Probiotics: 12 Health Benefits, Foods, Supplements (& How to Take)

Probiotics are good bacteria that can offer many health benefits, like increasing immunity, combating digestive problems and preventing infectious and inflammatory diseases, like diarrhea, ulcers, bronchitis and allergies. 

Consuming probiotics is recommended in cases of intestinal flora imbalances, which can occur after antibiotic use, during periods of stress or with an unhealthy diet.

Probiotics can be naturally found in some foods, like yogurt or kefir. They are also available for purchase as supplements, which can be found in pharmacies and natural health stores. Supplements should be used as directed by a doctor or registered dietitian. 

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Health benefits

The main health benefits of probiotics include:

1. Strengthening the immune system

Probiotics helps to regulate the immune system through the intestinal mucosa and throughout the rest of the body. They can help to improve immunoglobulin and lymphocyte levels, which can prevent the development of inflammatory and infectious diseases. 

Taking probiotics can have a therapeutic effect in specific situations that lead to reduced immunity, like babies who drink milk formulas, in patients who take antibiotics, or in people experiencing normal aging, gastrointestinal diseases and stress. 

2. Preventing and treating infectious diarrhea

Probiotics, especially Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium lactis, can be utilized to prevent and treat certain types of acute and infectious diarrhea caused by viruses and bacteria (like rotavirus or salmonella sp.). It is important to highlight that probiotic therapy for acute diarrhea should be accompanied by increased fluids and electrolyte replenishment.

In other cases, diarrhea can also be the result of antibiotics, as these medications can alter intestinal flora and increase the risk for pathogenic bacteria to spread. Probiotics can be a great complement to treatment and prevention of this type of diarrhea. 

3. Managing digestive diseases

Probiotics are able to fight Helicobacter pylori bacteria. This microorganism is related to health conditions like gastritis, peptic ulcer and stomach cancer. Probiotics can be recommended to treat and prevent these diseases, to relieve symptoms, and avoid worsening of the disease. 

4. Preventing colon cancer

Lactobacilli and bifidobacteria can modify intestinal flora and reduce the levels of carcinogenic substances in the gut. Overall, they can prevent the development of colon cancer.  

To optimize the anti-cancerigenic effect of probiotics, you should also consume prebiotic foods, which serve to "feed" the beneficial bacteria in the gut. Examples include oats, barley, rye, chicory, honey, garlic and bananas. 

5. Relieving constipation

Different types of probiotic microorganisms can act on the intestinal microbiota and reduce constipation in children and adults. Some effective probiotics include L. reuteri, L. casei rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium breve, Bifidobacterium lactis, and L. casei Shirota, among others. These work to stimulate bowel movements, add bulk to the stool, and reduce abdominal pain. They can also be used to prevent the emergence of diverticulitis and hemorrhoids. 

6. Preventing and treating allergies

The growth of probiotic microorganisms in the intestines can help to prevent and treat some types of allergies, like atopic dermatitis, asthma, and mite allergies. They mainly help to reduce the intensity of the inflammatory response in the body. The effect that probiotics have on allergies depend on the type that is consumed and its combination with prebiotics from the diet. 

In addition, taking probiotics during breastfeeding can have a positive effect on the baby, and can help to prevent allergies (to cow's milk, for example), eczema, and atopic dermatitis. They should be taken as recommended by a gynecologist or OB. 

7. Treating intestinal diseases

Taking probiotics, like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria can provide health benefits like treating gastrointestinal diseases, such as IBS, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. They can help to reduce symptoms and manage intestinal inflammation, which promotes recovery. 

8. Protecting cardiovascular health

Consuming probiotics on a daily basis can improve heart health, as it reduces fat absorption from foods, reduces LDL cholesterol levels and increases HDL cholesterol levels. This can help to reduce the risk for cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis and heart attack.

9. Preventing urinary and vaginal tract infections

Taking oral or vaginal probiotics can help to maintain healthy vaginal flora levels. This can reduce the risk for urinary tract infections and E. Coli infections, for example. 

Probiotics can also help to prevent the development of vaginitis caused by infections (from bacteria and fungus, for example), antibiotocs or hormonal changes.

10. Protecting against respiratory diseases

Probiotics increase the activity of macrophages located in the alveoli of the lungs. These macrophages are responsible for fighting infectious agents that enter the respiratory tract, and taking probiotics can help to boost their functioning to prevent diseases like sinusitis, otitis, bronchitis and pneumonia. They are especially beneficial for children and for people with a weakened immune system. 

