The Vast Health Benefits of Probiotics

A woman holds a bowl of yogurt.

The word 'probiotic' is derived from the Latin word 'pro,' meaning 'for,' and the Greek word 'bios,' meaning 'life.' Probiotics live up to their name by promoting life in the body.

The word probiotic is derived from the Latin word pro, meaning for, and the Greek word bios, meaning life. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics defines probiotics as live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host” (1). Probiotics live up to their name by literally promoting life in various systems of the body, which they do in a multitude of ways. In this article, we'll explore the various benefits of probiotics, including their impact on gut health, digestion, immune function, mental health, skin health, pregnancy, and more.

Gut Health Benefits

Probiotics are key for promoting and maintaining optimal gut health. The gut microbiota, comprising trillions of microorganisms, is a dynamic community that profoundly influences digestion, nutrient absorption, and overall intestinal homeostasis (2). Probiotics are also known as ‘good bacteria,’ and one key benefit of this good bacteria in promoting gut health lies in their potential to inhibit the colonization of harmful pathogens (3). Competing for resources and attachment sites along the intestinal lining, probiotics create an environment less hospitable for detrimental microbes - or ‘bad bacteria,’ and thus preventing their overgrowth and potential pathogenic effects (4). 
 

Additionally, some strains of probiotics, such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, produce short-chain fatty acids during the fermentation of dietary fibers found in fruits, veggies, legumes, whole grains, and more (5). These fatty acids serve as a vital energy source for the cells lining the walls of the colon and intestines and contribute to the maintenance of a healthy intestinal lining (5). A healthy intestinal lining is necessary for the absorption of nutrients from our food.

Digestion Benefits

Just like probiotics benefit our gut health, they also play an important role in our digestion. Within the gastrointestinal tract, probiotics aid in the breakdown of complex carbohydrates and in the fermentation of undigested food particles, facilitating the digestive process (5,6). Aside from this process aiding in the absorption of nutrients from our food, gut bacteria are actually able to produce essential nutrients like thiamine, folate, biotin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid. In fact, it is estimated that up to half of our daily Vitamin K requirement is provided by gut bacteria (7).  
 

Probiotics can be helpful in maintaining regular bowel movements. Probiotics may enhance bowel motility (the pace and ease by which food moves from the mouth through the digestive system and out of the body) by influencing the contractions of the intestinal muscles, promoting smoother and more regular bowel movements (8). 

A woman

Probiotics may also support the maintenance of a healthy balance in the microbiome (9). This balance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria in the gut can be supportive of maintaining regular bowel movements (10).


For infants experiencing colic, the microbiome may play a role. Certain probiotic strains, such as Lactobacillus reuteri, have been studied for their potential role in managing colic symptoms in healthy babies (11). Probiotics may influence the gut-brain axis, modulating the communication between the gut and the central nervous system, which can be particularly relevant in addressing conditions like colic (12,13). 


Immune Function Benefits

Aside from their effect on gut health, probiotics are perhaps most well known for their influence on immune function, serving as integral modulators of the intricate network that constitutes the body's defense mechanisms. The gastrointestinal tract houses a significant portion of the immune system. Probiotics actively interact with immune cells residing in the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT). Through this interaction, probiotics may enhance the activity of immune cells, including macrophages and T lymphocytes, thereby supporting the body's innate ability to identify and neutralize potential threats (14).
 

A healthy gut supports a balanced and appropriately responsive immune system, potentially preventing overactive immune reactions, as seen in allergies or autoimmune disorders, and supporting the body to mount effective defenses when faced with genuine threats (15). 
 

Probiotics have been studied to support the body's ability to mount an inflammatory response (16). Persistent inflammation is linked to health concerns, including potential impacts on immune function. Through their involvement in the regulation of inflammatory pathways, probiotics may contribute to maintaining a state of immune balance and good overall health.

Mental Health And Mood Benefits

In recent years, probiotics have gained increasing recognition for their impact on mental health and mood (17). This is because of the symbiotic relationship between the gut and the brain, known as the gut-brain axis. It has been discovered that there is bidirectional communication between the gut and the central nervous system, which means that the gut influences the mental state and vice versa (18).
 

One of the ways in which the gut microbiota affects our mental health is through the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. In fact, it is estimated that 95% of our serotonin is produced in our digestive tract (19).
 

