Probiotics are micro-organisms, or live bacteria that are believed to have a positive impact on your health when consumed. The World Health Organization‘s 2001 definition of probiotics is “live micro-organisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health beneﬁt on the host”.
Bacteria is often something which is thought of as causing illness and disease but the truth is your body is full of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria (this good and bad definition is probably an oversimplification of what is really going on). Probiotics are thought of as good bacteria which can improve the health of your gut and intestinal tract. Probiotics are found naturally within the body but can also be found in foods or consumed in supplements.
Although interest in probiotics has risen sharply since the 1990’s, it was in 1907 that the concept was first considered by Elie Metchnikoff. He suggested that “the dependence of the intestinal microbes on the food makes it possible to adopt measures to modify the flora in our bodies and to replace the harmful microbes by useful microbes”.
What will you find in this article?
How do probiotics work?
While scientists are still researching exactly how probiotics work, there has been much interesting research into the benefits probiotics can have on the body. For example, probiotics can help to balance the good and ‘bad’ bacteria in the body. Probiotics can lower the amount of pathogenic bacteria in the body to help prevent certain infections and illnesses. Also, when you lose beneficial bacteria, after taking antibiotics for example, consumption of probiotics can help to replace them.
Probiotics help to improve the health of the intestinal tract and help to move and process food through the gut. While researchers are still investigating which specific probiotics are best for certain health problems, generally probiotics have a positive impact on several digestive problems. Probiotics have shown to decrease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and also inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Probiotics also can ease the symptoms of infectious diarrhoea caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites, and also antibiotic-related diarrhoea.
While there is limited research into the other positive effects probiotics can have on other conditions, people have reported that the consumption of probiotics has helped with skin conditions such as eczema, oral health, cold and flu prevention and also improved urinary and vaginal health.
Live probiotic cultures are found in fermented dairy products and other fermented products such as sauerkraut, kimchi and fermented miso and soy sauce. Probiotics can also be taken in supplement form.
Many types of bacteria are classed as probiotics but the 2 most common groups of bacteria include:
- Bifidobacterium – this can be found in dairy products and has been found to ease the symptoms of IBS and improve gastrointestinal discomfort
- Lactobacillus – this is the most common probiotic. It is found in yoghurts and other fermented foods and can ease the symptoms of diarrhoea. Certain strains have also been found to help people who can’t digest lactose, the sugar found in milk.
- Read our post on Super High Strength Probiotics
There are a range of probiotic supplements on the market and they key to knowing which are the best is to look at how many live cultures each one contains; usually the more the better. However, it is worth talking to your doctor to discuss which probiotic will be best for you as they can contain different bacteria and it is important you find the one best suited to your symptoms in order to see the best results.
How to take probiotics
As probiotics are viable microorganisms the theory is they survive in the gut for prolonged periods of time and colonise the gut. However some research has shown that certain probiotic strains do not colonise the gut and are not detectable 1-4 weeks after consumption is ceased.
For example, McNulty and colleagues recently evaluated a fermented milk product with probiotic strains matching the commercially available Activia (Dannon, White Plains, New York). The investigators showed that the probiotic product did not change the gut’s overall bacterial composition, but instead altered gene expression patterns relevant to carbohydrate metabolism in the host’s resident gut microbes.
The changes noted by the researchers were transient and only confined to the time the probiotics were being consumed. The research concluded that if continued benefit from the consumption of probiotics was desired then continued use of the probiotics would be required.
Essentially, in order to see the most sustained benefits from probiotics, it is advised that you consume them regularly and for a prolonged period of time. Stopping taking probiotic supplements will likely result in the changes and benefits you have experienced, dissipating.
Always talk to your doctor
It is always advisable to talk to your doctor before taking probiotics. They will be able to advise you on the best probiotic to take for any conditions you are suffering. Probiotics are regulated in a similar fashion to food rather than medication so it is best to consult a doctor for medical advice on what probiotic you should take and how much your dose should be.
In general, probiotic supplements are considered safe but there are a few possible side effects. These may include stomach upset, bloating, gas or diarrhoea for the first couple of days when first taking them. While an allergic reaction is unlikely, it may be possible. Talk to your doctor if you experience any prolonged adverse reactions.