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Home arrow Health arrow Gut Health arrow What Are Probiotics? The Inside Scoop

What Are Probiotics? The Inside Scoop

Dr. Donika Vata
Written by Donika Vata, MD
Fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
Last update: July 21, 2023
12 min read 1159 Views 0 Comments
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Probiotics are live microorganisms that naturally occur in the body, but do they have any health benefits? Learn how they work, how to take probiotic supplements, and whether they are suitable for you.

what are probiotics

When thinking of bacteria, your mind will likely jump straight to the type that makes you sick. However, your body actually has two types of gut bacteria that keep it functioning – good and bad.

Probiotics are made up of “good” bacteria that help to fight off infection and promote good gut health. From supplements and drinks to fermented foods, they can be found in many different forms, but how do probiotics work?

Discover the uses, benefits, and risks of taking probiotics and whether they could help improve your gut and digestive health.

What Are Probiotics?

Probiotics are live “good” microorganisms that occur naturally in the body. They help to promote a healthy gut by eliminating “bad” bacteria and therefore restore a healthy balance of microbes within the body.

Having the right amounts of good gut bacteria is crucial for reduced risk of disease, healthier skin, better digestion, improved immune function, and weight loss.

From dietary supplements and beauty products to yogurt and other fermented probiotic-rich foods, there is a range of options that you can consume to ensure that your gut contains plenty of good probiotic bacteria.

There are 3 different types of probiotics that may have different effects which are:

  • Lactobacillus – As the most common probiotic, this type is found in fermented foods and yogurts. It may help those who struggle to digest lactose, the sugar in milk, and can be used to treat diarrhea.
  • Bifidobacterium – Found mainly in dairy products, bifidobacterium is most often used to ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
  • Saccharomyces boulardii – This is a type of yeast that treats problems in the digestive system, such as diarrhea.

What is a probiotic supplement? 

Probiotics can be consumed by taking dietary supplements. Typically found in pill or capsule form, they contain live beneficial bacteria that help to maintain the right levels of good and bad microorganisms within the gut.

Unlike many medications, these supplements are not regulated as drugs, so they do not need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be sold to consumers. This means that their health claims aren’t yet 100% proven.

There is emerging evidence to suggest that probiotic supplements are effective as a post-antibiotic medication and for treating various digestive disorders. 

However, more research is needed to confirm the optimal dosage, length of time they should be taken, and their long-term effects.

What are probiotic drinks? 

Another way of getting your daily dose is through probiotic drinks. One of the most popular types of probiotic beverage is kefir, a fermented milk drink.

Be sure to check the label before purchasing a probiotic drink to see how many colony-forming units (CFUs) it contains, which indicates how much of the probiotic you will be getting. It is recommended to choose beverages with 5–15 billion CFUs per serving for the best results.

What Do Probiotics Do?

The main role of probiotics is to maintain the ideal balance of good and bad bacteria in the body. When sickness strikes, the good probiotic bacteria fight off bad bacteria that make you feel unwell.

Although antibiotics fight bad bacteria that cause infection, at the same time, they are killing the good bacteria too. Probiotics help to restore these good bacteria and may help to relieve symptoms such as diarrhea that occur while taking antibiotics

They do this by supporting the cells on your gut lining to stop these bad bacteria from entering your bloodstream through food or drinks. 

Research shows that probiotics may be useful in easing bacteria-related constipation. They also may ease symptoms of digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and ulcerative colitis, a disease that causes areas of the digestive system to become inflamed.

There are a variety of probiotics that are safe for use by infants and children. 

These supplements have been shown to treat infant colic and prevent necrotizing enterocolitis, a dangerous illness that causes tissues in the gut to become inflamed and start to die.

Like adults, they can also reduce the unpleasant effects of antibiotics for children, which include diarrhea, gas, acid reflux, and eczema. Studies suggest that probiotics are effective in reducing the risk of sepsis in premature infants, which occurs as a response to infection.

Can probiotics help with diarrhea? 

Probiotics may be useful in treating diarrhea that is triggered by antibiotics or infection from Clostridium difficile (C.diff), a bacterium that causes the colon to become inflamed.

The good bacteria present in probiotics fight off bad bacteria and help restore a healthy balance within the body.

How to Take Probiotics

As well as occurring naturally in certain probiotic foods and drinks, you can take probiotic supplements to maintain a healthy balance of bacteria in your body. These supplements can be found in a variety of forms, including powders, liquids, and pills.

