The A-Z Guide to Probiotics: What Are They? Are They Safe?

Reading time: 11 minutes

If you’ve read anything about health and wellbeing over the last few years, you can’t have failed to hear about something called ‘probiotics’.

With every passing buzz word which comes onto the market, others fall by the wayside, yet probiotics seem to have stuck around for a while now. Why is that? And exactly what are probiotics for? In order to truly understand and answer those questions, we need to dig deeper and really unearth the truth behind probiotics.

What is a Probiotic?

Probiotics are actually bacteria and yeasts, but good bacteria, nothing nasty, and nothing to worry about – you actually need this bacteria for good health! This bacteria helps your digestive system, as well as your immune system, and helps to balance everything up and keep harmony prevailing within your body.

Of course, there is also bad bacteria to think about, the type which can potentially make you ill, but the good bacteria outweighs this and keeps everything ticking along nicely. Basically, without the good, the bad would run riot and illness would be quite common. The good bacteria works to ensure this doesn’t happen, whilst also maintaining the correct working of your body’s vitally importantly digestive system functions.

In order for a probiotic to do its job, it needs food, and this comes in the form of something called a prebiotic. You will hear these two terms, but it’s important not to get them confused, as they are subtly different things. Basically, probiotics do the work, and prebiotics feed the probiotics, in order for the whole system to work properly. You can find prebiotics in various different foods, and these aren’t generally taken as supplements per se. By using the two together, e.g. being diet aware, you can gain greater benefits, allowing the probiotics to do their job much more effectively.

You’ll often hear probiotics called healthy bacteria, or good bacteria, and they predominantly live in your gut and overall digestive system. If you suffer with any regular digestive system issues, perhaps regular bloating or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), then you may find that you gain a lot of relief by incorporating a probiotic into your diet. We’ll get into the benefits of probiotics shortly, but it’s important to know that there are various types of probiotics on the market, and if you want to use them, you need to figure out which is the best for you. For instance, if you are vegan, you will need to find a probiotic product which is vegan friendly.

What Does a Probiotic do?

Probiotics are somewhat of a mystery in some regards, because there is still ongoing research into how they work and the exact benefits that they have. So far however, researchers have concluded that probiotics help to balance the good and bad bacteria in your gut, as we mentioned before. There are certain situations when you may find yourself lacking in good bacteria, e.g. if you become ill and have to take antibiotics. In this case, the antibiotic are too strong for the good bacteria, and actually kills them off to a certain degree. By adding a probiotic into your diet, you’re putting back what you’ve lost, and therefore maintaining the healthy balance.

Some of the other functions which probiotics have been shown to undertake are:

  • Probiotics help to move food through your digestive system and gut, by activating the nerves which work to control how your food moves. By doing this, a smoother and more frequent digestive system function occurs, thus avoiding bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, etc
  • Helps with common digestive system disorders, such as IBS and inflammatory bowel disease
  • Can help to fight the bad bacteria which causes infections and viruses, resulting in diarrhoea/bloating
  • Studies have shown probiotics may help to reduce the chances of diarrhoea due to antibiotic usage

What Other Benefits Can be Gained by Using a Probiotic?

Probiotic benefits don’t stop at the gut, as many studies have shown there to be other benefits, for other parts of the body. The immune system is thought to be benefitted by probiotic use, as the good bacteria helps to balance out, and sometimes even outnumber, the bad bacteria within the body.

The other possible benefits include:

  • An improvement in skin issues, such as eczema or psoriasis
  • Can help to reduce the instance of urinary tract infections in women, and can help to boost vaginal health. The reason for this is because probiotics are also yeasts, and by maintaining the balance of yeast within the vagina, you cut down on the chances of yeast infections, such as thrush
  • A boost in the immune system also helps to reduce the instances of allergies and colds
  • Can help to boost oral health, due to the good yeast content balancing out any potential yeast infections in the mouth

There are also suggestions that taking a probiotic regularly can help to boost your overall mood, memory, and can help to reduce mental health issues, such as depression, however further studies are ongoing into these issues, and concrete evidence is yet to be found. Many people wonder what are probiotics used for if there is no 100% evidence, but there is enough to suggest advantages, and until further concrete evidence comes along, usage should be continued.

Which is The Best Probiotic?

There are several different types of probiotic, so coming up with a best probiotic is quite difficult; this is a personal deal and really comes down to the person. As we mentioned earlier, if you are vegan, then you will need to source out a probiotic product which is suitable for vegans, and that generally involves avoiding anything which has ‘lacto’ as a precursor to the name.

