Takeaway: Probiotics repair and protect the microbiome: the carefully balanced ecosystem inside the human gut. An unbalanced microbiome can lead to bloating, digestive issues, and even ulcers. Probiotic supplements can deal with acne, improve mood, and give a better quality of life.
Did you know your body is full of bacteria? In fact, there can be ten times as much bacteria in your body as there are human cells! But, don’t worry, most of these bacteria are harmless, and some of them are even beneficial.
Probiotics are one of the beneficial types. You’ve probably heard of them, perhaps in relation to digestion and a healthy tummy. But, what are probiotics, and how much do you really know about them?
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are a range of live bacteria and yeasts. They are entirely safe and have many potential health benefits. They can be taken as supplements, or are sometimes in drinks or other food that is designed to make you feel healthier and happier. Food is sometimes purposely and carefully fermented to encourage the growth of these friendly bacteria.
Examples of fermented food that may contain probiotics are:
- Some pickles
- Fermented cheeses
Some probiotic supplements are marketed as raw probiotics. This means they have not been treated or processed in any way, and they don’t have any additives. They need to be refrigerated, just like food. Other probiotics are not classed as raw and do not require refrigeration.
Many probiotics are vegetarian, but vegans should be careful when checking ingredients. Vegan probiotics do exist, and a vegan probiotic supplement is an excellent way to compensate for the fact that vegans can’t have probiotic yogurts or similar foods.
What Do Probiotics Do?
The organisms in our gut, or digestive tract, are collectively known as your microbiome. Your microbiome is a carefully balanced ecosystem that keeps you healthy and feeling at your best- most of the time. The problem is, modern lifestyles and diets often unbalance the microbiome. Some organisms are killed off, allowing others to flourish. Sometimes the micro-organisms that get the best chance at life are not the friendly ones we need.
When your microbiome is imbalanced, it can lead to many health issues. Some of these may present themselves as fatigue or sluggishness. There may be problems going to the bathroom, or even sleeping on a night. Skin can become dry and itchy, as the gut becomes less efficient at absorbing water. Even serious mood problems can occur leaving you feeling irritable or feeling low.
So, what do probiotics do? Probiotics help rebalance the microbiome. In essence, when you take a probiotic, you are deliberately increasing the number of ‘good’ bacteria. They help take the place of any bacteria that have multiplied to the point that they have become harmful. This helps to bring back order to your body, and improve your overall health and wellbeing.
You might also have heard of prebiotics. Prebiotics are very different from probiotics. They are a type of fiber, which when broken down in the gut forms fatty acids. Probiotics can feed off the fatty acids to help increase their growth. So, it’s not a question of prebiotics vs. probiotics, but more a case of whether you want to take an additional supplement to boost the first one. Some dietary fibers act as prebiotics, from vegetables like:
- Jerusalem artichokes
Including a good amount of dietary fiber helps support a healthy gut. Plus, these vegetables have a range of other health benefits too, so it’s a win-win solution!
Benefits of Probiotics
There are several types of probiotics that all affect the body differently. Two common groups are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Each of these groups includes many different strains of probiotic, and each type can provide different health benefits. Some of the benefits of probiotics may include:
- Better digestion
- Healthier ‘gut wall’
- Improved immune system
- Reduced cholesterol
- Lower blood pressure
- Weight loss
- Less risk of colon disease
Probiotic yogurts are often sold touting the strength of these health benefits, and also the promise of better bone density and a lower risk of osteoporosis. This is most likely due to the high amounts of calcium and vitamin D in the yogurt though, rather than the probiotic.
Yogurt can also contain omega-3 fatty acids, a range of vitamins and minerals including magnesium and potassium, plus essential enzymes. Some people prefer probiotic yogurts to supplements because they can include them as part of their diet. But, a probiotic supplement is dosed and helps you monitor exactly how much of a particular probiotic you are taking. It’s all about what best suits your lifestyle.
When to Take Probiotics
Probiotics can typically be taken daily to support good gut health. However, there are times when it may be necessary to consider when to take probiotics. For example, in cases where you have been prescribed antibiotics, timing can be important because if you start taking a probiotic while still on antibiotics, the antibiotics may simply kill all the good bacteria. Taking a probiotic shortly after a course of antibiotics will maximize the effects and get your gut back to good health quickly.
If you’ve ever suffered from nausea, diarrhea, or other gut problems after taking antibiotics, now you know why. Although antibiotics can be very beneficial, even life-saving, in cases of infection or bacterial overgrowth, they can cause other problems by destroying your natural gut flora (bacteria) balance. Probiotics can help bring everything back into balance.
Some people take probiotics as the weather starts to get colder. The thinking behind this is that because probiotics boost the immune system, taking them in the fall and winter will reduce the risk of cold and flu. While this is sound logic, there is no reason why you can’t take a probiotic supplement all year round, and get your body used to the extra friendly bacteria you’re feeding it.
Coming on and off a probiotic could, in some cases, lead to one or more of the side effects listed below. This is because your gut would need to keep adjusting and readjusting to the new levels of different bacteria. An unhappy stomach can be bloated and gassy, so it’s ideal to try and maintain a regular routine when possible.
