Healthy Eating

Probiotics: Health Benefits, Types, and Best Sources

Curious about the mental and physical health benefits of probiotics? Learn the difference between probiotics and prebiotics and how good bacteria can lead to better brain and gut health.

What are probiotics?

Probiotics is an umbrella term for the types of live microorganisms found in products such as fermented foods and yogurt. When consumed, probiotics can contribute to the number of good bacteria present in your digestive tract. This community of bacteria is known as a microbiome.

Recent research focuses on how changes in the microbiome might result in health benefits. For example, healthier microorganisms can improve your digestion and immune response. In turn, this may prevent conditions such as periodontal disease, constipation, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

But the health benefits of probiotics aren’t limited to your gut. Probiotics may also help to improve your heart health, mood, skin, and cognitive functioning, as well as counteract the negative effects of antibiotics. Probiotics could even potentially play a role in managing diabetes and types of cancer and dementia.

If you’re curious about probiotics but feel unsure of how to incorporate them into your eating habits, know that you won’t need to turn your diet upside down to get started. Making simple changes can go a long way toward helping you attain better health and boost your sense of well-being.

The mind-body connection

Your digestive tract and brain are connected, so what affects one can also affect the other. Researchers sometimes refer to this as the gut-brain axis.

One example of this axis in action is the digestive tract producing chemicals that ultimately regulate your mood, including serotonin and dopamine. In addition, the vagus nerve connects your brain and your digestive system, passing signals back and forth between them.

This connection shows up in many real-world situations. You might’ve noticed that when you’re stressed, you can experience digestive issues like an upset stomach. Or perhaps your anxiety or depression symptoms intensify when you’re dealing with problems like inflammatory bowel diseases or IBS. With all that in mind, it’s not too surprising that adding probiotics to your system may lead to both mental and physical health changes.

The physical health benefits of probiotics

Although research is still ongoing, probiotics seem to offer a list of potential benefits for your body. They can support healthy gut bacteria and help you better absorb certain nutrients. This can boost your immune system to fight off illness and infections by destroying harmful bacteria.

Other potential benefits include:

Gastrointestinal health. It’s possible that probiotics can help with conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, and ulcerative colitis. However, they may have little effect on conditions like Crohn’s disease.

Anti-cancer treatment. Probiotics have anti-inflammatory properties that may help ease the symptoms of numerous diseases. Studies indicate that probiotics may be useful for cancer prevention, as well as anti-cancer treatments. Some cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, cause gastrointestinal disturbances, so adding probiotics to your diet may reduce side effects such as diarrhea.

Heart health. Some studies suggest that probiotics can help reduce your cholesterol levels and blood pressure to improve the health of your heart. Researchers have been investigating whether probiotics may be effective as a dietary supplement for cardiovascular disease.

Respiratory infections. A type of probiotic called Lactobacillus is being studied as a possible method to prevent and treat respiratory diseases in adults and children. It may also help with symptoms of asthma, lung cancer, and cystic fibrosis.

Diabetes. If you’re prediabetic or have Type II diabetes, probiotics may assist in lowering blood sugar. Studies are ongoing to determine if probiotics could be used as a supplementary treatment, particularly if your diabetes is poorly controlled or you’re not on insulin therapy.

[Read: The Diabetes Diet]

Skin care. Probiotics may have numerous skin benefits. Certain types seem to help regulate inflammatory responses, reducing skin conditions like rosacea, acne, and psoriasis. Probiotics may help keep your skin moisturized, reducing dry skin issues. The antioxidant properties of probiotics may also offer some anti-wrinkle benefits.

Many topical probiotic products currently on the market make big promises. However, it’s important to keep in mind that research is in the early phases, and new studies will need to weigh potential side effects.

Weight management. Some research indicates that probiotics might promote weight loss, especially when combined with regular exercise. However, more studies are needed. Also note that while certain types of probiotics seem to lead to weight loss, others may lead to weight gain. Practice skepticism over any claims of probiotics acting as a “quick weight-loss remedy.” It’s best to talk to your doctor about the best weight management plan for your specific needs.

The effects of taking probiotics with or after antibiotics

While antibiotics are often used to treat bacterial infections, they can destroy both bad and good bacteria alike. This has the potential to disrupt the balance of your gut’s microbiome and lead to side effects such as diarrhea and nausea. Some experts believe that taking probiotics after antibiotics could restore that balance. The research on this has shown mixed results.

For example, an analysis in 2021 showed that specific strains of probiotics (lactobacillus and bifidobacteria) could help prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea (AAD) in some adults. However, other research has found probiotics might not always be helpful to people taking antibiotics. Everyone’s gut microbiome is different, so the benefits may not be universal. In fact, taking probiotics could potentially delay your gut’s return to normalcy after taking antibiotics.

If you decide to use probiotics with antibiotics, take the antibiotics first and then wait two to six hours before taking the probiotic. Otherwise, the antibiotics may kill off the newly introduced healthy bacteria. If you choose not to take probiotics, fear not. Your system will likely return to normal on its own if you simply eat a heathy diet.

Mental health benefits

Because your gut and brain are connected, healthy bacteria found in probiotics also may offer benefits to your mood and cognitive functions.

Better mood. A six-week study found that probiotics can improve mood. Participants benefited from reduced anger, fatigue, and depressive moods. Probiotics also seemed to improve sleep quality, which can also have a positive effect on mood.

Easing depression and anxiety. Some studies even indicate that probiotics could potentially have some therapeutic effect on people dealing with anxiety and depression. How? Probiotics have an anti-inflammatory effect—and both depression and anxiety disorders may have some link to inflammation. Although the results of the research seem promising, a closer look is needed.

