What Are Probiotics? And What Do They Do? Experts Weigh In

Probiotics – a trending subject, but also misunderstood. We got some experts on board to help explain what probiotics are and what they can do for us.

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Probiotics are beneficial, live bacteria that naturally live in your body (mainly in your gut). At all times, there are both good and bad bacteria in the body.

When more bad bacteria are present, this can decrease your overall health and put you at a higher risk of developing an illness or infection. When good bacteria outweigh the bad, you can reap the benefits of optimal GI health, a high functioning immune system, quality sleep, a good mood and ample energy.

Probiotic supplements have become a great way to add some of these good bacteria back into your body if you suspect that you’re lacking.

This article is going to focus on Probiotics, what they are, what they can do for the body and how you can reap the benefits of probiotics.

As a wellness expert and enthusiast, these kinds of topics are in my wheel house. However, I also love to lean on experts in the gut health sector so that this article can provide a ton of value for all the readers here at Go Wellness!

Meet The Experts That Will Help Explain Probiotics

Amy Archer, RDN CLT, owner of Wellness RD. Her brand focuses on gut health and functional nutrition, she's a true expert in this field.

Kim Kulp, RDN and owner of Gut Health Connection. Kim is a gut health nutrition expert. We're thankful to have her weigh in on this topic.

Dr. Ashley Elmer, DC, CACCP, CPD, owner of Ashley Elmer, focuses on the mind, body and spirit side of things, which I thought would add a unique perspective on probiotics. She has helped many clients improve their gut health.

What Exactly Are Probiotics?

Bacteria under the microscope

Here's my definition of what probiotics are, which comes from my experience and extensive research. Then I'd like to share what an expert had to say about what probiotics are.

You’re probably used to hearing bacteria being a bad thing that you want to keep out of your body. However, there are two different kinds of bacteria that exist. There are good bacteria as well as bad bacteria, and probiotics are the good kind of bacteria that helps us stay healthy. It can help keep the bad bacteria away so that your body functions better.

When we’re talking about the bacteria that is within our body, we’re discussing our microbiome. This is made up of microbes, which there are trillions of on and within the body. This includes bacteria, fungus, protozoa and viruses. The interesting thing about our microbiome is that we all have a unique one. No two people have the same microbiome setup. Probiotic microbes can survive in the gut once consumed, and it’s safe (and beneficial) to increase your probiotic microbe composition. Probiotic bacteria can help digest food, destroy cells that lead to disease, boost your immune response, control your metabolism and much more.

I asked expert Kim Kulp, RDN what her take was on what probiotics actually are, as she said many people have a misconception about them. Here's what she had to say:

“Probiotics are live microorganisms that have studies showing they provide a health benefit when taken in certain amounts. The important part of this definition is that the microorganisms actually have studies showing they can improve health.

There are many fermented foods with live microorganisms, but without studies, they can’t technically be considered probiotics. Probiotics are very strain specific, meaning you want to take the probiotic strain that the research shows can help your particular problem.

Just like you wouldn’t take headache medicine for your cough, you don’t want to take a probiotic for seasonal allergies that’s only been shown to reduce gas and bloating. Many believe that taking a higher dose of a probiotic is better. However, what’s important is taking the dose that was studied to be beneficial. More isn’t always better.”

Probiotics in Foods

You have the ability to increase the number of beneficial microbes that are inside of your body from a variety of the foods that you eat. There are certain foods that have this good bacteria in them, leading to a more diverse and healthier microbiome. There are probably a number of foods that are part of your regular diet right now that include probiotics, and you don’t even realize it.

Eat a diet that is balanced and healthy at each of your meals. You can add more probiotics into your diet, but moderation is key. Increasing it by too much can end up causing some GI discomfort, and you might be eliminating other healthy foods that you need as well.

Can People Eat Foods That Have Probiotics In Them?

This is something that's hard to find during my research. And, to be completely transparent, I think this is a question only an expert can answer. So I turned to Registered Dietitian Amy Archer, here's what she said:

“Eating a wide variety of whole foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics can increase microbiome diversity. Some of the best probiotic foods include kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut, and yogurt. About 2 servings per day can meet the needs for general support for the microbiome. People with compromised gut health may need more probiotic support with supplementation.”

What Food is Highest in Probiotics?

foods high in probiotics surrounding a chalk board with "probiotic foods" written on it.

Some of the foods that are naturally high in probiotics include things like yogurt, cottage cheese, buttermilk, kombucha, sauerkraut, fermented pickles, kimchi and miso. Unfortunately, many of these foods are things that people don’t commonly incorporate into their meals each day, so this might not be the best option for sourcing your beneficial bacteria. When you suspect that food isn’t going to be a likely option, supplements can fill in the gaps.

