Our bodies are homes to one hundred trillion bacteria. Some of these bacteria are ‘good’ and some ‘bad’. The term probiotic refers to dietary supplements and foods that contain “good” or “friendly” bacteria. The organisms themselves are also called probiotics, meaning “for life“. There have been many claims and some research done to prove that ingesting probiotic containing foods or supplements can be beneficial to our health. What exactly are these benefits and are they enough to add probiotics into our diets?

What are the benefits of ingesting Probiotics?

Digestive Health. Our digestive tracts contain over 1,000 types of bacteria that aid in breaking down food and taking in its nutrients. In the digestive tract, the ‘good’ bacteria outnumber the ‘bad’ under ‘normal’ conditions. When ‘bad’ bacteria take over, issues can arise. This can occur when we take antibiotics–or medications that kill bacteria that make us sick. In killing the ‘bad’ bacteria, the antibiotics also take out the ‘good’ intestinal flora that help us to digest, causing diarrhea or other forms of gastrointestinal distress. To prevent this, physicians may prescribe taking probiotics along with antibiotics to keep bacteria in balance. Additionally, probiotics can help in aiding overall digestive health. The majority of research that conducted on probiotics has examined the effects on digestive health, and the results have been promising.

Mental Health. Recently, there have been studies examining the link between gut bacteria and mental health. Subjects who took probiotics had improved anxiety and a decrease in depressive thoughts. Another study also found that ingesting probiotics can decrease stress and improve memory.  This research is new, and still developing, but is definitely worth following to see how probiotics can positively affect mental health.

The vagina contains both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria and relies on the two to be in a particular balance under healthy conditions.

Women’s Health.  This one is for the ladies. The vagina contains both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria and relies on the two to be in a particular balance under healthy conditions. When the balance is thrown off, which is due to many variables (certain foods, douching, antibiotics, semen), conditions like bacterial vaginosis or yeast infections can occur. Some research has shown that L. acidophilius, when inserted as a pill form vaginally, can help prevent or even treat these conditions.

Immune System.  The ‘good’ bacteria in our bodies stimulate an immune response. Ingesting foods rich in probiotics can result in a healthy immune system. One study examined what happened when some subjects were given a fermented dairy drink, while others given milk. Those who ingested the fermented dairy drink had an increased production from lymphocytes, an indicator of a healthy immune system.

Where can Probiotics be found?

Certain strains of probiotics are found in foods such as yogurt, kombucha, fermented vegetables, pickles, tempeh, miso, kefir and fermented cheeses.  Probiotics are also available in capsule, tablet or powder form. Additionally, many food manufacturers are making probiotics an additive to things such as chocolate, or granola bars.

There are many general types of bacteria used as probiotics. Different types of bacteria have different effects on the body, and therefore different health benefits.  If aiming to ingest probiotics for a particular issue, it is important to ingest the appropriate strain at the correct dose.

It is worth consulting with a Registered Dietitian who is familiar with probiotics for more guidance on what strain to take and as always, consult your doctor so that they are aware. If choosing to take probiotics through supplement form, remember that dietary supplements are not tested nor regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Should I be ingesting Probiotics?

Taking probiotics will certainly not hurt you, and they actually may benefit your health. If you experience gastrointestinal issues on a regular basis, there is solid research that suggests taking supplements containing Lactobacillus and/or Bifidobacteria are useful in resolving these problems. If you experience other issues that probiotics have been claimed to help, it’s worth giving them a try.  However, if you are already healthy, can probiotics make you any healthier?  The potential is certainly there, however more research and evidence is needed.

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