11. Improving lactose intolerance

When probiotics reach the intestines, they release beta-galactosidase enzymes, which help to digest lactose. People who are intolerant to lactose can take probiotics to prevent symptoms like gas, abdominal pain and diarrhea when milk or dairy products are consumed.

12. Improving mental health

Some studies show that eating yogurt and probiotic supplements with bifidobacteria and lactobacilli can help to improve mood, anxiety, depression, memory and some disorders like OCD. 

How to take probiotics

There are two main ways to ingest probiotics: through foods that naturally contain probiotics (like yogurt or kefit) and through supplements.

1. Natural probiotic foods

Some foods that are rich in probiotics include:  

  • Natural yogurt: This is most common and easiest source of probiotic on the market. There are many types of yogurts with different flavors that contain beneficial bacteria.
  • Kefir: This is a food that is fermented with yeast and bacteria that is similar to yogurt, but contains an even higher amount of probiotics. 
  • Fermented milk: Some products have added Lactobacillus, with Yakult being a popular option.
  • Kombucha: This is a fermented drink made from black tea.
  • Oriental soy-based foods, legumes e greens, like Miso, Natto, Kimchi and Tempeh. They can be purchased in specialized grocery stores.
  • Sourkraut: This is made by fermenting fresh kale or cabbage leaves. 
  • Pickles: These are made by placing cucumbers in water and salt, and allowing them to ferment over time. 
  • Natural yeast This is a culture made up of yeast and bacteria that are naturally found in the environment. They can be used for diverse products, like bread, pies and cake.

In addition to these foods, some cheeses can also have live cultures with probiotic properties. It is important to read food labels to confirm the presence of these bacteria.

To maintain healthy levels on intestinal flora, you should eat at least one probiotic food per day, especially when using antibiotics, which get rid of both infectious and healthy bacteria. 

2. Probiotic capsules and supplements

In addition to probiotic foods, probiotics can also be taken as supplements. They can be found in capsule, liquid or sachet form, which can be diluted in water or natural juices.

There are many types of supplements, which can include up to 10 different types of probiotics. The most common ones are: 

  • Bifidobacteria animalis: Helps to strengthen the immune system, facilitate digestion, and fight the bacteria ingested from contaminated food.
  • Bifidobacteria bifidum: Present in the small and large intestines, help to digest dairy products.
  • Bifidobacteria breve: Present in the intestinal and vaginal tract, help to combat bacterial and fungal infections.
  • Bifidobacteria longum: Most common type of probiotics in the intestines, help to eliminate toxins in the body. 
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus: One of the most important types to help absorb nutrients, also fights infections and promotes digestion. L. acidophilus are also present in the vagina and help to protect against infections. 
  • Lactobacillus reuteri: Present in the mouth, stomach and small intestines. Important for fighting H. Pylori infections. 
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus: Present in the intestines, also help to rapidly treat diarrhea, especially diarrhea from traveling. May also help to treat acne, eczema and Candida sp. infections.
  • Lactobacillus fermentum: Help to neutralize toxins and products released during digestion, which helps to improve conditions for healthy intestinal flora. 
  • Saccharomyces boulardii: Help to treat diarrhea caused by antibiotics or traveling. 

A diverse probiotic supplement with many probiotic types will provide more health benefits and help to restore healthy intestinal flora much quicker.

How to take: Supplements should have between 2 and 10 billion active bacteria. It is important to carefully read the product label to determine the amount of probiotics per dose, and which bacteria are present. The type selected may depend on the health objectives 

You should use the supplement for 4 weeks, and if improvements are not noted during this time, you should ideally try another supplement. Probiotics should be taken before or after meals, so that the food consumed can help the bacteria to survive the gastric acid in the stomach and reach the intestines, where they can multiply more easily. 

It is also important to remember that consuming probiotic supplements or probiotic foods should be incorporated in a diet that is rich in giber. Fiber is important to feed the probiotics and promote their survival in the intestines.

Can children take probiotics?

According to various scientific studies, probiotics can offer many health benefits to children, particularly during cases of diarrhea, intestinal cramps or more specific condition, like IBS. 

Nonetheless, there is no evidence to support the benefits of daily use of probiotics in children, therefore side effects from long term use are not known. Therefore, children are advised to take supplements only for specific durations, as prescribed by a pediatrician (who should prescribe the probiotic type and dose). 

It is possible to include natural probiotic foods in the child's daily diet without any secondary side effects. 

Difference between prebiotics and probiotics

While probiotics are healthy bacteria that populate the intestines, prebiotics are fibers that serve to feed probiotics and promote their survival and growth in the intestines. 

Some examples of natural prebiotics are oats, onion, garlic, and underripe bananas.