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Variety of fermented food korean traditional kimchi cabbage and radish salad. white and red sauerkraut in ceramic plates over grey spotted background. Natasha Breen / REDA&CO / Universal Images Group / Getty Image

By Anne Danahy, MS, RDN

Even if you've never taken probiotics, you've probably heard of them.

These supplements provide numerous benefits because they contain live microorganisms, such as bacteria or yeast, which support the healthy bacteria in your gut (1, 2, 3, 4).

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Lucy Lambriex / DigitalVision / Getty Images

By Michelle Kretzer

Want to get healthier this year? Almost half of Americans resolve to. But you don't have to drastically slash your calorie intake or take up residence at the gym to improve your health. Since we power our bodies through our digestive system, a healthy gut equals a healthy everything else.

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Now compelling new research has found these bacteria may also be beneficial for your brain and mental health.

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By Dr. Ruairi Robertson

Did you know that there are roughly 40 trillion bacteria living in and on you?

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By Dr. Mary Jane Brown

Probiotics are live microorganisms that can be consumed through fermented foods or supplements (1).

More and more studies show that the balance or imbalance of bacteria in your digestive system is linked to overall health and disease.

Probiotics promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria and have been linked to a wide range of health benefits.

These include benefits for weight loss, digestive health, immune function and more (2, 3).

This is an overview of the key health benefits linked to probiotics.

1. Probiotics Help Balance the Friendly Bacteria in Your Digestive System

Probiotics include "good" bacteria. These are live microorganisms that can provide health benefits when consumed (1).

These benefits are thought to result from the ability of probiotics to restore the natural balance of gut bacteria (4).

An imbalance means there are too many bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria. It can happen due to illness, medication such as antibiotics, poor diet and more.

Consequences can include digestive issues, allergies, mental health problems, obesity and more (5).

Probiotics are usually found in fermented foods or taken as supplements. What's more, they appear to be safe for most people.

Bottom Line: Probiotics are live microorganisms. When taken in sufficient amounts, they can help restore the natural balance of gut bacteria. As a result, health benefits may follow.

2. Probiotics Can Help Prevent and Treat Diarrhea

Probiotics are widely known for their ability to prevent diarrhea or reduce its severity.

Diarrhea is a common side effect of taking antibiotics. It occurs because antibiotics can negatively affect the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut (6).

Several studies suggest probiotic use is associated with a reduced risk of antibiotic-associated diarrhea (7, 8, 9).

In one study, researchers found that taking probiotics reduced antibiotic-associated diarrhea by 42 percent (10).

Probiotics can also help with other forms of diarrhea not associated with antibiotics.

A large review of 35 studies found certain strains of probiotics can reduce the duration of infectious diarrhea by an average of 25 hours (11).

Probiotics reduced the risk of travelers' diarrhea by 8 percent. They also lowered the risk of diarrhea from other causes by 57 percent in children and 26 percent in adults (12).

Effectiveness varies, depending on the type and dose of the probiotic taken (13).

Strains such as Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus casei and the yeast Saccharomyces boulardii are most commonly associated with a reduced risk of diarrhea (9, 12).

Bottom Line: Probiotics can reduce the risk and severity of diarrhea from a number of different causes.

3. Probiotic Supplements Improve Some Mental Health Conditions

An increasing number of studies link gut health to mood and mental health (14).

Both animal and human studies find that probiotic supplements can improve some mental health disorders (15).

A review of 15 human studies found supplementing with Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains for 1–2 months can improve anxiety, depression, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder and memory (15).

One study followed 70 chemical workers for six weeks. Those who consumed 100 grams of probiotic yogurt per day or took a daily probiotic capsule experienced benefits for general health, depression, anxiety and stress (16).

Benefits were also seen in a study of 40 patients with depression.

Taking probiotic supplements for eight weeks decreased depression levels and reduced levels of hormones such as insulin and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), compared to people who did not take a probiotic (17).

Bottom Line: Research shows taking probiotics may help improve symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, stress and memory, among others.

4. Certain Probiotic Strains Can Help Keep Your Heart Healthy

Probiotics may help keep your heart healthy by lowering LDL ("bad") cholesterol and blood pressure.

Certain lactic acid-producing bacteria may reduce cholesterol by breaking down bile in the gut (18).

Bile, a naturally occurring fluid mostly made of cholesterol, helps digestion.

By breaking down bile, probiotics can prevent it from being reabsorbed in the gut, where it can enter the blood as cholesterol (19).

A review of five studies found that eating a probiotic yogurt for 2–8 weeks reduced total cholesterol by 4 percent and LDL cholesterol by 5 percent (20).

Another study conducted over 6 months found no changes to total or LDL cholesterol. However, they did find a small increase in HDL ("good") cholesterol (21).