Cognitive functioning. Some trials point to probiotics playing a role in improved cognitive functioning. For example, if you’re an older adult, it’s possible that probiotics can lead to greater mental flexibility and less stress. Recent reviews of clinical trials show that certain probiotic strains might also slow the progression of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

[Read: Preventing or Slowing Down Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia]

Health benefits for women

Probiotics may be especially beneficial for some women’s health issues.

Autoimmune diseases. Although anyone can develop autoimmune diseases, women are at an increased risk. Autoimmune diseases include conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Sjogren’s syndrome. Several studies show that taking probiotics can decrease inflammation, potentially offering a therapeutic effect on these diseases.

Pregnancy. There is some evidence that probiotic supplementation during pregnancy may improve metabolic health, immunity, and the digestive health of the mother. This may also produce health benefits for infants, such as the reduction of certain allergies. Research indicates that probiotics are safe for both the mother and the developing fetus, but always consult your physician.

Gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM). Studies also show that probiotic supplements during pregnancy may reduce blood glucose and inflammation. This could potentially help treat gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM), a condition associated with high blood sugar levels that generally occurs after 13 weeks of pregnancy.

Currently, there’s less evidence for the use of probiotics for the following women’s health issues:

Vaginal infections. You might be familiar with vaginal yeast infections, and it seems logical that taking probiotics could be useful to treat or prevent this highly uncomfortable condition. You may have even seen advertisements promoting probiotic use for vaginal health. Despite all the hype, there is currently no evidence of the effectiveness of this remedy. At the present time, the only recommended treatments are antibiotics or antifungal agents.

Recurrent urinary tract infections. Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are common in women, particularly between the ages of 18-24. Your doctor will typically prescribe antibiotics to treat these infections. However, your body can develop some resistance to these medications if you take them frequently. So, other treatments are being explored, including probiotics. Some studies have been favorable regarding safety and efficacy, but there isn’t enough evidence yet to support the use of probiotics for UTIs.

The risks

It’s worth noting that there are many strains of probiotics (such as Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus), and not all of them have the same effects on the body.

Although generally considered safe for most people, there are also some risks to keep in mind when taking probiotics. Premature infants, people with illnesses, and those with compromised immune systems may also be at risk of side effects.

Digestive discomfort. Bloating and gas are the most frequent side effects, but are typically temporary.

Headaches. Some sources of probiotics also contain amines, compounds that can trigger headaches or migraines in some people.

Infection. In rare cases, probiotics might increase the risk of infection in certain individuals, such as people with impaired immune systems.

Allergies. It’s possible that you may have an allergic reaction when taking probiotics. In some cases, allergic reactions may be the result of added ingredients like cow’s milk.

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Adding probiotic foods to your diet

You can increase the levels of good bacteria in your diet by consuming fermented foods. The fermented foods that are organic and contain “live and active cultures” are especially beneficial. These foods naturally contain probiotic bacteria, and there are a wide variety of choices.

Not everyone enjoys the taste and smell of fermented foods, but there are simple ways to incorporate them into your favorite recipes. Get creative and try adding some of these to your favorite dishes.

Yogurt can be enjoyed plain, or you can add it to your favorite breakfast cereal or protein shake. You can also mix in berries, granola, flax seeds, or other toppings.

Cottage cheese is another choice for a quick snack or recipe addition, such as omelets, breakfast bowls, waffles, or lasagna.

Buttermilk can be used in salad dressing or to make biscuits, muffins, pancakes, or pastries. Some people include buttermilk when preparing pork chops, scallops, or fried chicken.

Kefir is a tangy cultured milk drink, and you can add it to smoothies if you prefer.

Kombucha is a fermented drink that’s made with tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast.

Tempeh is a probiotic-rich soybean that can be added to a number of foods. It’s a vegan alternative to meat and has a strong, nutty flavor that goes well in soups and sauces.

Miso is a type of fermented soy that’s often made as soup. It’s easy to prepare by adding hot water to miso paste.

Kimchi is a traditional Korean dish that’s made of fermented vegetables, usually cabbage or radish. Try adding it to tacos or sandwiches.

Sauerkraut is made with cabbage and is often used as a topping for hot dogs.

Additional veggies that contain probiotics include fermented radishes, turnips, and cucumbers. You can also try fermenting your own vegetables by putting them in containers that limit their contact with oxygen.

Keep in mind that fermented foods should be introduced gradually into your diet, as they could possibly increase gas, bloating, or other GI symptoms.

Probiotics supplements

For some people, taking probiotic supplements can be an attractive alternative to eating fermented foods. However, dietary supplements sold over the counter don’t require FDA approval.

If you have an imbalance or lack of beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract, a doctor, nutritionist, or other health provider may recommend specific probiotic supplements to restore the proper balance. Still, to get the maximum health benefits, it’s often best to get these nutrients from food rather than probiotic supplements.

Probiotics may not be the “silver bullet for health” they’re sometimes made out to be, but ongoing research may further clarify the benefits for your overall health. In the meantime, you can take care of your mind and body by eating a balanced, nutritious diet.

What is the difference between prebiotics and probiotics?

They might sound similar, but probiotics and prebiotics aren’t the same. They work in different ways to maintain your health. Prebiotics are non-digestible fiber compounds that probiotics feed on. Prebiotic foods, such as whole grains and soybeans, allow probiotics to grow and thrive, thus contributing to a healthy microbiome.

Some good sources of prebiotics include:

  • Oatmeal
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Spinach
  • Flax
  • Chia seeds
Last updated or reviewed on April 30, 2024