At a glance
Gut Check: What are probiotics?
Gut Check: A Look At Probiotics
The word “bacteria” gets a bad rap. Sure, bacteria are associated with illness and disease — but there are good bacteria too. They’re called Probiotics — and they are essential to digestive health, nutrient absorption, and so much more. In fact, as you’re about to discover, probiotics can promote immune system function, brain health, and women’s health too.
Probiotics are a combination of live friendly bacteria and yeasts that naturally live in your body. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists probiotics as “live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits when consumed or applied to the body.”
You’ll notice that most probiotic products link these microorganisms to the intestines. However, probiotics are present in the mouth, urinary tract, skin, and lungs as well. From here, probiotics are responsible for keeping a healthy balance throughout the body. According to Cleveland Clinic, probiotics can help the body digest food, prevent bad bacteria from causing havoc on the rest of the body, and can even help the body break down and absorb medications.
Although these “good” bacteria may seem like an insignificant part of health, they are an important piece of what is called the human microbiome. Think of the microbiome as a city full of people, trees, and other living organisms. Each living thing is responsible for different tasks that impact the city. Now, imagine each living thing — or microbe — working together to keep that microbiome city up and running. Probiotic bacteria may not seem significant, but they play an important role in keeping your microbiome healthy. And it is all going on inside your body — and even on the surface of your skin!
Probiotics vs. Prebiotics
Some people confuse “probiotics” and “prebiotics” — and while the two things are intimately intertwined, they are different from each other.
When it comes to keeping our gut microbiome healthy, our bodies need to consume a balanced amount of both probiotics and prebiotics. Although the two types sound similar, they play different roles in gut health:
Probiotics – Found in food sources and dietary supplements, probiotics are living strains of bacteria in the digestive system. Probiotics are ingested to provide “good” bacteria to the body.
Prebiotics – Generally found in fiber sources such a fruits, vegetables, and oats, prebiotics help nourish the friendly bacteria in the intestinal tract.
So, think of prebiotics as the food that probiotics eat. Ideally, you would get both into your diet every day — either through food sources and/or supplements.
Probiotic Food Sources
There are some common food sources of probiotics. These include yogurt, sourdough bread, cottage cheese, fermented pickles, and miso soup. However, food sources of probiotics tend to have very few live cultures (known as CFUs) and they usually contain just one specific strain of probiotics. And, as we’ll see below, different strains can do very different things for our health.
You should also note that while you can get probiotics in your food, odds are if there are multiple strains or a large CFU count, they were added to the ingredients and not necessarily naturally occurring in the food itself.
What Are “Probiotic Strains?”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are seven core genera of microbial probiotic organisms: Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bacillus, Saccharomyces, Streptococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia. Although all seven are often used in probiotic products, some strains, including Bacillus, are more prominent than others. For instance, you’ll notice that some probiotic formulas contain different patented forms of Bacillus coagulans under such trade names as ProDURA®, GastroBacillus™, and LactoSpore® — all of which are all clinically tested forms of Bacillus coagulans with their own unique characteristics.
And while the primary role of probiotics has traditionally been for digestive support, research now shows that certain strains have other beneficial effects for your health.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the more popular strains of probiotics:
Bifidobacterium (B. bifidum) — According to Healthline, probiotics such as Bifidobacterium have “exploded” in popularity in recent years. Although research on this particular strain is still in a relatively early stage, B. bifidum has shown promise for supporting immune system health by gathering white blood cells together to fight off unwanted invaders.
Emerging research also shows Bifidobacterium delivers benefits for immune support. In fact, researchers have discovered a staggering 48 species of B. bifidum, each of which is believed to contain different functions and health.
One main function of B.bifidum is digesting fiber and other carbs that the human body is unable to digest on its own, as outlined in a 2013 publication from Nutrients. Like other probiotics, B. bifidum improves gut barrier function and reduces potentially pathogenic bacteria. In other words, it helps prevent the penetration of harmful microorganisms from compromising our health.
Although probiotics are normally advertised for gut health, recent studies show a link between certain strains of probiotics and cognitive function. On such strain, Bifidobacterium longum, has demonstrated positive effects on cognitive reactivity, mood state, and even sleep quality, according to research from the Department of Neurosciences at the University of Verona, Italy.