Consuming probiotics may also lower blood pressure. A review of 9 studies found that probiotic supplements reduce blood pressure, but only modestly (22).

In order to experience any benefits related to blood pressure, supplementation had to exceed eight weeks and 10 million colony-forming units (CFUs) daily (22).

Bottom Line: Probiotics may help protect the heart by reducing "bad" LDL cholesterol levels and modestly lowering blood pressure.

5. Probiotics May Reduce the Severity of Certain Allergies and Eczema

Certain probiotic strains may reduce the severity of eczema in children and infants.

One study found eczema symptoms improved for infants fed probiotic-supplemented milk, compared to infants fed milk without probiotics (23).

Another study followed children of women who took probiotics during pregnancy. Those children had an 83 percent lower risk of developing eczema in the first two years of life (24).

However, the link between probiotics and reduced eczema severity is still weak and more research needs to be done (25, 26).

Some probiotics may also reduce inflammatory responses in people with milk or dairy allergies. However, the evidence is weak and further studies are needed (27).

Bottom Line: Probiotics may reduce the risk and severity of certain allergies, such as eczema in infants. However, more research is needed.

6. Probiotics Can Help Reduce Symptoms of Certain Digestive Disorders

Over one million people in the U.S. suffer from inflammatory bowel disease, including ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease (28).

Certain types of probiotics from the Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus strains have improved symptoms in people with mild ulcerative colitis (29).

Surprisingly, one study found that supplementing with the probiotic E. coli Nissle was just as effective as drugs in maintaining remission in people with ulcerative colitis (30).

However, probiotics appear to have little effect on symptoms of Crohn's disease (31).

Nevertheless, probiotics may have benefits for other bowel disorders. Early research suggests they may help with symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (32).

They have also been shown to reduce the risk of severe necrotizing enterocolitis by 50 percent. This is a fatal bowel condition that occurs in premature infants (33).

Bottom Line: Probiotics may help reduce the symptoms of bowel disorders like ulcerative colitis, IBS and necrotizing enterocolitis.

7. Probiotics May Help Boost Your Immune System

Probiotics may help give your immune system a boost and inhibit the growth of harmful gut bacteria (34).

Also, some probiotics have been shown to promote the production of natural antibodies in the body. They may also boost immune cells like the IgA-producing cells, T lymphocytes and natural killer cells (35, 36).

A large review found that taking probiotics reduced the likelihood and duration of respiratory infections. However, the quality of the evidence was low (37).

Another study including more than 570 children found that taking Lactobacillus GG reduced the frequency and severity of respiratory infections by 17 percent (38).

The probiotic Lactobacillus crispatus has also been shown to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women by 50 percent (39).

Bottom Line: Probiotics may help boost your immune system and protect against infections.

8. Probiotics May Help You Lose Weight and Belly Fat

Probiotics may help with weight loss through a number of different mechanisms (40).

For example, some probiotics prevent the re-absorption of dietary fat in the intestine.

The fat is then excreted through feces rather than stored in the body (41, 42).

Probiotics may also help you feel fuller for longer, burn more calories and store less fat. This is partly caused by increasing levels of certain hormones, such as GLP-1 (43,44).

They may also help with weight loss directly. In one study, dieting women who took lactobacillus rhamnosus for three months lost 50 percent more weight than women who didn't take a probiotic (45).

Another study of 210 people found taking even low doses of Lactobacillus gasseri for 12 weeks resulted in an 8.5 percent reduction of belly fat (46).

However, it's important to be aware that not all probiotics aid in weight loss.

Surprisingly, some studies found certain probiotics, such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, can even lead to weight gain (47).

More studies are needed to clarify the link between probiotics and weight (48).

Bottom Line: Certain probiotics may help you lose weight and belly fat. However, other strains have been linked to weight gain.

The Best Way to Get the Benefits of Probiotics

You can get probiotics from a variety of foods or supplements.

Live probiotic cultures are often found in fermented dairy products such as yogurts and milk drinks. Fermented foods like pickled vegetables, tempeh, miso, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut and soy products may also contain some lactic acid bacteria.

You can also take probiotics as tablets, capsules and powders that contain the bacteria in dried form.

However, be aware that some probiotics can be destroyed by stomach acid before they even reach the gut—meaning that you get none of the intended benefits.

If you want to experience any of the health benefits discussed above, it's important that you consume adequate amounts.

Most of the studies showing benefits used dosages of 1 billion to 100 billion live organisms or colony-forming units (CFU) per day.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Authority Nutrition.

By Katie Medlock

The importance of good gut health has been receiving more attention lately and for good reasons. By colonizing our guts with "good" bacteria, we can help improve our digestion, enhance our immune system, reduce our risk for contracting disease and even lose weight. An especially important way of achieving these health benefits is including probiotic-rich foods into our diet.