Registered Dietitian Kim Kulp agrees and had this to say about what foods are highest in probiotics:

“Based on the true definition, the only foods that contain probiotics are some yogurts and kefirs. Other foods with live microbes such as kimchee, sauerkraut, and kombucha don’t have confirmed health benefits. These are considered fermented foods, but not necessarily probiotics. Of course this may change as more research is done.”

Probiotic Supplementation

There are a number of probiotic supplements that can be used to boost your intake. You also have the option of combining a probiotic with a prebiotic. Prebiotics are a form of complex carbohydrates that actually feed the beneficial bacteria in your body. Some examples include pectin, inulin and foods like wheat, onions and potatoes. You may find them added into a probiotic supplement, and sometimes it will be called a symbiotic product.

How Long Does It Take for Probiotic Supplements to Work?

It will take about two to three weeks to see the most noticeable changes occur once you’ve started taking a probiotic supplement. You need to allow enough time for your beneficial bacteria count to go up, your bad bacteria count to go down and other issues to subside like a decrease in inflammation. Don’t be discouraged by the fact that your body needs time. Positive changes will come.

Is It Good to Take Probiotics Every Day?

Many people wonder if it’s safe to take probiotics on a daily basis. There may be certain products or situations that are an exception, but for the most part it’s usually good to take your supplement daily. These probiotics are based off of natural ingredients, and generally don’t cause any kind of unpleasant side effects. Though, there may be an adjustment period that you experience while your body starts to get used to an increase in beneficial bacteria daily.

What Are the Signs You Need Probiotics?

Person showing signs of pain in their abdomen

There are a number of health benefits that can be achieved with the use of probiotics, and you may have some symptoms that indicate you should be taking them. This can include:

  • Inability to think clearly (brain fog)
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Constipation / diarrhea
  • Pain in the abdomen
  • Gas / bloating
  • Mood issues like depression and anxiety

Of course, you should have a doctor rule out any other serious causes for these problems before you attempt to improve your gut and body health with the use of probiotics. Even after turning to a healthier diet and exercise routine, your symptoms don’t improve. This is when probiotics come into play.

What Do Probiotics Do for Your Body? (Benefits)

There is a very distinct relationship that exists between our digestive system and our overall health. If you want to be happy, a balanced gut microbiome is ideal. By addressing imbalances in your gut flora, you may be able to accomplish things like maintaining more regular bowel movements, getting better sleep, experiencing a better immune response, managing your weight, etc.

Kim Kulp, RDN, said, “Probiotics are living creatures, and much of what they do for us, comes from what they produce. These substances interact with other microbes in the gut, our immune cells, and the foods we’ve eaten. It’s these interactions where probiotics provide their benefits.”

I also wanted to ask Dr. Ashley Elmer this question to get her unique point of view. I knew she would provide some real golden nuggets for us, and she really over delivered. Here's what she said:

“Probiotics improve quality of life by maintaining a balance of healthy microbes in the gut. They encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria and inhibit the growth of pathogenic or bad bacteria. This is important for many reasons, one of which is that healthy bacteria are needed to produce neurotransmitters in the gut which impact the brain and mood through the gut-brain axis.

A healthy balance of gut microbes also enhances and modulates the immune system in important and beneficial ways. Probiotics help to maintain the integrity of the gut lining (preventing leaky gut and the adherence of bad bacteria) and reduce inflammation which is a major component of many chronic diseases.”

What Does a Probiotic Do for a Woman?

A high-quality probiotic is an excellent part of a healthy lifestyle. For women, probiotics can help increase energy levels naturally without the use of stimulants, boost digestive health, eliminate fatigue, keep stress levels under control, improve symptoms associated with autoimmune conditions and other chronic diseases and even improve quality of sleep.

Dr. Ashley Elmer weighed in on what probiotics do for women as well, here's her expert analysis:

“Certain probiotics (lactobacilli strains) are beneficial for maintaining a healthy vaginal microbiome. This is important for fertility, maintaining a healthy pregnancy and passing beneficial bacteria to infants when they are born. Probiotics also help to decrease inflammation in the gut which is a major component of auto-immune conditions which are more common in women and postpartum mood and anxiety disorders or PMADs.

The strain lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001 has been shown to be helpful in decreasing PMADs when taken in the 2nd and 3rd trimester and into the postpartum period. A healthy gut microbiome is beneficial for mood and taking a probiotic can contribute to healthy menstrual cycles and ease menopause symptoms as well. Overall, probiotics help maintain healthy skin, mood, hormones, blood sugar, urinary tract health and contribute to an optimally functioning immune system.”