The 2019 study examined the role of probiotics in cognitive function and mood in 38 healthy individuals. Each volunteer received a probiotic mixture containing Bifidobacterium longum, plus Lactobacillus fermentum, L. rhamnosus and L. plantarum, or a placebo for 6 weeks.
The results showed “significant improvement in mood,” with reduced anger and fatigue in those who were given probiotics. An interesting tidbit within the findings notes that by improving mood through probiotic intake, probiotics may play a role in changing our cognitive strategies when it comes to dealing with emotional problems by reducing sensitivity to negative situations.
The Medical School at Harvard University took note of the role of probiotics in cognitive function as well, citing the “gut-brain” axis as the key between the two. The gut and brain are linked through biochemical signaling between the nervous system and digestive tract. As a result, the gut and brain share multiple neurotransmitters including serotonin and dopamine, which are important in mood regulation.
Lactobacillus acidophilus — Lactobacillus acidophilus, or simply L. acidophilus is defined by its uncanny ability to attach itself to the cellular lining of the intestinal wall. This strain of good bacteria produces lactic acid, which may help prevent harmful bacteria from building inside the digestive tract. L. acidophilus has demonstrated in studies to keep the lining of the intestines intact.
Research has also begun to examine the benefits of L. acidophilus on vaginal health. Although more research is needed, this strain of probiotic could help with vaginal imbalance issues associated with an overgrowth of harmful microorganisms.
According to the American Society for Microbiology, Lactobacillus gasseri is another strain of Lactobacillus that benefits vaginal health as well. This strain is used in many commercial probiotics designed for women’s health and is administered to strengthen vaginal epithelial cells. Dr. Marcotte, Associate Professor at the Division of Clinical Immunology and Transfusion Medicine in Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, states, “administration of selected probiotic lactobacilli that adhere more strongly to the vaginal walls might help to restore a healthy microbiota.”
Bacillus coagulans – Like L. acidophilus, Bacillus coagulans produces lactic acid. B. coagulans is able to generate spores so that it reaches the intestinal tract intact. Think of Bacillus coagulans as an “armor-plated” form of probiotic designed to survive so that it delivers maximum power for digestive health, including support for occasional constipation along with minor gas and bloating.
As we mentioned, Bacillus coagulans is one of the most researched probiotic strains and is very popular in nutritional supplements. There are several patented forms of this hearty probiotic, each with various added characteristics. Bacillus coagulans is prized by probiotic supplement formulators because it provides great value. You do not have to load up a capsule with tens-of-billions of Colony Forming Units (CFUs) in the hopes that at least some of them survive the journey from your mouth, through your stomach, and into the intestines where probiotics do their work. Instead, Bacillus coagulans makes the journey with ease and gets the job done where and when it is needed.
The Link Between Probiotics And Vitamin D
You may wonder why Vitamin D is included in a blog about probiotics. Well, the “sunshine vitamin” may be linked to probiotics more than you think. A recent study published in Nature Communications suggests that gut bacteria may be involved in converting inactive Vitamin D into an active form that benefits our health.
The UC San Diego researchers involved in the study sought further explanation by conducting a cross-sectional analysis of 567 older men. They found that Vitamin D levels in the blood were connected with the bacteria living in the gut microbiome. Active levels of Vitamin D and the number of “good” bacteria in the gut shared a connection as well.
Dr. Deborah Kado, director of the Osteoporosis Clinic at UC San Diego Health, expressed her thoughts on the findings to Medical News Today: “We were surprised to find that microbiome diversity — the variety of bacteria types in a person’s gut — was closely associated with active vitamin D but not the precursor form.” Dr. Kado added, “Greater gut microbiome diversity is thought to be associated with better health in general.”
It’s Time To Go Pro
It’s important to separate the friendly bacteria from the bad bacteria. Although probiotics are “good” bacteria, that doesn’t mean all strains are the same. And as insignificant as bacteria may seem, our bodies require the right number of probiotics to stay healthy. That is why it is helpful to learn what’s going on inside our microbiome, and what we can do to keep it on the right track. Soon enough, you’ll become a “pro” at probiotics!