarrhea. A 2012 Journal of the American Medical Association study, for example, found that the use of probiotics reduced antibiotic-associated diarrhea — a side effect suffered by 20 to 30 percent of people taking antibiotics — by 42 percent. Similarly, a Cochrane review in 2013 also found that probiotics are often effective in preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
The digestive benefits of probiotics don't stop there. Research has suggested that probiotics can alleviate the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as bloating, gas, bowel irregularity, and abdominal pain, as well as those of ulcerative colitis. And, of course, as Jamie Lee Curtis' Activia yogurt ads famously promoted, probiotics can help alleviate constipation by expediting intestinal transit time.
Probiotics have earned a name for themselves as a digestive-health supplement, but recent research suggests even more benefits. Like the digestive tract, the health of a woman's vagina depends on a delicate balance of good and bad bacteria. When the bad outnumber the good, the result can be a yeast infection, bacterial vaginosis, or a urinary tract infection.
While a few studies have found that that Lactobacillus acidophilus, a probiotic, is effective in preventing infection when taken orally, many more studies have found that it is most effective when taken as a vaginal suppository. In that form, probiotics can actually help treat bacterial vaginosis. This benefit makes probiotics especially important to pregnant women, who are more vulnerable to vaginal infections.
Growing support exists for the relationship between good bacteria and a strong immune system. Researchers at Harvard Medical School have found that the presence of good bacteria in the gut influences the development of certain parts of the immune system, such as boosting the number and correcting deficiencies of some types of T cells. More and more evidence has emerged in recent years suggesting that the more good bacteria the digestive tract has, the stronger the immune system is.
Urinary Tract Health
The benefits of probiotics for urinary health are both preventive and curative. For one, studies have shown that probiotics are an effective adjunct treatment to antibiotics for urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are especially common in women, and they frequently recur — 30 to 40 percent of infections reappear, even after treatment with antibiotics. Probiotics can help bolster the efficacy of a course of antibiotics.
Additionally, more and more research shows that regularly consuming probiotics helps keep bad bacteria from invading the urinary tract in the first place. The theory is that the good bacteria then occupy the urinary tract's adherence sites.
A 2014 study out of Vanderbilt University tested the effects of a therapeutic compound of probiotics in the gut on obese patients. They found that the administration of probiotics in the digestive tract for six weeks stopped weight gain, insulin resistance, and other health problems that result from a high-fat diet.
This study confirms past findings that correlate the bacterial landscape of the digestive system and weight gain. For example, in 2012, Medical News Today published a study that found that certain bacteria in the large intestine may impede the activity of calorie-burning brown fat, thus contributing to weight gain.
Researchers are currently exploring the benefits of probiotics for skin. The theory underlying their dermatological benefits is the effect they have on inflammation, the trigger behind many skin conditions. The healthy bacteria probiotics introduce to the digestive tract help create a barrier that reduces inflammation. Recent studies from Mount Sinai Medical Center have found compelling evidence that probiotics may help with skin conditions such as rosacea and acne.
Relatedly, although research on the effect of probiotics on allergies is still emerging, at least one major study has found a relationship between probiotic consumption and eczema. The study had pregnant women who either had seasonal allergies themselves or had a partner who did, take probiotics during pregnancy. The study found that probiotics reduced the rate of childhood eczema — a harbinger of allergies — by 30 percent.
Brand-new research suggests a correlation between probiotics and mood. As recently as April of 2015, researchers found that some probiotic supplements can lower your sensitivity to depression. In this Netherlands study, researchers administered probiotics supplements to participants for four weeks. After the four weeks, the participants receiving probiotics demonstrated less cognitive reactivity to sad moods. The level of reactivity to feeling sad corresponds to depressive episodes, as people who are most reactive are more susceptible to the negative thoughts that lead to lasting depression.
Probiotics are so much more than an ad campaign for yogurt these days. While probiotic supplements earned a reputation as a digestive supplement, we now know they can benefit everything from our skin to our mood. Start enjoying the many health benefits by trying Zenwise Labs Probiotic today.