What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are a type of microbe commonly found naturally in your body. They are a combination of live bacteria and yeasts that aid in digestion. Probiotics form the good bacteria you need to help keep your body healthy and in good working order. They play a significant factor in helping you digest your food. They also destroy disease-causing harmful bacteria and replace them with good ones.

You have trillions of microbes in your body. For a microbe to be considered a probiotic, it must have the following characteristics.

  • It must be isolated from a human being.
  • It must be able to survive in your intestines after you have eaten it or taken it as a supplement.
  • It must be proven to have a benefit.
  • It must be proven to be safe when consumed.

Probiotics occur naturally in many fermented foods, like sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, some cheeses, and some fermented soy products. Probiotics are often also taken as a supplement. Your doctor may recommend that you take a probiotic.

What Do Probiotics Do?

Probiotics provide good bacteria that keep you healthy. They seem to work by affecting the nerves that control movement in your gut, thereby helping your body digest and send food through the digestive tract.

An important role for probiotics is restoring the digestive system to a healthy balance after taking antibiotics for an infection. Antibiotics are essential for fighting off bacterial infections. Still, antibiotics are indiscriminate in the bacteria they kill, so they end up killing both the bad and good bacteria in the body. Probiotics restore the good bacteria that the antibiotics kill and, thereby, restore your body to a healthy condition.

How Do Probiotics Work?

The Cleveland Clinic notes that you should think of probiotics as “keeping your body in neutral.” Your body gets knocked out of balance when infected with harmful bacteria. The good bacteria provided by probiotics restore balance and make you feel better.

Supplying your body with the good bacteria of probiotics helps in several ways:

  • They help you digest food.
  • Probiotics control bacteria by keeping the harmful bacteria from getting out of control.
  • Probiotics create vitamins.
  • They help support cells in your gut to prevent pathogenic bacteria from entering your bloodstream.
  • Probiotics help your body absorb medications.
  • They produce substances that have a desirable effect on your body.
  • Increase your body's immune response.

Types of Probiotics

Probiotics contain a variety of microorganisms, and each works in different ways, and each has different health effects. Some examples are:

  • Bifidobacterium species: This probiotic is found in some dairy products and helps relieve symptoms of irritable bowel disease (IBD) and other digestive problems.
  • Lactobacillus species: Lactobacillus species are the most common probiotics and are found in fermented foods like yogurt and sauerkraut. It helps those who are lactose intolerant and relieves diarrhea.
  • Saccharomyces boulardii: Saccharomyces boulardii is not a bacteria but a yeast. It helps fight diarrhea and other digestive problems.

Where Probiotics are Found in The Body

Probiotics occur naturally in your body. Specifically, they can be found in the following:

  • Gut
  • Lungs
  • Mouth
  • Skin
  • Urinary tract
  • Vagina

Potential Health Benefits

Although there has been extensive research concerning the potential health benefits of probiotics, much work still needs to be done to learn which probiotics are helpful and which are not. However, research shows that probiotics seem beneficial for the following health problems.

Gastrointestinal Conditions

From simple diarrhea to constipation, probiotics might be helpful. Other conditions include:

  • Antibiotic-associated diarrhea: Antibiotics work by destroying the disease-causing bacteria. Unfortunately, antibiotics are nondiscriminatory and destroy good bacteria along with the bad. Probiotics replenish the good bacteria and thereby prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea. The bacterium Clostridium difficile (C.Diff) is a particularly nasty infection of the colon that can occur with antibiotic therapy. It causes about 15,000 deaths annually. Probiotics seem to be particularly helpful to limit the harmful effects of C.Diff.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD): There are conflicting studies on the effectiveness of probiotics in relieving IBD symptoms. One study showed significant improvement in those who used probiotics. Another study showed no improvement in IBD but indicated that the probiotics reduced ulcerative colitis symptoms.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS): Although studies are inconclusive as to the benefit of probiotics for those suffering from IBS, studies do show that probiotics may have beneficial effects in controlling IBS symptoms and pain.
  • Lactose Intolerance: Often, probiotics relieve the uncomfortable symptoms associated with lactose intolerance.

Dental Disorders

  • Cavities. Few studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of probiotics for cavity prevention. Still, the studies indicate that the use of probiotics is associated with fewer cavities.
  • Periodontal disease: Periodontal disease is often due to inflammation and infections of the gums, which cause the gums to pull away from the bones. This often results in the loss of teeth. Studies indicate that probiotics may help reduce disease-causing bacteria.
  • Reduce Oral Candidiasis. They reduce harmful bacteria and promote a healthy pH balance.

Mental Health and Neurological Conditions

There is evidence of a connection between microbes in the gut and the central nervous system (CNS), including the brain. Research is currently being conducted to see if probiotics can be helpful in the treatment of some mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. The research may also reveal that probiotics may be beneficial in treating some neurological conditions.

Miscellaneous Conditions

  • High Cholesterol: A study of 2,000 people found that probiotics significantly reduced total blood cholesterol levels.
  • High Blood Pressure: Further research needs to be done, but limited studies indicate that probiotics reduce blood pressure and increase Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D helps prevent high blood pressure.
  • Skin Conditions: The use of probiotics has been found to help improve skin conditions such as psoriasis, acne, atopic dermatitis, and eczema. More studies need to be conducted to determine which probiotic helps which type of skin condition.
  • Allergies, colds, and upper respiratory infections (URIs): Allergies and colds are often due to the reduction of good bacteria in the system. Probiotics restore the balance by adding back the good bacteria and may be beneficial in treating allergies and colds. One study of 3,720 people showed that those who took probiotics had fewer and shorter URIs.
  • Urinary tract and vaginal problems: It's generally thought that probiotics help with these problems, but there is a lack of evidence for this. There is a low risk of using probiotics for these conditions, so health care providers often recommend that people with these problems use probiotics.
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy: This is a condition where a damaged liver cannot remove toxic substances from the bloodstream, so the toxins find their way to the brain and impair its function. A few studies indicate a beneficial effect of using probiotics as a treatment for this condition.

Potential Side Effects/Safety

Although research is limited on the safety of probiotics, they do have a long history of safe use. Risks seem to occur in those who have compromised immune systems. Caution is advised before a seriously ill hospital patient is given probiotics since the risk of harm is unknown.

Probiotics are generally sold as dietary supplements and do not require the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, the manufacturer does need FDA approval if the label makes a health claim that the supplement lowers your risk of getting a certain disease.

If a probiotic is marketed as a treatment for a certain disease, it must meet strict FDA requirements and be proven safe for its intended use.

It appears that if there are risks to the use of probiotics, they are few. Although in this area, as in the use of probiotics in general, more research needs to be done, some side effects appear to be:

  • Upset stomach
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas and bloating
  • Allergic reactions

Side effects are mild and usually disappear after taking them for a few days.

Before using probiotics, you should talk with your health care provider to ensure there is no conflict with the medications you're already taking or that you don't have a medical condition that would conflict with taking probiotics. In addition, your physician can explain to you the risks and benefits of taking probiotics for your unique health situation. It's especially important for you to discuss this with your physician if you have been diagnosed with cancer or anything else that compromises the immune system.


So what are probiotics?

Probiotics are live organisms naturally found in the body. Probiotics can also be found in food and dietary supplements. Probiotics are the good microorganisms that are necessary for good health.

Although research is ongoing and the health benefits of taking probiotics have not been conclusively determined, side effects are rare. Therefore, the benefits of adding probiotics to your diet seem to far outweigh the risks.

As with any dietary supplement, check with your physician to be sure taking probiotics is right for you.


  1. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics-what-you-need-to-know#hed1

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