Many bacteria are associated with illness, but probiotics are good for your health. These beneficial bacteria can be found in a variety of foods, beverages and supplements. It's best to take probiotics on an empty stomach or with a meal, specifically one with fatty foods.
Read more: 13 Surprising and Beneficial Probiotic Foods
Probiotics and Gastrointestinal Health
Your body is full of different types of bacteria. According to an August 2016 study in the PLOS Biology Journal, there may be as many bacteria in your body as there are cells. A June 2017 study in the Biochemical Journal reported that there are as many as 100 trillion bacteria in your digestive system alone.
Fortunately, these aren't disease-causing bacteria, like the ones that can cause pneumonia or tetanus. These bacteria help your body function properly. According to a March 2019 study in Nature Microbiology, these bacteria can help modulate body and metabolic functions, including your immune system, central nervous system and mental health.
To maintain the right amounts and types of bacteria in your body, you essentially need to ingest more of them. These are known as prebiotic bacteria and probiotic bacteria.
Both prebiotic and probiotic bacteria colonize parts of your gastrointestinal system. Probiotic bacteria are particularly important, because they can help improve the digestion and absorption of nutrients, modulate immune system function and protect your body from the disease-causing bacteria.
Read more: 7 Signs Your Gut Is Out of Whack
Commonly Consumed Probiotic Bacteria
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the most common probiotic bacteria belong to Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species. Certain yeasts can also be used as probiotics.
- Bifidobacterium animalis (sometimes referred to as Bifidus regularis)
- Bifidobacterium bifidum
- Bifidobacterium lactis
- Bifidobacterium longum
- Enterococcus faecium
- Lactobacillus acidophilus
- Lactobacillus casei
- Lactobacillus delbrueckii
- Lactobacillus johnsonii
- Lactobacillus gasseri
- Lactobacillus plantarum
- Lactobacillus rhamnosus
- Saccharomyces boulardii
All of these probiotic bacteria are considered healthy. However, the NIH explains that they don't all play the same role in your gastrointestinal system. Just because a bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus may be able to help prevent a certain disease doesn't mean other Lactobacillus species will be able to do the same thing. Similarly, Bifidobacterium bifidum and Lactobacillus acidophilus may be found in the same food products, like yogurt, but they're not equivalent to one another.
Natural Sources of Probiotics
Probiotics can be found in supplements, foods and beverages. A variety of different foods contain probiotics, including fermented products like:
- Amazake and other fermented rice products
- Garum and other fermented fish products
- Hakari (fermented shark)
- Miso paste
- Natto and other fermented soy products
- Nem chua, a Vietnamese spicy, sweet and sour pork
- Atchara and other pickled fruits
- Salgam, a Turkish fermented carrot juice
- Sauerkraut and other pickled vegetables
Consumption of any of these foods or drinks means that you'll naturally take in their probiotics. However, the type and amount of probiotics in each product can vary substantially.
For instance, all yogurt products are made with healthy Streptococcus and Lactobacillus probiotic bacteria (specifically, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus). However, if these bacteria are heated while the food product is being made (during the pasteurization process, for instance), the bacteria will die. This results in some yogurt products being rich in probiotics, while other products are not.
Unfortunately, many food processing methods associated with food sterility can prevent you from ingesting live and active beneficial probiotics. It also means that cooking your probiotic-rich products, particularly at very high temperatures, also has the potential to kill their beneficial probiotics.
Because there's so much variability in the probiotics you can obtain in your diet, many people choose to take supplements in capsule, tablet or powdered form. The National Institutes of Health says that prebiotic and probiotic supplements are the third most common dietary supplement after vitamins and minerals.
While there's nothing wrong with consuming probiotic supplements, you should still try to consume probiotic foods when possible. According to a July 2012 article in Nutrition _and an April 2016 study in the _Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition Journal, foods may be better carriers for probiotics compared to supplements. The additional ingredients in foods can help protect probiotics as they pass through your gastrointestinal tract and stomach acid.
Probiotics on an Empty Stomach
According to a December 2011 study in the Beneficial Microbes Journal, people who take probiotics in supplements should take them before or with meals. If you take probiotics after your meals, smaller amounts may reach your gastrointestinal tract.
This essentially means that it's fine to take probiotics on an empty stomach. If you want to take probiotics with food, that's fine too. However, probiotic survival was optimal when fatty foods were consumed.
This doesn't mean you need to take your probiotics with a spoonful of oil or butter, though. Even low-fat dairy products can help probiotics pass through your gastrointestinal tract. Other healthy fatty foods include nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut and fatty fish, which are all rich in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, as well as many other animal products.
Although you may have heard that the best time to take probiotics is before bed, this is rarely true. However, you could consume yeast-based probiotics, like Saccharomyces boulardii, before bed. The Beneficial Microbes Journal study found that this probiotic was not affected by food consumption or food type.
You should also technically be able to consume microencapsulated or enteric-coated probiotic supplements before bed. These types of probiotics are protected from your stomach acid and don't require the other components found in foods to reach your intestines.
However, according to a June 2016 study in the Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition Journal, the protection microencapsulated products can provide varies from product to product. This means that you might be best off consuming your probiotics before or with food, regardless of the form they come in.
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Survival of Microencapsulated Probiotic Bacteria After Processing and During Storage: A Review"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "The Comparison of Food and Supplement as Probiotic Delivery Vehicles"
- Nutrition: "Do Probiotics Act More Efficiently in Foods Than in Supplements?"
- International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications: "The Evolution, Processing, Varieties and Health Benefits of Yogurt"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Benefits of Probiotics Bacteria"
- National Institutes of Health: "Probiotics: In Depth"
- Nature Microbiology: "GABA-Modulating Bacteria of the Human Gut Microbiota."
- Biochemical Journal: "Introduction to the Human Gut Microbiota"
- PLOS Biology: "Revised Estimates for the Number of Human and Bacteria Cells in the Body"
- Beneficial Microbes: "The Impact of Meals on a Probiotic During Transit Through a Model of the Human Upper Gastrointestinal Tract"