Living within your gut are about 100 trillion microorganisms that play a variety of important roles. These microorganisms help you absorb nutrients from the food you eat, they improve your immune system’s response to infection, and they help you produce hormones that are essential for your emotional well-being. Many of these microorganisms are probiotics, also known as the “good” bacteria that provide numerous health benefits for your body.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live within our gut microbiome. The gut microbiome is the community of microorganisms in the gut. The word probiotic stems from the Latin word pro meaning “for” and the Greek word biotic meaning “life.” Probiotics are considered good bacteria because they provide a variety of life-enhancing benefits to the body.
Some of the amazing benefits probiotics provide include:
- Helping to break down food in the gut
- Helping us absorb nutrients from food
- Improving overall digestive health
- Promoting lymphocyte (white blood cell) production to fight infection and inflammation
- Preventing bad bacteria and other harmful organisms from taking over in the gut
Whether taking probiotics as a supplement or from eating fermented foods, like sauerkraut, yogurt, or kimchi, good bacteria are necessary for the overall balance of your gut flora to support great health.
What Are Some of the Common Species of Probiotics?
There are many different strains of beneficial bacteria. Some of the most common species of probiotics that we consume include:
Found in yogurt and other fermented foods, Lactobacillus produces enzymes that help the body break down lactose (the sugar in milk), creating lactic acid that stops pathogens from colonizing in the gut, and feeds other bacteria to produce butyrate, which your cells need for energy.
Added to many dairy products and supplements, Bifidobacterium can strengthen the immune system by producing antimicrobial chemicals that deter pathogens from multiplying in the intestine. It also helps obtain nutrients from the lactose that you consume and aids in digesting dietary fibers (many of which are prebiotics).
This yeast found in probiotics improves the digestive system by enhancing the function of the intestinal barrier. It is known to treat diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and other issues in the gastrointestinal tract.
What Are the Benefits of Taking Probiotics?
Probiotics offer many great benefits to the body. Good gut flora stave away pathogens, help your body break down fiber and complex sugars, help your body produce essential vitamin K, folic acid, and vitamin B, regulate bowel movements, decrease inflammation, moderate immune health, and of course support a healthy metabolism. Below are some of the top benefits of probiotics:
1. Probiotics Help Balance the Friendly Bacteria in Your Digestive System
Probiotics help to restore the natural balance of gut bacteria within your gut microbiome. The ideal balance in our gut microbiome is 90% good bacteria and 10% bacteria. However, when you look at the gut of the average person today, you’ll find just the opposite combination, 10% good bacteria and 90% bad bacteria. This is largely due in part to the over-processed diet many Americans consume. This type of diet tends to starve the good bacteria while feeding the bad.
An imbalance means there are too many bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria. It can happen due to illness, medication such as antibiotics, poor diet and more. Consequences of a gut imbalance, also known as dysbiosis, can include digestive issues, allergies, mental health problems, obesity and more.
Including more probiotics in your diet or taking a good probiotic supplement can help you to restore these beneficial bacteria and restore balance in your gut.
Probiotics Can Improve Your Mental Health
An increasing number of studies link our gut health to our mood and our mental health. Both animal and human studies find that supplementing with probiotics can improve mental health and may even improve certain mental health disorders.
For example, a review of 15 human studies found that supplementing with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains for 1–2 months improved anxiety, depression, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and memory.
Benefits were also seen in a study of 40 patients with depression. Taking probiotic supplements for 8 weeks decreased levels of depression and reduced C-reactive protein levels (a marker of inflammation) as well as hormones like insulin, compared to people who did not take a probiotic supplement.
Probiotics Can Help Keep Your Heart Healthy
Probiotics may also help to keep your heart healthy by lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure. Certain lactic acid-producing bacteria may reduce cholesterol by breaking down bile in the gut. Bile is a naturally occurring fluid mostly made of cholesterol that helps digestion and the breakdown of fats. By breaking down bile, probiotics can prevent bile from being reabsorbed in the gut, where it can then enter the blood as cholesterol.
A review of 5 studies found that eating a probiotic yogurt for 2–8 weeks reduced total cholesterol by 4% and LDL cholesterol by 5%. Another study found probiotic supplementation also provided a small increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
Probiotics Can Help Reduce Symptoms of Certain Digestive Disorders
Over one million people in the US suffer from inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Certain types of probiotics from the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains have improved symptoms in people with mild ulcerative colitis.
