Live microorganisms that can help increase the bacterial diversity in the gut, probiotics are an important part of maintaining a healthy gut and improving gut health. With so many people dealing with digestive issues (plus roughly half the U.S. population living with some kind of chronic condition1), focusing on gut health, including understanding the digestive system, is more important than ever. To help, we’ve put together a handy guide to probiotics, covering what they do, how they help, common myths, and more.
What Are Probiotics?
Your gut contains trillions of bacteria, both good and bad, known collectively as your microbiome. A healthy microbiome is a diverse microbiome,2 which you can assist by eating a nutritionally diverse diet. Adding probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, can also help to increase gut diversity and fight off the bad bugs. Since the immune system resides in the gut,3 adding probiotics can help support foundational immune health as well. Although there are many vegan foods which contain probiotics, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, in general, these foods contain fewer probiotics than supplements, which can contain billions as opposed to millions of beneficial strains.4,5
Far from a scam, probiotics are a real source of beneficial bacteria.6 But in order to be effective, they have to meet certain criteria. The strain matters, as does the dose. Some doses may be too small to be of use (in general, a dose of 5 billion CFUs or higher has been found effective7), and some strains (there are more than 500) might not address your specific issue.
What About Prebiotics?
Found in varied plant fibers, prebiotics are a dietary fiber your body needs every day. Unlike probiotics, which are living strains of beneficial bacteria, prebiotics act as food for the preexisting beneficial bacteria. Eating enough prebiotics can stimulate growth of the good bacteria already living in your gut. Some foods which contain prebiotics include:
- Dandelion greens
How Long Should You Take Probiotics?
How long you should take probiotics is highly individualized and depends on a number of factors, particularly your current health status and goals. If you have gut-related concerns, taking probiotics for a longer period of time, while you support your healing, may make the most sense.
Are There Any Cons?
For many people, probiotics don’t present any negatives per se, and in particular, they have been shown to be a promising treatment for those with gut-related issues, such as IBS and other inflammatory bowel diseases.8,9 Still, some may experience allergic reactions (particularly those who are sensitive to dairy that take milk-fermented strains of probiotics) and other unwanted symptoms, such as bloating or mild stomach upset in the first few days of use.10
Benefits of Probiotics
While probiotics’ benefits should be taken in context as part of a healthy lifestyle that includes stress management, getting enough sleep, and eating a nutritionally diverse diet, they are a useful supplement, particularly when focusing on gut health. They can have a positive impact on your:
Your digestion doesn’t stop when you hit the hay. While it does slow down, glucose consumed during the day is used to help the tissues in the digestive system continue to repair and rebuild.11 Also, those with digestive challenges, such as indigestion, constipation, or heartburn, are likely to have difficulty sleeping.12 While no studies exist definitively linking probiotics to improved sleep, given their role in supporting healthy digestion, they may also have a positive impact on sleep quality.
Acne doesn’t happen in isolation, but is rather a symptom of a whole body imbalance. Factors influencing acne are multi-dimensional, but key among them are improving your microbiome, stress, hormone balance, and digestion. Since microbiome imbalances in the gut can show up in the skin,12 it makes sense that taking a good probiotic (again, as part of a comprehensive process involving lifestyle and dietary changes) can also help address skin concerns.13 In one study, the group of patients who took a probiotic for treating acne and rosacea saw significant decreases in both skin concerns compared to the placebo group.13 Other studies have shown that probiotics can inhibit cytokines,14 which can irritate and inflame the skin.
In recent years, gut health has become synonymous with overall health—after all, the gut is said to be the second brain. As part of an overall healthy lifestyle, probiotics can help promote a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut, in turn impacting different facets of wellness, such as brain and skin health, immunity, and digestion. Along with l-glutamine, probiotics have a number of potential benefits for good digestive health: they balance the good and bad bacteria living in your gut;15 improve mental health and mood;16 lower LDL (the bad) cholesterol by breaking down bile,17 and support production of natural antibodies, leading to a strengthened immune system.18 Prebiotics also help to strengthen gut health by feeding the good bacteria so that it thrives.19
Benefits of Probiotics for Men
While many of probiotics’ benefits help both men and women, they also have benefits specific to men’s health. Studies have shown that probiotics reduce bad bacteria and lower inflammation of the prostate in men.20 Probiotics have also been studied for their ability to sustain youthful testosterone in aging men,21 and probiotics can also increase sperm concentration and motility.22 In short, probiotics can be good for men, offering a number of benefits specific to their health, longevity, and well-being.
