More than two millennia ago, the Greek physician Hippocrates made a bold assertion: “all disease begins in the gut.” Surprisingly enough, modern medical research offers significant support to Hippocrates’ belief; the diverse population of microorganisms that reside in your digestive tract–otherwise known as your gut microbiome–has been shown to play a huge role in promoting a strong immune system as well as bolstering the function of a host of other bodily systems.
So if all (or a lot of) disease begins in the gut, it stands to reason that good health can begin there, too. Proper gut health rests on having a diverse and varied gut microbiome with enough strains of good bacteria to support the well-being of your digestive tract and beyond. Many things have a deleterious effect on the good microbial population of your gut, such as poor diet, antibiotic use and stress. Likewise, a number of lifestyle choices like eating a balanced diet, taking a probiotic supplement and getting enough rest can boost your beneficial bacteria numbers. However, one simple addition to your daily routine can help promote balance in your gut microbiome (and thus support the health of your gut and body): probiotics.
Probiotics: The Basics
To properly understand how probiotics can support gut health, it’s important to understand what exactly probiotics are. In short, probiotics are live microorganisms that offer a range of positive health effects and are intended help supplement the existing beneficial bacteria that live in your gut. Probiotics occur naturally in a number of foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and certain raw cheeses; alternatively, a daily probiotic supplement can provide a significant amount of a broad range of good bacteria strains.
Whether by eating foods rich in probiotics or by taking a daily probiotic supplement, increasing the number of good bacteria in your gut can help restore your microbiome’s natural balance and support whole-body health.
Probiotics Can Promote Improved Gut Health
Perhaps the best way to understand what probiotics are is to see the concrete ways that they can improve your gut health. Whether you suffer from a chronic digestive disorder like irritable bowel syndrome or you face the common digestive issues that most of us occasionally experience like diarrhea and constipation, the use of probiotics has been scientifically shown to improve the health and function of your digestive tract.
For example, a wide body of research has shown that probiotics can reduce diarrhea associated with antibiotic use; other studies have demonstrated that probiotics can reduce the duration of diarrhea caused by an infection by more than day. On the other end of the spectrum, those with functional constipation–a condition that up to 20 percent of the population deals with–can achieve more regular digestive function through probiotics. Even uncomfortable abdominal bloating can be alleviated with a probiotic supplement.
Those with more serious and chronic digestive issues can also achieve better gut health through probiotic use. The symptoms of mild ulcerative colitis have been shown to be alleviated with regular probiotic use, with one study even suggesting that certain probiotic strains can equal the effectiveness of prescription drugs in sustaining remission from active ulcerative colitis. Likewise, irritable bowel syndrome sufferers may be able to find relief from their symptoms with probiotics.
How a Healthy Gut–and Probiotics–Can Affect Whole Body Wellness
As previously noted, while the vast population of microorganisms that make up your gut microbiome may reside in your digestive tract, their influence can be felt throughout your body. In other words, because your gut microbiome is so connected to almost every other system in your body, the benefits of a healthy gut aren’t limited to improved digestive tract function. From your immune system to your mental health, your whole body can reap the benefits of a healthier gut through probiotic use.
For starters, are you one of the millions of Americans struggling to boost your metabolism and lose weight? The answer may lie in your gut. An imbalance in the good and bad bacteria of your gut know as gut dysbiosis has been linked to weight gain, and differences in the gut microbial makeup of identical twins can help explain situations where one twin is obese and the other a healthy weight. Likewise, scientific research supports the notion that by helping bring balance to the gut microbiome, regular probiotics use can boost metabolism, increase weight loss and lower the risk of obesity.
The health of your gut microbiome plays a similar role in maintaining adequate energy levels. The beneficial bacteria in your gut help to digest every bite of food that you eat, helping convert that food into key nutrients and energy; evidence suggests that a well-balanced microbiome is connected to improved energy extraction from digested food. Indeed, certain strain of probiotics in the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus families are believed to directly product folate, a form of vitamin B that in turn improves your body’s conversion of food into energy.
In addition, much of what we call our immune system actual resides in the gut–as much as 80 percent, in fact. Through communication with your immune cells, your gut microbiome helps control how your body deals with infection. Likewise, a balanced microbiome can support a strong gut barrier; this barrier helps prevent the spread of toxins and antigens throughout your body. Probiotics play a role here, too, with research showing that probiotic supplements can help fight off certain infectious diseases such as upper respiratory tract infections.
Even your mental health is directly affected by the health of your gut. For example, production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is highly involved in the regulation of mood and sleep, occurs mainly in your gut. Thanks to their effects on your gut microbial populations, probiotics can help improve mental health as well, with some studies suggesting they can be effective in alleviating the symptoms of depression.
In short, while probiotics may be microscopic in size, the effects that they can have on the health of your gut and your overall body can be enormous. Consider incorporating them into your diet through food or probiotic supplements to give your body the support it needs for whole body wellness.