Perhaps the number one food associated with probiotics is yogurt, but vegans choose to reject dairy from their diets for health, environmental and ethical reasons. Plant-based eaters do not have to fear, however, because there are many foods which naturally contain health-boosting microorganisms.

Here are just a few delicious sources of vegan probiotics:

Miso

Tempeh

Sauerkraut

Kimchi

Kombucha

Vegan Yogurts and Kefir

Olives

Sourdough Bread

Sour Pickles

Supplements


This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Care2.

"Dr. Hyman, can you tell me more about probiotics? Can supplementing with them really help reduce belly bloat and IBS symptoms? How do you know which ones are good and which ones are a waste of money?"

Well—to be frank, our poop and all the bugs that live in there are the great new frontier in medicine. Who knew!? The health of the 100 trillion bugs in your gut (which outnumber you 10 to 1) is one of the biggest things that impacts your health. Is it as simple as just taking a few probiotics or eating some yogurt? Not really—we have to learn how to tend the gut flora of our inner gardens by being selective of what we eat and how we live; feeding the good bugs and avoiding gut—busting drugs and habits—like eating too much sugar and starch, or consuming too much alcohol, or not managing our stress (yes, your gut bacteria are eavesdropping on your thoughts).

But What About Probiotics?

This is a huge area of research and really, we are at the infancy of understanding how to create and use probiotics. Probiotics are popping up everywhere! They're in yogurt commercials and sold at your pharmacy and grocery store. Ever since gut health has come to the forefront, probiotics have become a popular topic. So, do they really help?

Well, in order to understand probiotics, we need to understand the gut. I see so many patients in my office every week who are suffering from uncomfortable and disabling symptoms like bloating, cramps, diarrhea, constipation and abdominal pain. Often these are signs of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which has become a very real problem. Did you know that 60 million people (20 percent of Americans) have an irritable bowel? And even if you don't have gut symptoms, so many other diseases are affected by the health of your gut flora—including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disease, allergic diseases like asthma and eczema and even depression, ADD and autism!

What causes an irritable bowel? The biggest causes are bad bugs growing in there where they shouldn't, a leaky gut and food sensitivities—all of which drive inflammation and irritation.

Bad bugs grow when we eat a processed diet that's high in sugar and starch; don't eat enough of the right fiber and prebiotics; or take too many gut-busting drugs (like antibiotics, acid blockers for reflux, anti-inflammatories, hormones and more). Think of your gut as an inner garden; just with any garden—when you let the weeds take over, you get into trouble.

Leaky gut happens when your gut lining breaks down. This can be caused by any of number of things, including: stress; too many antibiotics or anti-inflammatory drugs (like aspirin or Advil); using steroids to treat symptoms; intestinal infections; consuming a low-fiber, high-sugar diet and too much alcohol; and more. When the gut lining breaks down, your immune system is exposed to foreign particles from food and bacteria and other microbes. This triggers and activates an immune response, irritating your gut and creating havoc, which leads to an irritable bowel, an irritable brain and other system-wide problems (including allergies, arthritis, autoimmunity, mood disorders).

Basically, the microbial ecosystem in the gut has to be healthy for you to be healthy. When your gut bacteria are out of balance, it makes you sick. Among all that gut bacteria, there are good guys, bad guys and very bad guys. When you have too many bad guys, and not enough good guys, this is a problem. That's where probiotics come in.

Along with other gut-healing nutrients, a low-glycemic, whole foods diet filled with healthy proteins, fats and fiber, and probiotics can improve the health of your gut significantly. Why? Because probiotics help to populate your gut with good bacteria.

There are lots on the market to choose from. I recommend taking very high-potency probiotics (look for at least 25 to 50 billion live CFU's from a variety of strains). Start slowly and observe how the probiotics affect your gut. When you first start taking probiotics, you might notice some uncomfortable symptoms like gas and bloating, but if the symptoms persist for more than a few days, you may need to delay probiotics until their gut is more intact. For example, if you're dealing with what's called Small Intestinal Bacteria Overgrowth (SIBO), you might not be able to tolerate probiotics until your gut is in a better place.

I don't normally recommend actual products but quality varies greatly, so here is a list of my favorite brands. One product I like is VSL#3—a super high potency probiotic. Each dose contains 450 billion live beneficial bacteria which colonize the GI tract with optimal amounts and types of bacteria to protect against inflammation and support immunity and healthy digestive function. You will need to start slowly on this and build up.

I typically prefer pills or powder form because it's the easiest and most effective way to get your daily probiotics in. In cases where someone is dealing with yeast overgrowth or a histamine intolerance and wants to avoid fermented foods, a probiotic supplement might be the best choice.

