Your gut biome is where most of these bacteria—your “gut buddies,” if you will—live, and like any community, your microbiome can be well-balanced and harmonious, or iffy and chaotic. There are good and bad bacteria, and their balance is crucial.
Taking antibiotics or eating a diet high in sugar and processed foods can wreak havoc on that balance, and some people simply tend toward overgrowth of certain bacteria which make keeping an equilibrium tough. You can support your gut flora by eating well and living healthfully, and probiotics (in food and/or supplement form) can be a huge assist.
Speaking of digestion, some of the clues about how your gut biome is doing can be found in the bathroom: if your biome is well balanced, you’re likely to have regular bowel movements that are solid but not too hard, and you should be able to digest most foods without significant issue.
On the flip side, if you experience a lot of gas (burping and/or flatulence), abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, or loose stools, you may be due for a gut biome refresh—that’s where probiotics come in.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are beneficial bacterial colonies that you can introduce to your gut to seed your biome, keeping problematic bacteria at a manageable level and creating an ideal environment for beneficial bacteria to thrive.
A registered dietitian can help you learn how to incorporate these and other probiotic foods into your diet, as well as how to support your gut biome with a good probiotic dietary supplement.
How do probiotics work?
When you eat a probiotic food or take a probiotic supplement, the beneficial bacteria make their way to your gut microbiota, where they move into the neighborhood and set up shop.
Your gut is responsible for crucial health functions, like producing K and B vitamins, and creating fats that support metabolic function and stoke immune function. To work well and efficiently at those tasks, your gut needs to be well balanced, and those probiotics that you take in (in food or pill form) help create an ideal environment for it to do so. Thus, the health benefit of probiotics and a well balanced gut can extend to your whole body.
Probiotic bacteria are diverse, and are identified by genus, species, and probiotic strain, and different species and strains support different health issues. Some common species that you’ll notice on labels are Lactobacillus (e.g. Lactobacillus acidophilus) and Bifidobacteria (e.g. Bifidobacterium lactis). Yeasts such as Saccharomyces boulardii, may also be used as probiotics.
It’s important to know whether you’re in need of a broad-spectrum probiotic, which contains multiple species and can support general gut health, or whether you’d be better served by a more targeted approach for, say, vaginal health or post-antibiotic digestive issues. Working with a dietitian can help you dial in what specific foods and brands of supplement are appropriate and ideal for your individual health goals.
Efficacy of probiotics
There has been a lot of research on the benefits of probiotics. A systematic review has shown probiotics to have positive impacts across multiple areas of the body and human health including helping with:
Why are probiotics important after taking antibiotics?
The reason funky digestion and vaginal yeast infections commonly occur after a course of antibiotics is that in addition to doing their important job fighting bacterial infection, broad-spectrum antibiotics also “wipe out” the gut flora, leaving it unbalanced. And, “bad bacteria” reseed more easily than “good bacteria”.
The result of that is over colonization of problematic strains—hence antibiotic-associated diarrhea and yeast infections. Thus, one of the important effects of probiotics is in reseeding the good bacteria. Food-based probiotics are great, but your stomach acid does kill off some of the bacteria you’re taking in.
Supplemental probiotics in capsule form can bypass some of that acid. There are tons of options on the market for supplemental probiotics—some are meant to be taken as a course for a specific amount of time (generally not less than four weeks), others as an ongoing supplementation.
Supplemental probiotics can also carry much higher “colony forming units” or CFUs, which are the units by which a probiotic’s strength is measured, than food-based probiotics. Many supplemental probiotics require refrigeration to keep the live bacteria intact, while others are shelf-stable.
As with any addition to your health protocols, it’s a good idea to consult a professional before starting. Your doctor or a registered nutritionist or dietitian can help you decide if and how probiotics have a place in your wellness routine. Check out Bright Belly’s list of dietitians and nutritionists to find a provider who can meet your needs.