What Are Probiotics?

Did you know your digestive system is inhabited by bacteria which boost your health? That might sound counterintuitive, but more and more is being learned about their importance and how to use “probiotics” which support their growth.

Probiotics are “live” medications or foods. In other words, they contain microorganisms which reach your intestines and support the growth of beneficial species. Are you here to learn more? We’ll walk you through it.

Key Facts

  • Your gut flora is the set of microorganisms which naturally reside in your intestines. Intestinal bacteria are one of the most important components of that community.
  • Harming your gut flora can bring on a variety of health problems: indigestion, diarrhoea, constipation, and even illnesses which affect the rest of your body.
  • Probiotics are medications, supplements, or foods able to transport live microorganisms into your intestines. The first step is to choose products correctly and know when you need them.

What You Need to Know About Probiotics

The microorganisms inhabiting your intestines live in harmony with the rest of your body. That’s due to a process called “mutualism”, in which they provide significant benefits to your health while you provide them shelter and food.

To get to know these health allies better, let’s delve into the world of probiotics.

Fermented foods contain large amounts of bacteria which benefit your body. (Source: Artfully: 125381450/ 123rf.com)

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are food or medications which contain beneficial microorganisms (fungi and, especially, bacteria). Plus, they’re responsible for keeping your gut flora healthy, making sure they stay synchronised with the rest of your body (1, 2).

This article will help you learn a bit more about everything these tiny companions can do for you.

Probiotics’ Benefits

Reducing the size of your beneficial bacterial colonies can lead to various health problems, especially digestive conditions.

Probiotics are able to return certain populations of bacteria and other microorganisms to your intestines. These “good” microorganisms can help you maintain your overall health.

Without further ado, let’s take a peek at all the benefits probiotics can offer (2):

Organs and Systems Potential Effects
Digestive System Preventing and treating diarrhoea caused by antibiotics (3, 4) 
Preventing intestinal infections (5)
Improving digestive conditions (Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease) (6, 7)
Relieving lactose intolerance symptoms (8, 9)
Brain Improving mood and symptoms from some psychological conditions  (10) 
Heart Preventing buildup of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol (11)
Lowering blood pressure (12) 
Immune System
Strengthening the immune system (13, 14) 

Despite all these benefits, you shouldn’t take probiotics to treat health problems on your own. These medications should be approved of and prescribed by your regular doctor.

Probiotic Bacteria vs. Harmful Bacteria

Certain beneficial bacteria are included in probiotic supplements and foods. These species of bacteria have been associated with the set of benefits we’ve already discussed (15, 16):

  • Bifidobacterium
  • Lactobacillus 
  • Streptococcus thermophilus
  • Bacillus coagulans
  • Non-pathogenic E. coli

Regardless, not all bacteria are good for your body. Some can lead to serious illnesses and should never be confused with probiotics. “Harmful” bacteria include, among others:

  • Haemolytic E. coli
  • Clostridium perfringens
  • Campylobacter
  • Listeria

These harmful bacteria can come from poorly-washed or poorly-preserved food. They can also originate from eating with unwashed hands or dirty utensils.

Kefir is a dairy product which resembles liquid yogurt. It’s fermented with fungi (yeast) and bacteria (Lactobacillus). (Source: Madeleinesteinbach: 83825649/ 123rf.com)

Probiotic Foods

Foods containing probiotics can stimulate the growth and diversity of your “good” intestinal bacteria.

You’ll find them in familiar foods like yogurt and pickles, or in delicious, more “exotic” options like these (17, 18, 19):

  • Kefir: Dairy product similar to yogurt.
  • Kombucha: Green or black tea fermented with SCOBY discs (symbiotic colonies of bacteria and yeast).
  • Natto: Fermented soybeans.
  • Tempeh: Fermented soy paste.
  • Sauerkraut: Fermented cabbage
  • Miso: Soy paste fermented with salt, rice, or onions.

