5 min read
Understanding the importance of a healthy digestive tract has grown over the past several decades, so has the awareness of probiotics supplements and the important role that they can play in maintaining overall health–yet many people who have heard of probiotics still don’t know exactly how a probiotic supplement can benefit them or think that the range of positive side effects from a daily probiotic supplement are small. This couldn’t be further from the truth; probiotics offer a huge range of positive health effects for your whole body. So what exactly do probiotics do?
The Basics: What Probiotics Are
Let’s start with a brief overview of what probiotics are. In short, probiotics refers to good bacteria found in foods like yogurt and in dietary supplements that are meant to augment the population of good bacteria already found in your gut. Your gastrointestinal tract has about a thousand different species of bacteria; this complex and diverse population of microorganisms is also known as the gut microbiome.
The microbial populations of the gut play an important role in a wide range of bodily functions, but it is key to have the right balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria. Whether due to antibiotic use, stress, an unhealthy diet or any number of other factors, having too much bad bacteria or too little good bacteria can negatively affect many of your body’s important systems. That’s where probiotics come in: adding probiotics to your diet (both in the foods you eat and via a dietary supplement) can help balance your gut microbiome and provide a wide range of beneficial side effects.
The Important Role that Probiotics Play in Digestive Health
When most people think of probiotics, they associate them with improvements to digestive tract health. This is certainly true, but often the complete extent of the gut health benefits that probiotics can provide is underestimated.
To begin with, probiotics can help alleviate constipation, a conclusion supported by scientific studies. Research has also shown that regular probiotic use can reduce bloating and gas. The duration of diarrhea caused by routine intestinal infections in both children and adults can be shortened by up to a day with regular probiotic use, according to Swansea University researchers.
For those with more serious digestive health issues, probiotics have also been shown to be helpful. Several studies have demonstrated the benefits of probiotic use for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) sufferers, and other researchers have found evidence that probiotics can help manage gastric ulcers.
How Probiotics Support a Strong Immune System
Gut health and immune system function are closely linked, so it should be no surprise that probiotics can help boost your immune system strength and increase your body’s ability to fight off illness.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Otago in New Zealand found that taking a probiotic supplement reduced the number of colds and gastrointestinal infections that the study’s otherwise healthy subjects experienced; a similar study undertaken by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey found that two particular strains of probiotics–Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium animalis–have the potential to reduce the length and severity of upper respiratory tract infections.
Research has also uncovered the potential for probiotics to help regulate the body’s immune system response in relation to a number of immune system diseases such as allergies and eczema, offering evidence that probiotics have significant therapeutic potential. Even very serious diseases such as chronic liver disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers have been shown to benefit from the immune system-boosting effects of probiotics.
The Many Other Benefits of a Daily Probiotic Supplement
While improvements to digestive and immune system health may be most widely associated with probiotic use, the truth is that probiotics can provide a much wider range of health benefits. For example, probiotics have been shown to improve skin health, from inhibiting acne and treating rosacea to providing protection against signs of aging such as wrinkles and photo damage. Probiotic supplements have also been linked to tangible improvements in metabolic function, which in turn plays an important role in diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Probiotics can even improve your mental health, with numerous studies finding that adding probiotics to your diet can reduce anxiety and allow for a calmer and less stressed response to emotionally-charged stimuli.
So what do probiotics do? In short, by bringing balance to your gut microbiome, probiotics can help improve the function of almost every key system in your body and can aid in boosting your overall health and sense of well-being.
Dimidi E, Christodoulides S, Fragkos K, Scott SM, Whelan K. The effect of probiotics on functional constipation in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014.
Lacy B, Gabbard S, Crowell M. Pathophysiology, Evaluation, and Treatment of Bloating. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 7(11): 729–739. 2011.
Allen SJ, Martinez EG, Gregorio GV, Dans LF. Probiotics for treating acute infectious diarrhoea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010.
Aragon G, Graham D, Borum M, Doman D. Probiotic Therapy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 6(1): 39–44. 2010.
Khoder G, Al-Menhali A, Al-Yassir F, Karam S. Potential role of probiotics in the management of gastric ulcer. Exp Ther Med. 12(1): 3–17. 2016.
Haywood BA, Black KE, Baker D, McGarvey J, Healey P, Brown RC. Probiotic supplementation reduces the duration and incidence of infections but not severity in elite rugby union players. J Sci Med Sport. 17(4):356-60. 2014.
Smith TJ, Rigassio-Radler D, Denmark R, Haley T, Touger-Decker R. Effect of Lactobacillus rhamnosus LGG® and Bifidobacterium animalis ssp. lactis BB-12® on health-related quality of life in college students affected by upper respiratory infections. Br J Nutr. 109(11):1999-2007. 2013.
Yan F, Polk DB. Probiotics and immune health. Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 27(6): 496–501. 2011.
Bubnov R, Spivak M, Lazarenko L, Bomba A, Boyko N. Probiotics and immunity: provisional role for personalized diets and disease prevention. EPMA J. 6(1): 14. 2015.
Kober MM, Bowe W. The effect of probiotics on immune regulation, acne, and photoaging. International Journal of Women’s Dermatology. 1(2) 85-89. 2015.
Martin FP, Wang Y, Sprenger N, Yap I, Lundstedt T, Lek P, Ramadan Z, van Bladeren P, Fay L, Kochhar S, Lindon J, Holmes E, Nicholson J. Probiotic modulation of symbiotic gut microbial–host metabolic interactions in a humanized microbiome mouse model. Molecular Systems Biology. 4, 157. 2008.
Schmidt K, Cowen P, Harmer C, Tzortzis G, Errington S, Burnet P. Prebiotic intake reduces the waking cortisol response and alters emotional bias in healthy volunteers. Psychopharmacology. 232(10): 1793-1801. 2015.