It doesn’t stop there. A recent study demonstrated probiotics have potential to improve cognitive performance (20). 

A woman radiates happiness with a large smile on her face.

Additionally, research has found that women who consumed yogurt with a mix of probiotics for four weeks displayed increased calmness and lower brain activity in response to emotional stimuli, highlighting the potential mood-altering effects of probiotics (21). 

Skin Health Benefits

Probiotics have also demonstrated notable benefits for skin health. Inflamed and itchy skin has been linked to an imbalance in the immune system and an overactive inflammatory response (22). Probiotics, with their immune-modulating potential, may play a role in addressing these underlying factors. Research suggests that the consumption of probiotics can be supportive of skin health by providing support to the immune system and promoting a healthy balance of microbes in the body and on the skin (23, 24).

Women’s Health Benefits

Although they are beneficial for everyone, probiotics play a significant role in supporting women's health throughout various life stages, including pregnancy and lactation. Probiotics contribute to maintaining a balanced vaginal microbiota and may be supportive of urinary tract health (25,26). 


Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, and for some using specific strains of probiotics - such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus, have been recognized for their potential to maintain good health during pregnancy (27,28,29).

Increasing Consumption Of Probiotics

Incorporating more probiotics into your diet is a way to enhance gut health. Fermented foods are rich sources of natural probiotics, including yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and miso. Making these foods at home will ensure plenty of live and active probiotics, but these foods can be store bought as well. Look for unpasteurized sauerkraut, as pasteurization will kill active cultures. 
 

Adding probiotic supplements to your routine ensures that you’re getting the specific strains you want with the ease of a pill or powder. For infants, probiotics can be introduced through specially formulated supplements
 

Always consult with a healthcare professional before incorporating probiotics, especially for infants or if you are immunocompromised, to ensure the chosen strains are suitable and safe. 

Choosing Quality Probiotic Supplements

Probiotics should be sourced from reputable companies and third-party tested. Probiotic supplements can come in many forms, including powder, capsules, and even flavored chewables. Choosing the form that you are most likely to take reliably is an important consideration. 
 

Certain strains are more suitable for different life stages. For infants, for example, Bifidobacterium infantis can benefit infant health by promoting the maturation of immune function and supporting gut barrier function. Lactobacillus reuteri, which is naturally found in breast milk, may help prevent colic (30,31,32).
 

Another important consideration when evaluating probiotic supplements is the Colony Forming Units (CFU) count. CFU indicates the number of viable and active microorganisms present in a serving of each supplement. The potency of a probiotic is often measured in billions of CFUs. The appropriate CFU count can vary based on individual needs and the intended purpose of a supplement.


Summary

The benefits of probiotics span across various aspects of health. ‘Good bacteria’ is supportive of gut health and encourages a healthy intestinal lining and digestive process. The potential influence of probiotics extends beyond the digestive system, with probiotics impacting immune function by supporting healthy inflammatory responses. Probiotics have also been studied for their effect on mental health and mood, with the bidirectional communication between gut and brain being a focal point of recent research. 


Additionally, probiotics can benefit skin health, and in the realm of women's health, probiotics may contribute to maintaining urogenital health and supporting healthy pregnancies. Choosing high-quality supplements ensures the efficacy of probiotic strains. Consult your doctor before starting a new supplement, especially if you are immunocompromised or using supplements for an infant. 

References:


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  11. dos Reis Buzzo Zermiani, A. P., de Paula Soares, A. L. P. P., da Silva Guedes de Moura, B. L., Miguel, E. R. A., Lopes, L. D. G., de Carvalho Scharf Santana, N., da Silva Santos, T., Demarchi, I. G., & Teixeira, J. J. (2021). Evidence of Lactobacillus reuteri to reduce colic in breastfed babies: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 63, 102781. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2021.102781
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  32. dos Reis Buzzo Zermiani, A. P., de Paula Soares, A. L. P. P., da Silva Guedes de Moura, B. L., Miguel, E. R. A., Lopes, L. D. G., de Carvalho Scharf Santana, N., da Silva Santos, T., Demarchi, I. G., & Teixeira, J. J. (2021). Evidence of Lactobacillus reuteri to reduce colic in breastfed babies: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 63, 102781. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2021.102781
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