The market is currently flooded with probiotic products, such is the popularity, so shopping around is vital. The most common types of probiotics you will find come from the two main groups:

  • Lactobacillus
  • Bifidobacterium

Lactobacillus is the most common, but this is the one which isn’t suitable for vegans. You will find this strain of probiotic naturally in yoghurts and other foods which have been fermented. Bifidobacterium can be found in many different diary products and it has been shown to be quite useful for those who suffer from IBS. You will also hear of another type of probiotic, called saccharomyces boulardii, however this is actually a yeast which many probiotic types contain. This particular yeast is ideal for diarrhoea issues.

What is the Best Probiotic Food?

You can find probiotics from three main sources:

  • Foods you eat within your diet
  • Supplements you take as a tablet or capsule
  • Supplements you drink, usually once per day, but check the label to find out the actual dosage, as this will vary from product to product

It can be quite difficult to find the right amount of probiotic from food alone, which is why so many people resort to taking supplements of some kind. Within this, there is no hard and fast rule as to the dosage of probiotics, and further evidence is still ongoing into how much is too much, and whether there are any side effects of this. For now, the best advice is to stick to the instructions on the product’s label, but you can also find probiotic content in many foods, if you want to add those into your diet too.

So, what are the probiotic foods you should be looking at?

  • Yoghurt
  • Kefir
  • Fermented foods, such as pickles, gherkins, etc
  • Sauerkraut
  • Tempeh
  • Kimchi
  • Miso
  • Kombucha
  • Buttermilk, but only the traditional type, not the cultured version
  • Certain types of cheese, such as cheddar, mozzarella, Gouda, and cottage cheese

There is no single probiotic superfood, but yoghurt is often thought to be the easiest to add into a regular diet, and therefore the most healthy and most beneficial. Certain types of yoghurt are not that ideal for probiotic content however, e.g. high sugar content yoghurts, which are overly-flavoured. Instead, go for the traditional type of yoghurt for the gravest benefits.

How to Use Probiotics

Why are probiotics so limited in regular food? Because the good bacteria doesn’t survive many different types of production methods, and the types of foods which are high probiotic content are produced in a more gentle, natural way. For that reason, you may struggle to get enough probiotics from your diet only – it’s not impossible however!

Some people choose to stick to yoghurts and fermented foods, because they’re very easy to incorporate into a diet, but if you choose to supplement this with a tablet, capsule, or a yoghurt drink, this is very easy to do.

We should point out that probiotics aren’t regulated in the same way medications are, because they’re completely natural and aren’t that means products don’t have to show evidence that they actually work. For that reason, always shop around for products, read reviews, and seek advice from your doctor in terms of the best probiotic type for your individual needs.

If you have any medical conditions, you should certainly check with your doctor ahead of taking them anyway, just to be sure. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that probiotics are dangerous in any way, but there isn’t a whole lot of answers either. Those who have a low immune system, perhaps due to chemotherapy, or who have a leaky gut, should certainly check with their doctor first.

Once you have decided on your product, follow the instructions on the label. A probiotic drink is usually taken once per day, usually in the morning for ease of use, and tables and capsules generally follow suit. There is nothing to say that you can’t eat the foods on the probiotic food list, just because you’re taking a supplement, you can’t really overdose on this!

Are There Any Side Effects to Taking Probiotics?

There is a distinct lack of evidence to suggest any side effects, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t proceed with caution when adding anything into your lifestyle routine. As we mentioned before, a quick chat with your doctor is a good idea.

When you first start taking supplements, or upping your probiotic content in your diet, you might find a few effects, however these should disappear relatively quickly, or at least settle right down. The most common include bloating, a little extra gas, a slightly upset stomach, and these should only really last for the first few days. If you notice this continuing afterwards, you should check with your doctor, and possibly stop taking that particular product. If you notice your probiotic supplement is kick-starting an allergic reaction, stop them immediately.

Should I Be Taking Probiotics?

This is a completely personal decision for you to make, and one which nobody can make for you. The buzz around probiotics isn’t based on nonsense, and because the good bacteria which dwells within your gut is already there and doing a positive job, it stands to reason that helping it along will bring you more benefits for your overall health and wellbeing.

Those who suffer from digestive issues, e.g. IBS, inflammatory bowel disease, or regular bloating, gas, etc, may find benefits quite quickly, and it is certainly for gut health which probiotics are well known. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any other benefits, and whilst these aren’t 100% proven, there is enough evidence to suggest that many people who take probiotics notice them.

A last word of note – always make sure you shop around for the right product for you. There are so many probiotic products out there on the market that you should always check labels, read reviews, and talk to your doctor if you’re not sure. Because there is very little in the way of regulation of these products, you could easily be pouring your money into something which isn’t of a high enough quality to warrant the price tag. By being careful with your final choice, you stand a much better chance of obtaining the wonderful benefits of probiotics and helping along your body’s natural flow of health and wellbeing.

The A-Z Guide to Probiotics: What Are They? Are They Safe?
Rate this post