Probiotics may have benefits for other bowel disorders as well. New research suggests they may also help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). They have also been shown to reduce the risk of severe necrotizing enterocolitis, a fatal bowel condition that occurs in premature infants, by 50%.
Probiotics May Boost Your Immune System
Probiotics may also help give your immune system a boost and inhibit the growth of harmful gut bacteria and other harmful microorganisms. Also, some probiotics have been shown to promote the production of natural antibodies in the body. They may also boost immune cells like the IgA-producing cells, T lymphocytes and natural killer cells.
A large review found that taking probiotics also reduced the likelihood and duration of respiratory infections. Another study including over 570 children found that taking Lactobacillus GG reduced the frequency and severity of respiratory infections by 17%. The probiotic Lactobacillus crispatus has also been shown to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women by 50%.
A daily probiotic supplement multiplies good bacteria in the microbiome, making up for bacterial imbalances that can occur from daily stressors or from when you take harmful substances like antibiotics, which destroy both good and bad bacteria.
Can You Take Too Many Probiotics?
While probiotics offer numerous health benefits, people often wonder what happens if you take too many probiotics? Just because something is good for you, does not mean it is good for you in excess. This is also the case with probiotics. The good effects of taking probiotics can actually be cancelled out if you overload on probiotic-rich foods and supplements too quickly. Your body will need time to adjust to a higher dosage, as the new microbes are just beginning to settle in the gut.
Different bacteria feed on different dietary compounds in the gut, and they produce gas as a byproduct. An overload of probiotics may cause an interaction with the fiber, starch, and sugar in the gut, leading to gas, bloating, nausea, or diarrhea.
There are other factors that may cause a probiotic to produce negative effects, such as if it's made of poor-quality cultures or stored improperly (such as being stored in a humid temperature). Probiotics, just like any other type of supplement, are meant to support an otherwise healthy diet and lifestyle.
Adding a lot of bacteria into your gut environment, even if they’re “good,” may also negatively impact those who suffer from small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO occurs when there is an overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine that don’t belong there, causing a host of symptoms, such as sever bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, heartburn, nausea, and increased flatulence.
For some people, such as those with underlying health issues or compromised immune systems, it may be best to avoid taking a probiotic supplement altogether, since research has indicated that taking too many probiotics could increase the risk of infection.
What Is the Right Dosage of Probiotics?
The dosage of probiotics is measured in colony-forming units (CFUs), which represent the number of bacteria or fungal cells in the sample that can form their own colony. An average probiotic supplement will include anywhere from 1 to 10 billion CFUs, however, there is no “right” dosage, as the right dosage of probiotics looks different from person to person and depends on diet, age, weight, and the body’s tolerance for probiotics.
A healthy adult will generally consume about 20 billion CFUs daily through food and supplements, so it’s unlikely you will overdo it on probiotics by simply taking one daily supplement along with a balanced diet. However, it’s best to determine the dosage that you need by consulting with your personal healthcare provider or nutritionist. They can best evaluate your current diet and medical needs and make personalized dosage and strain recommendations that will prevent bloating or other discomfort.
Side Effects of Taking Too Many Probiotics
Taking too many probiotics may lead to uncomfortable side effects like bloating, gas, and nausea. People at greater risk of dangerous side effects are those with a weakened immune system or serious illness, in which case you should consult a doctor before taking large amounts of probiotics. Some possible side effects of taking too many probiotics include:
- Unpleasant digestive symptoms
- Allergic reactions
- Bacterial infection
Your Gut Will Always Let You Know When Something Isn’t Right
When it comes to the gut, emotional and external stressors can play a huge role in the health of the digestive system and gastrointestinal tract. Rather than relying primarily on supplements and added probiotics to address gut dysfunction, it may be best to start out by addressing these issues from a whole-person perspective.
For example, not getting enough consistent, quality sleep can disrupt digestion, as can feelings of high stress and anxiety. Diet also plays a critical role. Through an integrative approach, you can get to the root of your health concerns and address them head on. No amount of supplementation can fix a health issue if you don’t address the underlying cause.
If you suffer from digestive issues, then probiotics may offer many benefits to your health. However, it is always best to consider other factors, and to address your diet and lifestyle as well. Learn to pay attention to your gut and what influences it, and take note of the foods and habits that cause gut disturbances, as well as those that improve your digestive well-being.