Tens of trillions of tiny organisms reside in your digestive tract, calling the warm and nourishing environment of your microbiome “home.” They affect everything from your digestion to your sleep to your skin and your mood. In essence, by taking good care of your gut microbiome, you take good care of the rest of your body.
To remain healthy and balanced, your gut needs flourishing colonies of beneficial bacteria. You can achieve a healthy microbiome by eating a gut-friendly diet, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and staying hydrated. But for an extra boost of propitious gut bugs, you may have considered taking a probiotic supplement.
Touted as a cure-all supplement, find out what probiotics really are and what they do for your gut health.
Benefits of probiotic supplements
Probiotics come in all sorts of different forms: You can find probiotics in fermented dairy foods like yogurt and kefir; fermented vegetable dishes like sauerkraut and kimchi; soy foods like miso, tempeh, and tofu; and more.
You can also find probiotics in capsule, tablet, powder, and liquid forms as supplements.
The health benefits of probiotics have been well-documented — If you purchase a reputable, high-quality brand (more on that below), you can feed your belly a whole lot of probiotic love and reap these top 5 benefits of probiotic supplements.
Probiotics can balance the bacteria in your gut
Perhaps the most important item on this list, balancing your gut bacteria is the first step to enjoying the rest of the benefits you can get from probiotics. Your gut contains “good” and “bad” bacteria. If you have a gut imbalance, or dysbiosis, it means the bad guys outweigh the good guys.
The consequences? Digestive issues, weight gain, mood issues, allergies, and more. Taking probiotic supplements can restore balance to your gut microbiome and alleviate the damage caused by harmful bacteria.
Probiotics can help reduce digestive discomfort
Pretty much everyone has experienced bloating, cramping, diarrhea, and constipation. And pretty much everyone knows how unpleasant those things are — no one likes to be stuck in the bathroom or doubling over in abdominal pain.
Supplementation with probiotics has been linked to reduce and treat diarrhea, reduce gas and bloating, and ease constipation. All of these benefits seem to be even more prominent for people who struggle with digestive disorders.
Probiotics can reduce symptoms of major digestive disorders
Speaking of digestive disorders, research suggests that probiotic supplements might be particularly effective at reducing symptoms for certain conditions. Probiotics can help people with ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and necrotizing enterocolitis, a digestive disorder that affects infants. We need more research in this area to confirm effects — and test out the efficacy for other disorders — but it’s a good start, and shows that probiotics truly do affect our guts.
Probiotics may help you lose weight
When all is well and harmonious in your microbiome, you should, for the most part, feel satiated and free of cravings. But bad bacteria love to feast on sugar, and if you have too many bad bugs in your gut, your body and brain can enter a self-destructive cycle of eating sugar, craving sugar, and eating more sugar. When you reduce the number of those bad guys and replace them with good ones, you’ll reduce your body’s dependence on sugar.
Another way probiotics may help you lose weight is by helping you feel fuller for longer, burn more calories, and burn more fat instead of carbohydrates. This happens through a number of mechanisms, but almost always involves the production of certain hormones. Some research, however, shows that certain probiotic supplements directly result in weight loss and fat loss.
Probiotics may boost your immune system
Circling back to gut balance here (the foundation of all these benefits, remember) — probiotics may give your immunity a boost by preventing the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Probiotic supplements may also boost certain immune cells, such as natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell that responds to infections).
Potential risks and side effects of probiotic supplements
Because the FDA dubbed probiotics a supplement rather than a food or drug, probiotic manufacturers aren’t held to the same safety and quality standards as food and drug manufacturers. The lax standards for supplements have led some manufacturers to produce probiotics with questionable ingredients, or probiotics that just don’t work.
The quality of your probiotic is the most important thing, so keep these potential risks in mind as you look for, purchase, and begin to use a probiotic supplement.
Probiotics may initially cause digestive symptoms as your body adjusts
This could be true regardless of which brand of probiotic you purchase. When you add something new to your diet or supplement regime, your body needs time to adjust. You may experience mild bloating and constipation, but these side effects should subside after a few weeks of taking your new probiotics.
It’s a good idea to introduce probiotic supplements slowly. For example, if your bottle says to take two pills, try taking one at first and see how you feel. Taking your probiotic with plenty of water may also help reduce side digestive discomfort.
Some ingredients may cause allergic reactions
If you have any allergies or food intolerances, make sure to read the label carefully before purchasing a probiotic supplement. Many brands use corn, soy, wheat, eggs, or dairy in the manufacturing process. Even if those ingredients aren’t in the probiotic, cross-contamination can occur if the supplement is made in a factory that makes other products with those ingredients.
There’s a possibility of bacterial overgrowth
Limited research suggests that it’s possible for probiotic supplements to cause small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), which occurs when bacteria from the large intestine start to colonize in the small intestine. This link is relatively new and needs to be explored more, but you should ask your doctor about probiotics if you have any pre-existing symptoms of SIBO — chronic gas, bloating, diarrhea, or brain fog.
What to look for in a probiotic supplement
Before you toss a bottle of probiotics in your shopping cart, familiarize yourself with these five important aspects to look out for:
- Ingredients: Be sure to check for any allergens like gluten, soy, corn, and lactose.
- Strains and species: Look for Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces boulardii, but don’t stop there — your probiotic should contain multiple strains of multiple species for the best results.
- Expiration date: Probiotics are living organisms, so taking a probiotic supplement past the expiration date usually means the bacteria are dead and dormant.
- Refrigeration: Not all probiotic supplements need to be refrigerated, but those that are usually last longer and provide your body with more live cultures.
- Dose: Choose a probiotic that contains at least one billion colony-forming units (CFUs).
Who should take probiotic supplements?
Probiotics are generally safe for most people, and regularly taking them can restore balance to your gut microbiome. However, certain groups of people may not benefit. For instance, people who have suppressed immune systems may be at risk for infection if they take probiotic supplements. If you’re unsure about whether you should add a probiotic supplement to your regimen, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian.