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The Guide to Probiotics: Your Main Questions Answered

Maurice Beer M.D.
August 18th, 2021 · 5 min read
News flash: bacteria is not always a bad thing.
In fact, when it comes to your gut health, bacteria and other microbes are some of the most important players!
Here’s everything you need to know about probiotics, those friendly bacteria that can boost your gut health, protect your immune system, and more. 

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In This Article 

  1. What are probiotics? 
  2. How do probiotics work? 
  3. What are the benefits of taking probiotics? 
  4. Is it better to get probiotics from food or supplements? 
  5. How many probiotics should I take? 
  6. When should I take my probiotic? 
  7. Can probiotics help with weight loss? 
  8. Are there any downsides to taking probiotics? 

Key Takeaways 

  • Your gut is inhabited by a huge community of microbes. Under normal circumstances, the good bacteria boost your gut health, brain health, and immunity - but gut dysbiosis can be bad news for your vitality. 
  • Probiotics introduce more “friendly” bacteria in your system, which can go on to have a wide range of benefits from your stomach to your brain. 
  • Probiotics can be found in fermented foods, or you can take a probiotic supplement. 

What Are Probiotics, Exactly?

Your gut is populated by trillions of bacteria, fungi, and other microbial species in a community that is collectively called your “gut microbiome.” Tiny though they might be, these microscopic species pack a huge punch, doing everything from helping you digest certain foods to producing neurochemicals!
In a perfect world, you would have only beneficial bacteria species in your gut. Unfortunately, there’s always a chance for less beneficial bacteria to make their way into your gut as well. Having a less diverse gut microbiome, or a gut microbiome overrun with the “bad” bacteria, is called gut dysbiosis, and is linked to a variety of health conditions like upset stomachs, diabetes, obesity, and even some cancers.
The diversity and number of bacteria colonies are different from person to person - you start acquiring your own collection during birth, but the species present can also depend on other factors like your diet.
So having a good balance of beneficial gut bacteria is key, which is where probiotics come into play. Think of probiotics as “good bacteria.” They’re the beneficial live organisms that you can ingest from either food or supplements that go on to establish colonies in your gut microbiome.

How Do Probiotics Work?

 As we just mentioned, your gut microbiome diversity can change over time as a result of diet and lifestyle. For example, eating a diet high in sugary and processed foods (which is all-too-common in our modern diet) can actually feed the less-beneficial bacteria in your gut, allowing them to flourish
In addition, illnesses, medications, and chronic stress can also take their toll on your gut microbiome. For example, taking an antibiotic to combat an illness might kill off the harmful bacteria that are to blame for your sickness, but it can also kill off the beneficial bacteria that hang out in your gut.
So the purpose of taking probiotics is to bring your gut microbiome back into balance. Ingesting probiotic-rich foods and supplements introduce those beneficial bacteria back into your system, where they can establish colonies and flourish. This also means that they take up more space in your gut, which leads to less room for those bad bacteria to invade!  

What Are The Benefits Of Taking Probiotics? 

  • Better digestive health: The most obvious advantage of nourishing the bacteria in your gut is that it can go on to boost your gut health. Researchers have found success using probiotics as a treatment for a variety of digestion issues including diarrhea and constipation. There’s even evidence that probiotics can play a role in combatting more serious conditions like ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and Crohn’s disease!
  • Immune system boost: Here’s a statistic you might find surprising: it turns out that a huge portion of your immune system is actually in your gut! The microbes in your gut literally help make up the lining of your gut and protect it from foreign invaders. Some of the beneficial bacteria in your gut microbiome even produce antibodies, which can essentially train your immune system to recognize outside threats and neutralize potential harm via inflammation
  • Better mental health: Better brain health is another interesting (and maybe unexpected) benefit of treating your gut right. As good bacteria help your body break down and digest certain foods, they produce a variety of neurochemicals that go on to regulate a variety of brain functions. So you can thank your gut bacteria for its role in boosting your thinking processes, learning abilities, and even your mood. 

Is It Better To Get Probiotics From Food Or Supplements? 

When it comes to nutrition, the rule of thumb is generally that nutrients are more bioavailable from whole foods (in other words, your body can use the nutrients from food more than from a pill). Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get all of your nutrients from food itself, which is where supplements can come into play.
Probiotics are most commonly found in fermented foods: think yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and pickles. This is because the process of fermentation literally involves live bacteria feeding off of the starches and sugars in certain foods, leading to those strong flavors over time. Those bacteria can then be ingested and go on to do some good in your gut.
But if you aren’t regularly eating yogurt and fermented foods, probiotic supplements are a perfectly reasonable alternative. 

How Much Probiotic Should I Take? 

There is no official recommended dosages for probiotics since they are a dietary supplement and not a drug.
The number of probiotics per supplement can vary widely. However, most supplement doses will range from 5 billion to 10 billion CFUS, or “colony forming units.” There’s no evidence that taking more doses of probiotic supplements will lead to more benefits, so bottom line: read your probiotic label and dose accordingly.

When Should I Take My Probiotic? 

When it comes to timing for taking probiotic supplements, the answer can also vary.
Some experts believe that taking your probiotic first thing in the morning on an empty stomach is the best option. Because there’s no food to digest, your stomach acid is at its lowest point, making it a more favorable environment for those bacteria to survive the long journey to your large intestine.
On the other hand, there are also probiotic supplements that recommend that you take their product along with a meal for better digestion.
Again, the choice could come down to your own supplement of choice and the CFUs present. Consult the labeling on your probiotic supplement and follow their directions for the best results. 

What About Prebiotics? 

Prebiotics are special fibers that your digestive system don’t break down on its own: instead, it feeds the bacteria in your gut. So you can think of prebiotics as the “food” for your probiotics.
You can get prebiotics from healthy plant-based fare like fruits and vegetables. However, there are also prebiotic supplements if you can’t get enough from whole foods alone. 

Can Probiotics Help With Weight Loss? 

We’re still in the early stages of research when it comes to probiotics and weight loss, but the evidence that we do have is promising. One review found that probiotic supplementation could create a supportive environment in your gut for weight loss since it can decrease gut permeability and inflammation.
But there’s no simple answer to sustainable and natural weight loss besides changing your diet and increasing your exercise, so you shouldn’t rely on only probiotics for weight loss. It can be a complement to a healthy lifestyle change but it probably won’t make much of a difference on its own.

Are There Any Downsides To Taking Probiotics? 

While there are plenty of benefits that can come with taking a probiotic supplement, they aren’t always going to be suitable for everyone.
Because probiotics interfere with your gut health, you might experience mild side effects like gas, bloating, and diarrhea, especially when you first add them to your regimen.
In addition, probiotics could also potentially interact with other drugs and medications. Certain health conditions, like immune system problems, could also increase your risk of side effects. Be sure to talk to your doctor before taking probiotics to ensure that they’re the right move for you and your gut health.  

Final Thoughts On Probiotics 

Health really does start from the inside out - more specifically, inside of your large intestine. As more and more research is revealing how these tiny microbes play a role in everything from upset stomachs to brain health, probiotics could be key to boosting your immunity, keeping you firing on all cylinders, and more.

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