What are Probiotics? A Beginner's Guide to Gut Health

What are probiotics? How do probiotics work? Are they good for you? We’ve put together a quick guide on what probiotics are, as well as why, how, and when to take them - specific for both men and women. We want you to understand how to buy probiotics and ensure you are taking the strains that you need most.

In this guide, we’ll answer your top probiotic questions:

  • What are probiotics?
  • The types of bacteria in probiotics
  • How probiotics work
  • Why should I take them?
  • Probiotics for women
  • How many probiotics should I be taking? 
  • What is the best time of day to take my probiotics and other vitamins?
  • Probiotics side effects and safety tips

Before we address the central question, “what are probiotics?”, let’s clarify what they’re not. The idea that you should be consuming food or supplements with bacteria may be challenging for some; after all, we use antibacterial soaps, gels, and prefer workout areas extra clean at the gym.

And while there are types of bacteria that are dangerous to the body (or just produce unpleasant odor), probiotics are not one of them. In fact, they’re already living in your system. There are types, or strains, of bacteria that cause problems when in the wrong place. Others, like probiotics, are not just beneficial, but necessary. 

What Are Probiotics? 

You may have an idea already, but what are probiotics specifically? According to the World Health Organization:

Probiotics are “live microorganisms which, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host.” 

This probiotics meaning has evolved, but in layaway terms: they are “good” forms of bacteria and yeast that help maintain the gut’s complex microbiome, digestive health and consequently, support or boost the immune system.

Another way to understand what probiotics are or the probiotics meaning is rooted in its etymology: Probiotic comes from the Greek pro, for "promoting," and biotic, meaning "life." If something’s “life-promoting” we certainly want to keep that around!

The first person to wonder how probiotics work and their specific health benefits was the Nobel laureate Élie Metchnikoff. He was a Russian scientist who suggested - as early as 1907-  that we could replace harmful microbes with useful microbes in the gut for health benefits.

He observed that people in Eastern Europe lived to very old ages despite extreme climate conditions and poverty. As a professor of the Pasteur Institute, he studied sour milk to provide host-friendly bacteria to the intestine microbiome successfully. Since then, a growing body of research continues to support and expand this theory.

The Types of Bacteria in Probiotics

The gut hosts more than 500 different species and about 100 trillion microorganisms. But there are far fewer strains (so far) that are thought to have health benefits, like helping you digest food, lowering or stopping sugar cravings, improving mood, and supporting the immune system. 

Each one works differently in the body. It’s good to know not just what probiotics are in general, but how each strain helps you individually, so you can get the right one according to your needs. For example, someone suffering from IBS may need something a bit different than a pregnant mother or someone with a yeast infection.

These are the most common types of helpful bacteria in probiotics:

  • Lactobacillus: produces the enzyme lactase, which helps break down lactose, and lactic acid that could keep “bad” bacteria in check.
  • Bifidobacterium: may limit harmful bacteria growth in addition to immune system support.
  • Saccharomyces boulardii: a yeast used to prevent and treat gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea, IBS, colon inflammation, and more.
  • Enterococcus: a lactic acid bacteria that may alleviate the symptoms of intestinal inflammation.
  • B. animalismay support digestion and fight harmful food-borne bacteria.
  • B. breve:  may help fight harmful vaginal bacteria as well as support digestion.
  • B. longum: helps break down carbohydrates, easy digestion and may also help maintain antioxidant levels.
  • L. reuteri: a strain that could help oral health and prevent decay, as it is found naturally in the mouth.
  • Propionibacterium: produces metabolites that may help alleviate the symptoms and side-effects of colitis.

If that info is enough to get you started, great!

But, if you like to dig a little deeper and really understand your supplements, you may be thinking, “sure, that’s great, but how do probiotics work exactly?” We’ll answer that next.

Keep this list handy to compare against your desired source of probiotics. 

How Do Probiotics Work?

The benefits of taking probiotics come from their ability to restore the beneficial levels of already-existing gut bacteria in your body. Maybe they were depleted due to poor diet, excess sugar, antibiotics, food poisoning, toxins, gastrointestinal conditions, or any number of other reasons. Even day to day life can leave your gut needing a little extra TLC.

So, how do probiotics work exactly?

Healthy live culture bacteria are (mostly) freeze-dried and added to supplements, medication, and fortified foods. Once consumed, the heat in the body brings them back to life from a form of adequate hibernation, finally repopulating the areas that need them. Since the place that needs repopulating is your gut, ingesting your probiotics puts them right where they need to be. It’s really that simple!

Why Should I Take Probiotics? 

We’ve answered what are probiotics, how they work, and listed the most common strains in foods and supplements today - but are they safe for everyone?

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCIH), probiotics have an extensive history of safe use, particularly in healthy people.

Probiotics are mostly safe and good for you, but the source and your conditions matter. 

Taking probiotics may be an excellent form of preventative and supplemental healthcare for specific situations - for example, after food poisoning -to maintain gut flora balance, and sometimes with or after antibiotics to prevent side-effects. In the latter, a licensed physician will recommend the best ones to take to ensure they don’t interfere with your prescribed medications. 