Avoid pasteurised food and food pickled with brine, since these methods usually destroy bacteria.

If you want to prepare your own probiotic foods, make sure you follow appropriate techniques. If not, there’s a chance the food could be contaminated with harmful fungi and bacteria.

Prebiotics and Probiotics: What’s the Difference?

Probiotics are living microorganisms, mainly bacteria, sourced from food and supplements. They support the growth and maintenance of your gut flora.

Prebiotics, on the other hand, are the “food” beneficial bacteria live on. When they reach the intestines, bacteria can feed off of them.

Prebiotics are usually dietary fibre which cannot be absorbed in our digestive tract. As such, they reach the large intestine practically intact. These types are most common (18, 19):

  • Resistant starches: Can be found in oats and green bananas.
  • Inulin: Common in garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, pineapple, and wheat.
  • Pectin: Can be found in carrots, white beans, grapes, apples, plums, blackberries, and blueberries.
  • Oligofructosaccharides: Abundantly found in onions, leeks, garlic, artichokes, turnips, and asparagus.
  • Beta-glucans: Found in beer yeast, barley, oats, and some mushrooms.
  • Galactooligosaccharides: Found in breast milk.
Foods containing probiotics can stimulate the growth and diversity of your “good” intestinal bacteria. (Source: Štpánek: 41571287/ 123rf.com)

Who Shouldn’t Take Probiotic Supplements?

Though probiotics provide significant benefits for many people, they should be taken with special precautions by those who could develop unwanted side effects. Those populations include:

  • Inmunocompromised people: People with weakened immune systems. These include people with HIV or autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.
  • Infants and children: Children should never be given probiotics unless recommended by their paediatrician.
  • Pregnant women and elderly adults: Though probiotics are frequently recommended for these groups, their consumption should be closely monitored by a doctor.

Suggestions: How to Choose the Best Probiotic Supplement

If you’re hoping to find the perfect probiotic for your health, it’s important to know what to look for. As such, we want to give you the most important bits of advice for finding exactly what you need.

Look for Good Amounts of Colony-Forming Units (CFU)

Colony-Forming Units refer to the amount of live bacteria contained in a probiotic.

It’s important to look for probiotics containing 100 to 1,000 million CFU (20). In combination with the other factors we’ll discuss, this provides higher chances that the friendly bacteria will reach their destination.

Natto is a delicacy derived from soy fermented with Bacillus subtilis bacteria. (Source: Kps1234: 83963079/ 123rf.com)

Choose Supplements with Enteric Coating

Many supplements are covered in a “barrier” which helps them stand up to stomach acid, thus transporting the friendly bacteria to the intestines safe and intact. This is known as enteric coating.

Plus, this protective barrier could aid the survival of bacterial strains when they come in contact with other adverse environmental factors – from the moment they leave the factory to the moment they reach your hands.

Make Sure Your Supplements Are Preserved Properly

Probiotic supplements are susceptible to many factors which can cause them harm. As such, make sure you follow these practices:

  • If your supplement requires refrigeration, make sure it stayed at optimum temperature during transport and storage.
  • Check the expiration date.
  • Store and preserve supplements according to manufacturer instructions.
  • Only buy products from trustworthy sources.
Probiotics are microorganisms, mainly bacteria, which exercise beneficial effects on the bacterial flora in your colon. (Source: Suria: 112409558/ 123rf.com)

Check Your Product Meets Your Dietary Needs

Before buying a supplement, it’s important to ask yourself if it’s suited to your lifestyle, dietary restrictions, and needs.

If you suffer from any food allergy or sensitivity, consult with your doctor or pharmacist beforehand. They can help you find a probiotic which fits you like a glove.

If you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, on the other hand, probiotics shouldn’t pose a problem. They usually contain no animal-sourced ingredients. However, watch out for supplements in capsule form, as they may contain gelatine.

