Probiotics are a variety of microorganisms intended to provide health benefits when consumed. While they’re found naturally in yogurt and fermented foods, many people take them in the form of dietary supplements to boost health.
With the right dosage, probiotics are believed to deliver health benefits including improved gastrointestinal health, a supported immune system, weight management, and potentially even brain health. As antibiotics become more ubiquitous, many medical experts are urging the importance of maintaining beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to support a healthy microbiome. Environmental and lifestyle factors can also alter the microbiome, so restoring its health is critical to supporting optimal wellness.
While much remains to be learned about the power of these supplements, we already know that probiotics are helpful for:
- Treating diarrhea and other GI issues
- Inducing or maintaining remission in ulcerative colitis
- Treating periodontal disease
- Preventing issues in premature infants, including sepsis
- Controlling colic in babies
There is also research to support probiotics’ use for treating other conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, allergy-related issues such as atopic dermatitis and hay fever, asthma, urinary tract infections, acne, and upper respiratory infections.
The importance of a healthy balance of bacteria in the GI tract has been suspected for over 100 years since scientist Elie Metchnikoff established the link between yogurt and better health. Metchnikoff pioneered the use of probiotics for general use, but the boom of antibiotics in the 1940s has been affecting gut microbes for decades. While antibiotics are often necessary and allow us to fight off infections, they also cause good bacteria in the gut to be wiped out.
In addition to taking antibiotics, many other factors can affect the microbiome. Exposure to cigarette smoke and air pollution, for instance, can take their toll on gut bacteria, as can poor sleep, chronic stress, and a diet rich in heavily processed foods.
Addressing these issues is important, as a disruption of homeostasis in the microbiome can lead to issues such as dysbiosis and poor bacteria diversity. With dysbiosis, there are fewer good organisms than harmful ones, while lack of diversity in gut bacteria has been associated with an increased risk for disease. These issues can also lead to intestinal permeability, in which the barrier function of the intestine is compromised and intestinal activity is affected. Known as “leaky gut syndrome,” this condition has been linked to conditions such as diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
Fortunately, probiotic supplements could help maintain a healthy microbiome, or repopulate a GI tract with good bacteria. Moreover, they’re generally regarded as being safe, with minimal side effects such as gas sometimes occurring. They shouldn’t be used in clinically ill or immunocompromised populations, however.
There are many different types of probiotics available, including specific strains and dosages. If you’re considering getting started on a regimen, it’s a good idea to seek professional guidance so you can determine the type that’s best for your personal needs.
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