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What Do Probiotics Do for Your Body?

author image Ilissa M. Palmer
Ilissa Palmer is a Registered Dietitian based in North Carolina, specializing in childhood, family, and community nutrition, food as medicine, and holistic wellness. She holds a Master of Science in nutrition and health promotion from Simmons College in Boston.
What Do Probiotics Do for Your Body?
A large bowl of yogurt on a table. Photo Credit Nungning20/iStock/Getty Images

Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that live in our bodies and can also be found naturally in certain foods and beverages. These living micro-organisms support normal health and help to enhance and repopulate intestinal bacteria, balancing gut flora and boosting immunity. Probiotics are beneficial to overall health and gastrointestinal health especially. “Pro” and “biota” literally translates to “for life.”

Functions of Probiotics

The weight of all of the bacteria within our intestines is more than three pounds, totaling more than 100 trillion bacteria, which belong to more than 500 different species that reside in every healthy bowel. The majority of these are not the type of bacteria that make us ill; rather, most are helpful and keep harmful pathogens at bay. They aid digestion, immune function and nutrient absorption. They are responsible for synthesizing nutrients in the intestinal tract such as folic acid, niacin, riboflavin, vitamins B6 and B12. If these beneficial bacteria become depleted due to poor diet, disease, stress, or the over-use of medications such as antibiotics, health problems can result. Under healthy conditions, the good bacteria will thrive.

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Treatment of Health Conditions

Probiotics have been used for centuries by many cultures, in the treatment of various health conditions. They are used in treatment for lactose intolerance, diarrhea, constipation, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, yeast overgrowth and infections, urinary tract infections and rheumatoid arthritis. Probiotics have been successful in lowering cholesterol and inflammation, reducing the risk and severity of allergic disease including eczema, and may assist in preventing cancers, particularly bladder and intestinal cancers. Side effects are uncommon, and most adults and even children can safely add foods that contain probiotics to their diet.

Probiotic Supplementation

Probiotic supplements may be used when dietary intake is unable to meet the needs for bacterial normalization. The Harvard Medical School recommends doses that range from 1 to 10 billion colony-forming units, which is the equivalent of one or two capsules, taken several days per week. Different effects may be observed, depending on the amount and the species and the strain of the microorganism used. All strains are not considered equally useful, so consider consulting a practitioner who is familiar with probiotics to determine which are best for you. For overall good health, supplementation is not necessary, as good bacteria obtained from certain foods will do the trick.

Digestive Health

Friendly probiotic bacteria help reduce inflammation in the intestinal tract and colonize it with healthy bacteria, allowing it to function properly. They repair damaged intestinal walls so that healing may occur. Digestive conditions improved with probiotic treatment include Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS, lactose intolerance, constipation, and diarrhea. The probiotics lactobacilli and bifidobacteria are especially helpful in treating diarrhea in infants, children and adults. A daily supplement for one to two weeks may improve infectious or antibiotic-related diarrhea. Effects vary, depending on the person and on the nature of the condition.

Immune Strengthening Powers

About 80 percent of our immune system function takes place in the intestinal tract; therefore, digestive health is directly related to immunity and overall health. The probiotic bacteria in the intestinal tract activate immune system components such as T and B lymphocytes, which are immune cells important for fighting against and preventing infection. Probiotics may help protect against certain cancers and may also prevent or reduce the severity of colds and flu. They can help strengthen an immune system that has been weakened.

Probiotic Foods

It is best to obtain probiotics from foods first, before turning to supplements, according to Kristi King, of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. When obtained from foods, probiotics “are more readily available for absorption and digestion," she says. Probiotics can be found in live-cultured yogurt, kefir, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, aged cheeses, olives, algae plants such as spirulina, chlorella, blue-green algae, and pickled vegetables. Some of the most common types of probiotic bacteria are lactobacillus acidophilus and bulgaricus, and streptococcus thermophilus.

Probiotics With Prebiotics

Prebiotics are naturally occurring food ingredients that promote the growth of helpful bacteria in your gut, which are probiotics. Prebiotics and probiotics working together form the key to good digestive health. Prebiotics can be found in garlic, onions, leeks, honey, asparagus, artichokes, whole grains, and bananas. Incorporate both prebiotic and probiotic foods into your diet for the biggest benefit. Probiotics are already present in a normal digestive system and are generally considered safe. They should be enjoyed generously and often.

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