Our Conclusions

The microorganisms inhabiting your intestines are important allies to your health. If you suffer from frequent diarrhoea, constipation, or indigestion, probiotics could provide the relief you’ve searched for.

Don’t forget to visit your primary care doctor so they can evaluate whether you need to take probiotics. Once you’ve done that, choose a high-quality product to ensure it has the desired effects.

Probiotics are here to stay, and their benefits appear to be greater than anticipated. Don’t forget to share our article and leave us a comment with your thoughts!

References (20)

1. Katherine Zeratsky RD. Probióticos y prebióticos: lo que debes saber [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2018.
Source

2. Shreiner AB, Kao JY, Young VB. The gut microbiome in health and in disease. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology. 2015;31(1):69–75.
Source

3. Goldenberg JZ, Lytvyn L, Steurich J, Parkin P, Mahant S, Johnston BC. Probiotics for the prevention of pediatric antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(12):CD004827.
Source

4. Hempel S, Newberry SJ, Maher AR, Wang Z, Miles JNV, Shanman R, et al. Probiotics for the prevention and treatment of antibiotic-associated diarrhea: a systematic review and meta-analysis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2012;307(18):1959–69.
Source

5. Sullivan A, Nord CE. The place of probiotics in human intestinal infections. Int J Antimicrob Agents. 2002;20(5):313–9.
Source

6. Rahimi R, Nikfar S, Rahimi F, Elahi B, Derakhshani S, Vafaie M, et al. A meta-analysis on the efficacy of probiotics for maintenance of remission and prevention of clinical and endoscopic relapse in Crohn’s disease. Dig Dis Sci. 2008;53(9):2524–31.
Source

7. Moayyedi P, Ford AC, Talley NJ, Cremonini F, Foxx-Orenstein AE, Brandt LJ, et al. The efficacy of probiotics in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review. Gut. 2010;59(3):325–32
Source

8. Oak SJ, Jha R. The effects of probiotics in lactose intolerance: A systematic review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2018;59(11):1675–83.
Source

9. Vitellio P, Celano G, Bonfrate L, Gobbetti M, Portincasa P, Angelis MD. Effects of Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus rhamnosus on Gut Microbiota in Patients with Lactose Intolerance and Persisting Functional Gastrointestinal Symptoms: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Cross-Over Study. Nutrients. 2019;11(4):886.
Source

10. Wang H, Lee I-S, Braun C, Enck P. Effect of probiotics on central nervous system functions in animals and humans: A systematic review. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2016;22(4):589–605.
Source

11. vAgerholm-Larsen L, Bell ML, Grunwald GK, Astrup A. The effect of a probiotic milk product on plasma cholesterol: a meta-analysis of short-term intervention studies. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2000;54(11):856–60.
Source

12. Khalesi S, Sun J, Buys N, Jayasinghe R. Effect of probiotics on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials. Hypertension. 2014;64(4):897–903.
Source

13. Resta-Lenert S, Barrett KE. Live probiotics protect intestinal epithelial cells from the effects of infection with enteroinvasive Escherichia coli (EIEC). Gut. 2003;52(7):988–97.
Source

14. Hao Q, Dong BR, Wu T. Probiotics for preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(2):CD006895.
Source

15. Fijan S. Microorganisms with Claimed Probiotic Properties: An Overview of Recent Literature. [Internet] International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2014;11(5):4745–67.
Source

16. Mario G., Fanny A., Composición y Funciones de la Flora Bacteriana Intestinal. Repertorio de Medicina y Cirugía. 2011.
Source