What Does It Do for a Man?

Men can take probiotics to help support healthy digestion, improve their immune response, promote more regular bowel movements, decrease flatulence, shorten the recovery period after working out and even build muscle.

Dr. Ashley Elmer has great information on what probiotics do for men:

“Taking probiotics improves digestive health, mood, sleep and cognition. It enhances the immune system and is beneficial for the heart, brain and helps to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. In addition, a balanced gut microbiome is supportive of a healthy endocrine system which impacts testosterone production in men. It increases libido and helps to maintain a healthy semen microbiome which is beneficial for conceiving.”

Do Probiotics Help Belly Fat?

There are specific strains of bacteria that are part of the Lactobacillus probiotic family which can help you lose weight from the region of your belly. Use of the Lactobacillus gasseri strain can help decrease weight in the regions of the belly, hips, thighs and buttocks. Bifidobacterium is another beneficial strain for weight loss. People who fall into the obese weight range tend to have a much less diverse microbiome than those who are at a healthy BMI.

I asked Registered Dietitian Amy Archer if probiotics can help with belly fat. Here's her answer:

“People with belly fat and who are overweight tend to have a compromised gut, inflammation, and less microbiome diversity. Recent studies suggest probiotics can help reduce BMI, weight, as well as change visceral abdominal fat.”

Who Should Take Probiotics?

Most people in the world can benefit from probiotic use, but those who should seriously consider using this supplement includes people with skin issues like eczema or psoriasis, those who have allergies, people with a weakened immune system and anyone that has ongoing GI issues like frequent bouts of constipation, diarrhea, gas pains, etc.

Who Should NOT Take Probiotics?

Most people can safely take a probiotic supplement on a daily basis, but there are certain adults and children with chronic illnesses or compromised immune systems that should avoid their use. They could increase your risk of developing a fungal or bacterial infection. You can check with your doctor to make sure that a specific probiotic product would be acceptable for you to start using.

Final Thoughts about Probiotics

If you’re interested in using probiotics on a daily basis to improve your gut microbiome, gut health and overall health, it’s important that you are careful about selecting a product. You want to make sure that you’re sourcing your probiotics from natural sources, and that you’re getting an adequate amount of CFUs in each dose. CFUs, or colony forming units, are the number of viable microbial cells that are in a product when it is first manufactured. The number can go down after transportation and storage of a product, which is why you only want to buy from a reputable company.

Should You Take a Probiotic Supplement or Eat More Foods High in Probiotics?

There are benefits associated with both taking a probiotic supplement and trying to increase the number of foods that you eat which are high in probiotics. When you opt for a supplement, this is a much more controlled scenario. You know how much beneficial bacteria you’re getting daily. Whereas food can make it difficult to know if you’re getting enough. Supplements also let you pick specific strains of bacteria that will help with certain ailments you may be experiencing.

If you opt for probiotics through the food that you eat, you’re also consuming some very important nutrients that can help your body thrive as well. Just make sure you’re actually eating foods that are high in probiotics. Not all fermented foods contain them, so read your labels carefully. It doesn’t necessarily hurt to consume your probiotics both ways, as long as you’re not getting too many.

I asked Kim Kulp (RDN) this question as well to get an expert opinion. Her answer provided a lot of value:

“Like a fingerprint, each person’s microbiome can have a very different make-up. Since probiotics interact with our own gut microbes, and the foods we eat, different people can have different responses. Some will find a probiotic supplement helpful, while others may find it causes abdominal discomfort, or does nothing at all. We are just starting to see some research on fermented foods being good for gut health, so if you enjoy these foods, including more yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and kimchee can be a great part of a daily diet.”

Amy Archer, RDN has her opinion on what you should consider doing:

“I believe in foods first however, stress, travel, lifestyle and of course poor diet can affect gut health. For someone with a healthy gut who eats a wide variety of whole foods (I recommend about 40 different whole foods per week), this should support a healthy microbiome. For an individual with a compromised gut, immune system, or other health challenges, they may require a supplement to meet their needs.”

As always, if you're thinking about taking a probiotic supplement, or any supplement, talk to your doctor or medical professional first. I sincerely hope you found excellent value in this article about Probiotics.

Photo of author

Alex Smith, CSCS

Alex is a wellness expert and enthusiast, certified in strength and conditioning, and a former college football coach who has helped hundreds of student-athletes achieve their highest potential in life, wellness and sports. He prides himself on providing accurate information and using expert sources to create free content for those who want to Go Wellness!

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