Benefits of Probiotics for Women
Just as probiotics offer benefits unique to men’s health, they offer benefits for women during pregnancy and beyond. Probiotics can play an important role in vaginal health, and for those with recurring yeast infections, when taken both internally and applied externally, probiotics may help rebalance the delicate ecosystem of the vagina. Probiotics may also help reduce the risk of UTIs, with one study showing that Lactobacillus crispatus supplementation resulted in a 50% reduction in UTI risk.23 In pregnant women, probiotic use was shown to reduce the risk of infant eczema by 83%.24
Myths About Probiotics
The most common myth about probiotics is not only that they don’t work, but that they can damage health. In fact, the stressors of daily life, including exposure to plastics, endotoxins, and environmental pollutants, not to mention stress and a consumption of nutritionally deficient foods, is more likely to put a strain on the body.
Another common misconception is that probiotics have to be expensive to be beneficial. In fact, probiotics need to survive the stomach and reach the small intestine in order to work.25
Prebiotics vs Probiotics
By taking prebiotics with probiotics, you’re helping the probiotics you take to thrive and survive better than if you’d taken them alone. While both are important for digestive health, probiotics are slightly more valuable when taken as a supplement, since prebiotics can be obtained in substantial quantities through food. Still, don’t neglect taking prebiotics on a regular basis along with your probiotic supplement for optimal gut health and balance.
Probiotics vs Digestive Enzymes
Both probiotics and digestive enzymes help support digestion, but they play different (though interrelated) roles. Digestive enzymes help break down food, speeding up digestion and improving the chemical processes in the digestive system. Probiotics are living organisms that help keep the digestive environment in balance. Digestive enzymes, on the other hand, are non-living proteins that are excreted throughout the digestive tract. Different digestive enzymes help break down different types of foods: protease breaks down amino acids, lipase breaks down fat, and amylase breaks down carbohydrates.
Probiotics for Kids
Probiotics offer kids the same kinds of benefits as they do adults. From helping to maintain a healthy weight to aiding in digestion, probiotics can be part of a healthy supplement regiment and diet for littles. Kids Good Stuff by Nuzest is formulated specifically with the nutritional needs of kids in mind, and includes two of the most widely studied and well-known probiotic strains, Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacteria lactus.
There are a number of deliciously simple ways of incorporating Kids Good Stuff into your child’s daily diet. From snack-sized morsels, like Kid-Friendly Peanut Butter Bites and Brain Bliss Balls, to breakfast favorites such as Banana and Date Protein Muffins and Berry Banana Powerhouse Pancakes, Kids Good Stuff is far more versatile than simply being mixed with water or your favorite plant-based milk (but those are tasty way to prepare it as well).
How to Get Probiotics
You can get your daily dose of probiotics through certain food sources or supplementation.
Probiotic-Rich Food Sources
Yogurt is what first comes to mind when thinking about probiotics, but there are a number of other probiotic-rich foods to choose from that pack an equally powerful probiotic punch. Among the most popular foods that support your gut health are fermented foods such as water kefir, a fermented beverage using kefir grains; miso, fermented soy beans; as well as sauerkraut, kimchi, and sourdough breads. For the more adventurous, natto is another lesser known option.
Probiotics can come in a dizzying array of options, and while you might wonder whether your favorite probiotic should be natural or over the counter, you actually can’t go wrong with a good quality supplement, complemented by some daily form of food probiotics as well. Some of the most promising probiotic supplement strains include Bacillus coagulans, a spore-based variety which can survive stomach acid to proliferate in the small intestine.
The best probiotic pills for overall health should have a high number of beneficial strains, such as Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces boulardii, or Bacillus coagulans, which are some of the most studied strains. One of the best off-the-shelf probiotics is Digestive Support Protein by Nuzest. Known as one of the best supplements for promoting gut and digestive system health, Digestive Support Protein contains 975 million CFUs of the Bacillus coagulans species, combined with 18 grams of pea protein, a highly-digestible and bioavailable form of protein well-suited for vegans or anyone looking to incorporate plants into their diet.
Digestive Support Protein can be used in creative recipes that are fun, nutritious, and flavorful. Dig in to nutrient dense smoothies, like a Granola Mint Probiotic Vanilla Protein Smoothie or Cherry Protein Smoothie Breakfast Bowl. Turn your chocolate cake indulgence into a probiotic-packed treat, add protein and probiotic power to your cookies, or give black bean brownies a new twist. Looking for fast, no-bake snack solutions? You’re covered with mouth-watering options, like these protein cake batter balls—yum!
Probiotics can be a valuable contribution to a healthy lifestyle that includes a nutritionally-rich diet and regular exercise. Armed with a complete guide to probiotics, you can feel empowered to use them as a regular part of your family’s daily diet and supplement plan because having a healthy gut is a lifelong pursuit.