17. Foods With Probiotics That Help Digestion [Internet]. WebMD. 2020.
Source

18. Creus EG. Alimentos prebióticos y probióticos. [Internet] Offarm. 2004;23(5):90–8.
Source

19. Eva C. Alimentos prebióticos y probióticos [Internet]. Elsevier. 2004.
Source

20. Antonieta G., Ramon B. Probióticos. Farmacia Profesional. 2017.
Source

Official Website
Katherine Zeratsky RD. Probióticos y prebióticos: lo que debes saber [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research; 2018.
Go to source
Scientific Article
Shreiner AB, Kao JY, Young VB. The gut microbiome in health and in disease. Current Opinion in Gastroenterology. 2015;31(1):69–75.
Go to source
Human Study
Goldenberg JZ, Lytvyn L, Steurich J, Parkin P, Mahant S, Johnston BC. Probiotics for the prevention of pediatric antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(12):CD004827.
Go to source
Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Hempel S, Newberry SJ, Maher AR, Wang Z, Miles JNV, Shanman R, et al. Probiotics for the prevention and treatment of antibiotic-associated diarrhea: a systematic review and meta-analysis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2012;307(18):1959–69.
Go to source
Scientific Article
Sullivan A, Nord CE. The place of probiotics in human intestinal infections. Int J Antimicrob Agents. 2002;20(5):313–9.
Go to source
Meta-Analysis
Rahimi R, Nikfar S, Rahimi F, Elahi B, Derakhshani S, Vafaie M, et al. A meta-analysis on the efficacy of probiotics for maintenance of remission and prevention of clinical and endoscopic relapse in Crohn’s disease. Dig Dis Sci. 2008;53(9):2524–31.
Go to source
Systematic Review
Moayyedi P, Ford AC, Talley NJ, Cremonini F, Foxx-Orenstein AE, Brandt LJ, et al. The efficacy of probiotics in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review. Gut. 2010;59(3):325–32
Go to source
Systematic Review
Oak SJ, Jha R. The effects of probiotics in lactose intolerance: A systematic review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. 2018;59(11):1675–83.
Go to source
Human Study
Vitellio P, Celano G, Bonfrate L, Gobbetti M, Portincasa P, Angelis MD. Effects of Bifidobacterium longum and Lactobacillus rhamnosus on Gut Microbiota in Patients with Lactose Intolerance and Persisting Functional Gastrointestinal Symptoms: A Randomised, Double-Blind, Cross-Over Study. Nutrients. 2019;11(4):886.
Go to source
Systematic Review
Wang H, Lee I-S, Braun C, Enck P. Effect of probiotics on central nervous system functions in animals and humans: A systematic review. J Neurogastroenterol Motil. 2016;22(4):589–605.
Go to source
Meta-Analysis
vAgerholm-Larsen L, Bell ML, Grunwald GK, Astrup A. The effect of a probiotic milk product on plasma cholesterol: a meta-analysis of short-term intervention studies. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2000;54(11):856–60.
Go to source
Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Khalesi S, Sun J, Buys N, Jayasinghe R. Effect of probiotics on blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials. Hypertension. 2014;64(4):897–903.
Go to source
In Vitro Study
Resta-Lenert S, Barrett KE. Live probiotics protect intestinal epithelial cells from the effects of infection with enteroinvasive Escherichia coli (EIEC). Gut. 2003;52(7):988–97.
Go to source
Scientific Article
Hao Q, Dong BR, Wu T. Probiotics for preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(2):CD006895.
Go to source
Systematic Review
Fijan S. Microorganisms with Claimed Probiotic Properties: An Overview of Recent Literature. [Internet] International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2014;11(5):4745–67.
Go to source
Scientific Article
Mario G., Fanny A., Composición y Funciones de la Flora Bacteriana Intestinal. Repertorio de Medicina y Cirugía. 2011.
Go to source
Official Website
Foods With Probiotics That Help Digestion [Internet]. WebMD. 2020.
Go to source
Scientific Article
Creus EG. Alimentos prebióticos y probióticos. [Internet] Offarm. 2004;23(5):90–8.
Go to source
Scientific Article
Eva C. Alimentos prebióticos y probióticos [Internet]. Elsevier. 2004.
Go to source
Scientific Article
Antonieta G., Ramon B. Probióticos. Farmacia Profesional. 2017.
Go to source
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