It may help to take oral probiotics alongside food. Like all living organisms, probiotics need food, water, and warmth. Including them at mealtimes ensures they get all three. Taking a probiotic on an empty stomach does not make it any more effective. Probiotics are not like a prescription drug that needs to get into your bloodstream. They are happiest in a warm, happy stomach that has been treated to a healthy and balanced diet.
Probiotics Side Effects
With probiotics, side effects are not usually an issue, which makes them even more desirable as supplements. Some people have reported increased bloating or a bit of gas when they first start taking them. This could be due to the rebalancing of the flora in the gut.
When harmful bacteria are suddenly displaced, there is a temporary imbalance in the gut while it adjusts to the new levels of bacteria. It’s possible that this is what causes gas and minor discomfort. Excess gas tends to be more embarrassing than harmful! The good news is, it should pass after a couple of weeks at the most.
Yeast-based probiotics can cause the individual to feel thirsty. Drinking more water will only improve your overall health, so this is not a harmful side effect. Keeping hydrated is always important.
Ensure you check how your probiotics should be stored. If they need to be refrigerated, don’t forget and leave them out in a warm room. This could reduce their effectiveness or cause them to be damaged by humidity.
If you’re concerned about side effects, start with a low dose and work your way up to a higher dose if needed. That way, any potential side effects will be more manageable. Other possible side effects of probiotics include:
- Headaches, usually only from home-fermented foods like kimchi
- Increased histamine causing swelling, watery eyes, or runny nose
- Allergic reaction due to allergy to another part of the product, e.g. dairy or egg
Keeping a food diary can ensure that you are not experiencing these side effects due to a food intolerance rather than a reaction to any supplements. Always check the ingredients of any supplements or probiotics to ensure you are not allergic to anything listed. Severe reactions are extremely rare. Always speak to a medical professional if you are unsure.
Probiotics for Women
Several probiotics are marketed directly at women, due to the differences between men’s and women’s health. Men and women have different levels and different types of bacteria within their internal systems.
Probiotics for women may include Lactobacillus strains that can balance out natural bacteria thus helping to prevent problems like thrush. Probiotics are often seen as a useful supplement for women as they are normally safe to use during pregnancy or when breastfeeding. It’s always worth checking with a doctor if you have any concerns, though.
Probiotics for men are also available, designed with male physiology in mind. These are usually focused on increasing helpful gut flora and overall health.
Probiotics for IBS
The best probiotic for IBS is one that promotes an anti-inflammatory response. This means that it will reduce the discomfort and pain that comes from IBS, and other inflammatory bowel problems such as colitis. It’s worth noting that ulcerative colitis medications may not be compatible with certain supplements, so always check with a doctor.
Probiotics may also support the strength of the gut wall and keep the digestive tract working more efficiently.
IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) affects up to 15% of the population and can be a debilitating condition. Having an oral supplement that can lessen the impact can be life-changing.
Of course, probiotics have other health benefits too. Sufferers of IBS may see an overall improvement in the quality of their life after taking probiotics, as well as less discomfort from their condition.
Probiotics for Acne
We’ve talked a lot about how helpful probiotics are for your insides. It may surprise you to know that probiotic supplements can be beneficial for your outsides too. Skin problems like eczema, rosacea, and acne are often linked to deeper, internal issues. Probiotics for acne help by reinforcing a healthy microbiome which has a knock-on effect over the whole body, including the skin.
Some people who suffer from acne are encouraged to take antibiotics. Probiotics can be really beneficial here. Antibiotics don’t care which bacteria they kill, and they can destroy vast amounts of the friendly organisms you need to keep your body running well. Probiotics help replenish the microbiome and rebalance your health.
Probiotics work best for acne when combined with a regime of good hygiene and oil-free skin products.
So, is there a definitive probiotic? One that’s better than all the rest? The best probiotic is one that gives a range of health benefits, or specifically targets one health concern and works hard to rebalance whatever that particular problem is.
One of our favorites is Silver Fern’s Ultimate Probiotic Supplement. Why do we love it? Here are just a few of the benefits:
- Deals with bloating, constipation and diarrhea
- Addresses excessive Candida yeast growth
- Positively affects mood, including helping with anxiety and depression
- Improves metabolism
- Helps reduce the effects of allergies and asthma
- Reduces sugar cravings
- Improves immune system
That’s a whole lot of benefits from one supplement. Probiotic supplements are easy to take and effectively deliver a dose of live bacteria which survives the trip through your tummy into your gut.
We also like HUM Nutrition’s Skin Heroes Pre+Probiotic Supplement. Why do we recommend it? Here are some of its unique benefits:
- Formulated for problematic skin (dry, oil, or combination)
- Supports skin hydration
- For acne prone skin (non-cystic)
- Balances your gut microbiome
Of course, it’s still really important to look after your gut health in other ways too. A healthy, balanced diet is essential, and regular exercise for those that are able also has many health benefits. Probiotics are a useful addition to anyone’s health regime and can be taken safely with the knowledge that you are being kind to your insides.