Just about everyone has heard of probiotics nowadays, but do you actually know what they are?
Probiotics are defined as beneficial live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the "good" bacteria in the body.
Why are probiotics important? We are about as bacterial as we are human, as studies estimate that we have about 1.3 bacterial cells per human cell, ranging from 30 to 50 trillion bacterial cells for each individual (1). That's a big deal!
This is why it's so important to take care of our bacterial health because it makes us... us!
Having the right ratio of beneficial microbes to harmful microbes will greatly influence your body's ability to fight off infections and stay healthy.
You can receive the benefits of probiotics from fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, probiotic yogurt, and tempeh but also from supplementation. Supplements are usually recommended for individuals with a compromised gut, following a course of medications such as antibiotics, traveling, or those suffering from specific health conditions.
So how can probiotics help you?
Top 5 benefits of probiotics
They improve immunity
The majority of our immune system lies in the gut, or more precisely the Gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), the largest immune organ in our bodies.
The GALT accounts for up to 80% of the mucosal immune system and is distributed throughout the intestines.
The role of the GALT is to manage an appropriate immune response and protect us from harmful bacteria and pathogens (2).
Beneficial gut microbes protect the defensive lining of the gut and mount a protective response against foreign pathogens in order to keep us healthy.
It's no wonder that a healthy microbiome is the key to a healthy immune system. Probiotics have been shown to reduce inflammation, promote antibody production, and boost immune cell activity.
Probiotics combined with prebiotics produce symbiotics, which enhance the proliferation of good microbes in the gut and support the production of short-chain fatty acids.
We want short-chain fatty acids! Short-chain fatty acids have many roles such as protecting the epithelial barrier and regulating the activity of immune cells such as macrophages and neutrophils (3).
And though we have a spectacular, natural, built-in defense system we have to remember the barrier between us and the outside world is only one cell layer thick, so we must take care of it!
They reduce digestive distress
We are sure you have heard of probiotics improving digestive symptoms before, or maybe you have even experienced it yourself.
We need enough variety of beneficial gut microbes residing in our gut in order to have a healthy functioning digestive system. Probiotics can improve digestive health by promoting peristalsis, improving transit time, and preventing infections.
Probiotics can even help to treat certain digestive conditions such as IBS, diarrhea, necrotizing enterocolitis, and ulcerative colitis (4).
Not all probiotics are created equal though certain strains of probiotics have been shown to be particularly helpful, including Bifidobacterium, Saccharomyces and Lactobacillus.
They promote cognitive function and mood
Have you ever felt butterflies in your tummy? Or had a bad gut feeling?
Well, now science can prove why this happens.
The discovery of the gut-brain axis has brought along with it a deeper understanding of how the gut impacts the brain and vice versa.
The information transmuted between the enteric nervous system in the gut and the central nervous system is done via the vagus nerve, a sort of communication highway.
So what happens in the gut will impact how you feel and think, and the opposite is true as well. This is why anxiety and mood disorders occur at a significantly greater frequency among IBS patients (5).
Not only that, but the gut also produces neurotransmitters, up to 90% of serotonin is made here! Serotonin is known as our happy hormone and altered levels have been associated with mood disorders as well as digestive dysfunction such as IBS.
Probiotic supplementation has shown to report improved mood but also sleep quality (6).
This explains why many people suffering from mental conditions such as anxiety and depression experience improvements with probiotic supplementation while working on their digestive health, and why we must address both digestion and mental health together for best results.
They support skin health
What is happening on your skin is largely a result of what is happening inside of your body, and more specifically, inside of your gut.
Your skin is your largest detoxification organ, so when your digestive system becomes overburdened, skin problems can appear on the surface. This can look like acne, psoriasis, and dermatitis.
Research has shown that short-chain fatty acid production can influence the microbiome of the skin (7), yes your skin also have a microbiome!
A healthy gut population is also important for modulating inflammation in the body, a significant trigger for skin conditions.
They improve insulin resistance
Who knew your gut had anything to do with insulin resistance and blood sugar management?
A dysbiotic gut drives up inflammation which damages insulin receptors and promotes obesity, two factors that are linked with insulin resistance and diabetes (8).
A study found probiotic supplementation resulted in significantly less increase in insulin resistance, and more favorable fasting glucose and insulin levels (9).
Another study found probiotic supplementation reduced circulating insulin levels by 38% (10).
This isn't to say that probiotics will cure insulin resistance, however, the evidence is clear that gut health is a contributing factor to the pathogenesis and should not be overlooked.
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.