You may think you know everything about probiotics (who knows, you might!) but we’ve got a few probiotic facts that may actually surprise you. From cancer-fighting super powers to healing your mental health, read on to get clued in on our favourite beneficial bacteria.
1. Probiotics are bacteria
As mentioned just above, probiotics are bacteria. But don’t let that put you off, they’re actually essential to a healthy functioning body and carry a huge range of benefits such as improved digestion, immune response, and bowel regularity. These live microorganisms can also be yeast, but again, they’re the good kind.
Probiotics work to keep your gut and other vital organs healthy and maintain the balance so that the bad bacteria don’t take over and cause you all sorts of health problems. Some health issues that probiotics are known to assist with include inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome, dermatitis and diarrhea.
2. You’re exposed to probiotics the moment you are born
Your very first dose of probiotics occurs in the birth canal, you are exposed to your mother’s microbiota and then it is reinforced through breast-feeding. Babies who do not experience this kind of contact and exposure often lack diversity in their microbiome, meaning that their gut health isn’t going to be as strong and they will have increased chances of developing allergies, infections and pediatric illnesses.
Early exposure to antibiotics can also harm your chances of building up a strong microbiome and so should be avoided if possible – we will discuss the effects of antibiotics on probiotics a little later on. Supplementation can assist with correcting this and filling in the gaps, only when recommended by a pediatrician after careful analysis of the child’s health.
3. There are more probiotics than cells in your body
Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true! Your body contains trillions of live bacteria and the majority of them are probiotics (ideally about 80%). This is why it’s so important to make sure your good vs. bad bacteria balance is healthy. These bacteria make up your “microbiome” and each person’s collection of bacteria is completely unique to them.
4. There are over 400 different probiotic strains in your body
Generally, a healthy individual will have a huge variety of probiotic strains in their body, these are types of probiotics that each have different health benefits and uses. This variety will often include over 400 different species of probiotic and the microbiome can consist of up to 1000 different species of bacteria at any one time – good and bad.
5. Not all probiotics live in your gut
The majority of probiotics in your body do live in your gut, however, they can be found almost anywhere in the body that has contact with the outside world, such as the lungs, mouth, skin, vagina and urinary tract. They all have different functions that help to keep each organ healthy and balanced against bad bacteria.
For example, a healthy vaginal flora can consist of around 50 different species of probiotics, predominantly Lactobacilli, and help to prevent cervical cancer, ease symptoms of endometriosis, promote fertility and reduce the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. They do this by maintaining the correct pH of the vagina to keep everything balanced and working harmoniously.
6. Yoghurt isn’t the only way to consume probiotics
Whilst yoghurt is one of the best foods to get your daily dose of probiotics from (and arguably the tastiest!), you do need to be careful that the brand you’re buying actually has probiotics added into it and that it’s a high enough amount of colony forming units (CFU) to really feel the benefits. Apart from yoghurt, you can find probiotics in a lot of fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut and tempeh.
You can also receive a good dose of probiotics from a daily supplement, which are great if you don’t like any of the probiotic-rich foods on the shelves right now or you’re looking for something a little more convenient. Be sure to find a supplement that contains a high amount of CFU, a good mix of different strains and some prebiotic ingredients. Not sure what prebiotics are? Keep reading to find out.
7. Probiotics need food to function optimally
Just like humans, probiotics need food to function optimally and thrive within your body. These are called prebiotics and they’re tiny, indigestible fibres that probiotics feed on for energy. Prebiotics can be consumed in bananas, garlic, onion, oats, and many more pantry staples. When these prebiotics reach your large intestine they are fermented so that your probiotics can consume them.
Buying a supplement with prebiotic ingredients contained in them will ensure that your probiotics are going to be nourished so that they can function optimally. Plus, it’s a super convenient way of getting both into your body without having to coordinate your food choices accordingly.
8. Probiotics control 70% of your immune response
As mentioned earlier, being exposed to probiotics early in your life can mean that you’re less prone to developing allergies and illnesses that will impact you throughout the rest of your life.
Additionally, around 70% of your immune cells are contained within your digestive tract, probiotics are able to stimulate these cells into action – effectively controlling the optimisation of the majority of your immune system.
Probiotics can also reinforce the gut barrier lining that ensures any toxins and food are kept safely inside your gut instead of leaking into your blood system and wreaking havoc. With such a huge portion of your immune system relying on probiotics, it’s easy to see why it’s so important to maintain a healthy microbiome.
9. Probiotics can help to support healthy weight loss
Overall, probiotics allow you to digest and utilise foods better, meaning more of your diet will be efficiently converted to energy instead of stored as fat. When studies have been done on humans and animals in a healthy weight range, their microbiomes have contained similar mixes of probiotics.
In particular, the Lactobacillus strain is thought to limit the absorption of fats from your diet and increase the amount of fat you burn and lose through normal bodily functions. If that wasn’t enough, this strain can even assist in the release of a hormone that naturally and safely decreases your appetite whilst increasing your metabolic rates.