As with all supplements and health-supporting foods, it’s always good to consult with your doctor or primary care physician, especially if you’re taking medication because probiotics may interact with and alter how your body processes other medications and vitamins. .

Some Benefits of Taking Probiotics

Most people have heard of some of the probiotics benefits for women, but while there are specific reasons they are good for them, both men and women may benefit from probiotics. 

Here are some reasons why you should always have these little helpful bacteria around.

  • May help balance healthy bacteria in the gut microbiome.
  • Could improve cognitive reactivity and mood; as there is a mind-gut connection.
  • May help lower cholesterol by breaking down bile in the gut.
  • May support the immune system helping multiple immune response mechanisms, the functionality of mucosal systems, and white cell activation.
  • Could support weight loss and fitness goals as the bacteria in the gut may affect body weight, fat absorption, and promote or regulate food cravings.
  • May prevent or reduce instances of gas, bloating, and diarrhea.
  • Might help clear skin as elimination improves.
  • Could help alleviate constipation.
  • May help prevent urinary tract infections.

Probiotics for Women

What are probiotics for women?

Well, there aren’t really any specifically for each gender, but there are live strains that are especially beneficial for vaginal flora and female reproductive health. They usually include the strains: lactobacillus acidophilus, l. breve, l. rhamnosus, and l. reuteri.

According to the CDC 75% of women in the US will experience “at least one vaginal yeast infection in their lifetime,” and nearly 50% will have repeat infections.

Knowing that it’s hard to ignore the overall benefits probiotics have for women: 

  • Could restore good bacteria that may be depleted due to poor diet, infections, antibiotics, hormonal imbalances, and more.
  • May prevent urinary tract infections: early-stage research points to probiotics as a beneficial source to prevent recurrent UTIs in women.
  • May contribute to vaginal health by reducing harmful yeast, like Candida Albicans, reducing relapse cases while supporting traditional treatment. Out of the many probiotics benefits for women, this could be the most useful one, in our opinion!
  • Could support the vaginal pH balance. When this balance is off and unfriendly bacteria grow, women may experience irritation, itching, odor, or bacterial vaginosis.  Probiotics support natural vaginal flora, which maintains the right pH level.

Probiotics benefits for women may also help balance or improve vaginal flora, as these microorganisms live in the reproductive organs and help support healthy mucosa. 

How Many Probiotics Should I Be Taking? 

Is there a probiotics dosage? What are probiotics CFUs, and how are they measured? Sometimes a bottle says 5 billion, while others 20 billion - what gives?

Probiotics are measured in colony-forming units labeled as “CFU” which indicate the number of viable cells in foods and supplements

Some believe that the higher the number, the more clusters available, but there is no evidence that a higher CFU guarantees better results. Additionally, there is no official recommended dosage, as further studies are required. Don’t worry, we have some helpful numbers to get you started, though.

According to research, to get the benefits of taking probiotics the source should provide a minimum of 1 billion CFUs. 

Typical dosages range from:

  • 5 to 10 billion colony-forming units per day for children
  • 10 to 20 billion colony-forming units per day for adult men and women.

Instead of focusing only on the amount of CFUs, consumers are encouraged by the National Institute of Health to look at the end of the product’s shelf life in addition to the number of colonies, as probiotics must be alive to be effective. They often need to be stored in the fridge, too, so make sure you never put probiotics that are meant to be cold in a dry, warm pantry!

What is the Best Time of Day to Take my Probiotics and Vitamins?

You’ve probably heard that some vitamins may compete for absorption, others should be taken on a full stomach while others are better at a certain time of day as their side-effects could affect your performance. For example, magnesium may make you sleepy, so it’s best taken before bed.

So, how do probiotics work in the scheme of your vitamin routine? What are probiotics’ most effective hours? And how should you take them?

The short answer: you should take your probiotics first thing in the morning, preferably with a full glass of water or liquid, and 15 to 30 minutes before food.

Why? It’s all about that CFU delivery.

Because the colony-forming units need to be alive by the time they reach the lower gastrointestinal tract, they need to survive the stomach’s acids on the way down. 

A full glass of water -or juice of your choice- dilutes stomach acids and improves the survival rate of the CFUs so you can reap the benefits of taking probiotics. And eating shortly after supports the new gut bacteria as they make their way to the intestines. 

About Probiotics and Their Safety

Maintaining a healthy gut is highly beneficial to the overall wellbeing of the body, the benefits of taking probiotics in balancing gut bacteria make them an excellent supplement to a healthy diet and exercise routine. They are deemed very safe and probiotics for women may have even more benefits specific to the workings of our bodies. However, people on medications, with specific medical conditions and/or those who have suppressed immune systems should consult with a physician before taking them. What probiotics are to one person, may vary to the next.

We hope this guide was useful and that you are now able to easily answer what are probiotics, how they work, and why you should take them to complement your diet. Share with a friend and bookmark for later!

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