Another way to get probiotics naturally is to eat fermented foods. If you can tolerate them, probiotic-rich foods like kimchi, kombucha, miso or sauerkraut can be very beneficial. Sometimes, you can also eat whole fat, organic or grass-fed yogurt, if you are not allergic to dairy. Try unsweetened sheep's milk or goat's milk yogurt. These foods can help your gut flora get and stay healthy.

The best way to determine if probiotics work for you and which ones to choose is to work with a Functional Medicine practitioner. Everyone is different, and for some people, deeper gut healing might be required before you start taking probiotics. To tend your inner garden, you might need to do some weeding, seeding and feeding—a process that Functional Medicine doctors follow: first you weed to get rid of the bad bugs using herbs or medications; then you seed the gut lining with good bugs; and then you feed the good bugs with prebiotic foods and fibers to keep everything healthy.

How to Re-Balance Your Gut Flora Today

Probiotics can be very beneficial, but they are just part of the puzzle. Here are my steps to re-balancing your gut flora:

1. Eat a whole foods diet. Your diet should be rich in nuts, seeds, whole grains, beans (if you can tolerate them), fruits and vegetables, all of which feed good bugs. Some of you may not tolerate beans and grains if you have bad bacterial overgrowth. For those, I suggest starting with the 10-Day Detox Diet which eliminates gluten and dairy—big triggers for irritable bowel. this plan helps to eliminate the bad stuff and add the good stuff and it works fast.

2. Avoid the use of antibiotics, acid blockers and anti-inflammatories ... they change gut flora for the worse. Often, you can get off them if you follow my dietary suggestions and fix your gut. A patient recently said that when she eliminated gluten and dairy, all her reflux and irritable bowel symptoms just went away.

3. Take probiotics daily, which are not only beneficial for obvious gut dysfunction but also have been shown to help with depression, skin issues, autoimmune conditions and more.

4. Incorporate prebiotics. Prebiotics are a form of soluble fiber that help feed the good bugs in your gut. Prebiotics include foods like onions, garlic, resistant starch, sweet potatoes, dandelion greens and jicama. So eat plenty of these beneficial prebiotics.

5. Consider specialized testing such as organic acid, stool, gluten sensitivity and food allergy testing if the above strategies don't help you get to the bottom of your gut dysfunction. You might have to work with a Functional Medicine practitioner to effectively test and treat imbalances in your gut.

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By Stacy T. Sims

To put it simply: Bacteria follow the food you eat. The easiest way to manipulate your gut flora is by enriching your diet with a variety of probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are the actual bacteria that live in your gut. Prebiotics are the substances that the bacteria eat. Food sources are the best way to get both of these, since the diversity of the bacteria in supplements is not as smart as nature; your second choice could be a high-quality, specific-flora supplement.

Fermented foods are not only tasty, they're excellent for gut health.

Once you've established a healthy colony, you have to care for it. Just as you wouldn't plant a garden and not feed or water it, you can't just pour some kefir on top of a bad diet and expect those beneficial microorganisms to grow and flourish. You need to feed them. Fiber from a balanced diet is one way to nourish your gut microbiome.

Every day scientists are discovering more benefits of having teeming, diverse gut colonies. Some probiotic health and performance benefits we know for certain include:

1. Improved Energy

Probiotics and a healthy gut flora facilitate good and healthy digestion, allowing you to optimally absorb all the vitamins and minerals you need to perform and recover.

2. Increased Immunity

Research shows that probiotics is one of the most surprising ways to improve immunity and can help fight bad bacteria and fend off and reduce the duration of upper respiratory infections (such as the common cold) and gastrointestinal woes such as diarrhea. One particularly interesting study found that highly trained distance runners (who are prone to falling ill from overtaxed immune systems) had less than half the number of sick days when they pumped up their diet with probiotics.

3. Heat Tolerance

Though more research is needed, it appears that having a healthy level of probiotics also improves exercise performance in the heat. In one study, runners were tasked to run to exhaustion in a series of tests pre- and postprobiotic supplementation (specifically 45 billion CFU of lactobacillus, bifidobacterium and streptococcus strains). After supplementation, the runners improved their performance by a whopping 14 percent in hot conditions. It is likely that the gut lining is protected from damage, which allows digestion and the cooling system to function optimally.

4. Lower Inflammation

Research shows that probiotics can lower levels of inflammation in the body. This helps prevent numerous diseases and illnesses, including chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, as well as inflammation-based conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and irritable bowel syndrome.

5. Improved Well-Being

Probiotics have been linked to general health benefits of all kinds, including lower cholesterol; lower blood pressure; healthier blood sugar, body weight and body composition; and even better oral health. Healthy probiotic levels may also improve mood and some research finds that they may even help treat depression.

Adapted from Roar.

This article was reposted with permission from our media associate Rodale Wellness.


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