10. Your mental health can be affected by probiotics
Your mental health and gut health are closely linked through something called the “gut-brain axis”. Ever had pre-date jitters or suddenly needed to use the bathroom really badly when you got a case of nerves? This is because a healthy gut microbiome allows it to react quicker than most organs when there’s a change in your emotions.
With this link also working in the opposite direction, it’s easy to see why those with gastrointestinal issues may also suffer from anxiety and depression along with other mood and mental disorders. When these mental disorders are treated correctly and improve, many people notice that their gut health improves as well, and vice versa.
Additionally, due to the stimulation of your immune cells in the gut, inflammation throughout the body is reduced. This means that the chance of developing mental disorders like Alzheimer’s, which is exacerbated through long-term inflammation of the brain, can also be reduced. Some short term improvements can include mood stability, less brain fog and anxiety.
11. Probiotics can help combat lactose intolerance
Lactose intolerance occurs when you’re lacking the enzyme that’s needed to breakdown lactose, the sugar in milk. Probiotics are able to increase the enzyme activity in your gut so the breakdown function is performed correctly, preventing undigested lactose from entering the colon and producing those familiar, nasty results.
As a bonus, if probiotics are contained in the dairy product itself, such as yoghurt, they’ll actually be able to decrease the concentration of lactose in the food before you even consume it. So if you’re someone who suffers from mild lactose intolerance, a probiotic boost might be just what you need so you can enjoy some dairy in your diet without the consequences.
12. Probiotics can aid cancer treatment
There’s been some exciting research into whether probiotics may actually be able to fight cancer itself, showing promise especially with killing cancer cells in their early stages. But the most obvious benefit that’s been explored so far is how probiotics can assist with alleviating side effects of chemotherapy. Chemotherapy-related diarrhea and gastrointestinal toxicity can be greatly reduced, allowing the patient a bit of extra comfort whilst undergoing their treatments, also reducing the need for them to possibly cut back on their chemotherapy treatments.
It’s important for a doctor to assess each patient for their particular situation when deciding if probiotics may be right for them.
13. Taking probiotics after a round of antibiotics is a smart move
Antibiotics can be essential when fighting off bad bacteria, however, they don’t discriminate when it comes to this process. Good bacteria can also be killed off in the process, resulting in a potentially imbalanced flora throughout the body. There’s also the possibility that the new space created by a course of antibiotics could be colonised by bad bacteria, so it’s a great idea to take some preventative measures.
The best way to do this is by taking your probiotic supplement or consuming probiotic-rich foods around 2 hours after you’ve taken your antibiotic dose. This allows enough time for the antibiotic content to be so low that it won’t attack the new friendly bacteria trying to colonise your gut. You should also aim to keep a steady increase of probiotics up over the couple weeks following your last dose of antibiotics, to ensure your microbiome is sufficiently colonised with beneficial bacteria throughout your body.
14. Probiotics can reduce bad cholesterol
A medical article published in 2018 reported the effects of 32 randomised controlled trials where, compared with the control groups, the participants given probiotics saw a significant reduction in their total cholesterol levels. It was also shown that probiotics in a capsule form delivered even better results than other forms, suggesting that capsule supplements may be more effective than consuming probiotics through your diet.
Probiotics reduce cholesterol in a few different ways; by binding to the cholesterol and preventing it from being absorbed, metabolising the cholesterol, and producing short-chain fatty acids – compounds that can help prevent cholesterol forming in the liver.
15. Probiotics can carry side effects
We should first note that the great thing about consuming probiotics, whether it be through your food or supplements, is that there’s practically zero risk of overdoing it. Probiotics colonise your gut, transfer their health benefits all over your body and then exit via normal bodily functions. If there are too many probiotics in your system, they’ll simply pass through and be flushed out naturally.
In saying this, first-time users of probiotic supplements, or those who decide to increase probiotic foods in their diets drastically, may notice mild digestion issues like gas and bloating. This is generally quite normal within the first couple weeks of introducing them to your lifestyle as your body may not be used to the new amount of beneficial bacteria. If this doesn’t subside after the 2 weeks, though, it would be best to stop using them and speak to your doctor.
There is also a very small risk of infection from the Lactobacilli bacteria that can occur in every 1 in a million people, but this can generally be treated with antibiotics. This risk is heightened for those with an autoimmune disease, anyone who has undergone recent surgeries or been in hospital for an extended period of time.
Probiotics are hugely popular all over the world, and for good reason! The proven health benefits that they can pass onto you are beneficial in everyday life and for safeguarding your future health. Mental health, digestive health and heart health can all be improved in both the long and short term, to name a few benefits.
Whether it be a supplement or increasing probiotic-rich foods in your diet, almost everyone can benefit in some way from probiotics. As with all supplements, we recommend speaking to your doctor before beginning use.