By Jeremy Russo
Probiotics are beneficial microorganisms found in fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi, tempeh from soybeans, and the latest trend, kombucha tea. Probiotics are mainly bacteria that are beneficial to the body; they’re available from dietary supplements as well as foods. Common types of bacteria include lactobacillus, bifidobacteria, streptococcus thermophilus, leuconostoc, and many others. By the latest count, there are at least 6,500 different types of probiotics. All probiotics do not function the same, and different types of these healthy microorganisms have varying benefits for the body. Some of these benefits have been scientifically confirmed while others are still being studied. The benefits include healthy digestive functioning, diarrhea prevention, healthy cardiovascular functioning, allergy protection, and good mental health.
Probiotics and Digestion
Let’s start with the gut. Probiotics are crucial for healthy digestive functioning. Once consumed, probiotics primarily live in the digestive system and promote a couple of healthy bodily functions. Intake of probiotics improves dysbiosis, the imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the digestive system. Restoring the balance can help with gastrointestinal conditions such as constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease, among others. Research shows that probiotics can reduce the movement of ingested food along the gut by twelve hours, benefit stool formation, and increase bowel movement frequency by 100% per week (1). These bacteria have also been confirmed by some scientists to reduce the reoccurrence of Crohn’s disease. This research is not conclusive and more evidence of this benefit needs to be researched. Different studies report that probiotics in the gut play a role in boosting immunity and, as a result, fight various digestive system complications. There’s evidence linking probiotics to reduced cancer infections along the gut, achieved by inhibiting carcinogenetic cells and enzymes.
Secondly, the beneficial microorganisms are good for relieving diarrhea symptoms, both antibiotics-induced diarrhea as well as the infectious type. Treatment with antibiotics can trigger incidents of diarrhea because although antibiotics are meant to kill the harmful bacteria, they end up killing the beneficial bacteria as well. This encourages the flourishing of other pathogens and consequently the emergence of a condition known as “pseudomembranous colitis.” The symptoms include severe diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal discomfort. In addition to stopping the intake of antibiotics, a probiotic such as L. rhamnosus and S. boulardii can help the condition. They restore a balance between the healthy microorganisms and the harmful ones, thus suppressing the negative effects of the latter (2). Infectious diarrhea, which mostly impacts infants and children, can
be prevented or reduced with probiotics. Administering of probiotics such as L. acidophilus to infants helps in the destruction of receptor signals for the responsible virus, blockage of defense mechanisms, and production of fluids that directly kill the virus.
Other Benefits of Probiotics
Probiotics are also important in allergy protection. This is mostly true for those who were exposed to these friendly bacteria as infants. Probiotics enhance the development of the mucosal lining which is essential in controlling allergic reactions. The microbiome created by these bacteria helps in stimulating immunity in infants which in turn prevents allergies. The healthy microbiota is effective for atopic dermatitis; the severity of eczema is reported to be improved by the intake of B. lactis or L. rhamnosus. It has also been reported that the intake of probiotics among expectant women alleviates the chances of infants developing eczema by 83%. An ongoing study shows that hypersensitivity to milk can be improved by probiotics that work by reducing the inflammatory reaction of the allergen; lactose intolerance, which is different from milk hypersensitivity, can be helped with certain types of probiotics when taken in prescribed concentrations.
A healthy microbiome also benefits the cardiovascular system. Probiotics help in the digestion of bile which is primarily LDL cholesterol, the type of cholesterol that’s harmful since it can lead to high blood pressure. By digesting bile, the bacteria reduce the level of cholesterol in the body. Probiotics also prevent cholesterol from getting into the bloodstream. Studies suggest that the intake of these microorganisms directly improves high blood pressure; they produce fermented products that control fats in the bloodstream. For results to be observed however, supplements of probiotics need to be taken continuously for at least eight weeks and in recommended doses.
There is also evidence that probiotics may improve mental health; taken for at least two months, bacteria such as lactobacillus can alleviate mental disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety. Scientists have linked good digestive-system health to improved mood and mental health and refer to this as the “gut-brain axis.” This relationship is explained by the production of neurotransmitters such as acetylcholine by probiotics. The neurotransmitters, in turn, enhance an individual’s mood and appetite. The microbiota also control inflammation, which is known to stimulate depression and anxiety, and are essential in cognitive development and stress management. However, scientists are still investigating the relationship between healthy bacteria and mental health, so it’s recommended that probiotics be taken together with other prescriptions. Based on the available evidence to date, eating fermented foods as well as the regular use of probiotics in supplement form may be beneficial for overall optimal health.
1. Kechagia, Maria, et al. “Health benefits of probiotics: a review.” ISRN nutrition 2013 (2013).
2. Sanders, M. E., et al. “Probiotics for human use.” Nutrition Bulletin 43.3 (2018): 212-225.
3. Thushara, Ram Mohan, et al. “Cardiovascular benefits of probiotics: a review of experimental and clinical studies.” Food & Function 7.2 (2016):