Different supplements contain different probiotic strains, so it’s important to read the instructions for recommended use on the packaging. They will tell you when and how to take the supplement for the best results.

Most probiotics should be taken on an empty stomach first thing in the morning or 2–3 hours after your last meal at night. This ensures that their good bacteria are able to survive through stomach acid on its way to the gut.

Check the label of your probiotic supplements, as some strains are particularly vulnerable to damage from light, heat, oxygen, and humidity. You may need to refrigerate or store them in a specific place to prevent this.

Should I take probiotics every day? 

Yes, probiotic supplements should be taken every day. Consistent daily usage will ensure that the microbes in your gut remain balanced and are able to protect your microbiome in the long run.

8 Health Benefits of Probiotics

By regulating bacteria levels in the gut, probiotics contribute to improved physical and mental health in several different areas. Keep reading to discover what these are and how adding probiotics to your diet could benefit you.

#1 Improves intestinal health

One of the main benefits of probiotics is their role in improving gastrointestinal (GI) health by balancing levels of “good” and “bad” bacteria in your gut and digestive tract.

This is the case particularly for those with chronic GI conditions or infections such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and Clostridioides difficile (C. diff).

#2 Improves skin health

As the largest organ in the body, your skin’s microbiome protects it against bad bacteria and helps to regulate inflammation.

By taking probiotics, their good bacteria contribute to this protective layer and ensure that the microbes within it remain balanced. An imbalanced microbiome on the skin can lead to skin disorders or infections such as eczema, rosacea, and acne.

Probiotics can also protect against wrinkles and UV-induced skin damage, including skin cancer.

#3 Helps manage weight

Studies have shown that there may be a link between gut bacteria and obesity, with those who are overweight having different gut microbes from those of average weight. 

Research also suggests that changes in the gut caused by microbes in the digestive tract increase the risk of developing obesity as an adult, which probiotics such as lactobacillus gasseri can help to combat when taken consistently. 

If you’re looking to lose weight, then consider incorporating probiotic supplements into your daily routine.

#4 Boosts immune system

The digestive health benefits of probiotics are well known, but they may also be effective in supporting immune function.

A 2020 review found that probiotic use can help to lower the rate and duration of mild respiratory tract infections in both children and adults. Furthermore, probiotics may be a good treatment for fighting COVID-19 when used alongside other medications.

However, both studies conclude that more research is needed to provide clear evidence that probiotics can really help to prevent colds or flu.

#5 Lowers cholesterol

Several different probiotic strains have been proven to lower levels of total cholesterol and LDL “bad” cholesterol within the blood. 

Probiotics work most effectively for those with higher total cholesterol levels, particularly when taken for an extended period of time in capsule form.

They do this by producing bile acids that help to metabolize fat and cholesterol within the body, as well as binding with cholesterol in the intestines, which stops it from being absorbed.

#6 May improve mental health

As well as being beneficial for physical health, probiotics within the gut may have a connection with brain health.

Known as psychobiotics, research suggests that they may help to protect against the symptoms of anxiety and depression by reducing inflammation and levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.

They may also be useful in treating neurological and cognitive disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and even autism.

#7 Reduces inflammation

Another of the key health benefits of probiotics is that they help to reduce systemic inflammation. They do this by increasing the production of short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate, which have anti-inflammatory properties within the body.

Probiotics also prevent bad bacteria from leaking into the blood through the intestinal walls, which eventually leads to inflammation. 

They, therefore, reduce the risk of disease from chronic inflammation, such as kidney disease, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.

#8 Keeps the heart healthy

As already mentioned, probiotics help to maintain a healthy balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut, which helps to reduce inflammation and cholesterol levels.

The probiotic Lactobacilli plantarum may be effective in reducing high blood pressure for smokers, which is a risk factor for heart disease. However, some studies show that only certain types of probiotics are beneficial for this.

Lactobacillus curvatus and Lactobacillus plantarum probiotics also contribute to lower blood triglyceride levels, a type of blood fat that can cause heart disease if their levels are too high.

Probiotics Side Effects

In general, probiotics are safe to use, particularly by healthy people. 

However, when you first begin taking probiotics, you may begin to experience mild gastrointestinal (GI) side effects as your body gets used to them, such as excess gas, bloating, diarrhea, and stomach upset. 

Probiotic foods contain biological amines, which are substances that form as a result of bacterial fermentation. Amines can increase or decrease blood flow and may cause headaches for those who are sensitive to the substance.

Some of the more harmful effects occur in those with weakened immune systems or severe health complications, including those going through chemotherapy, seriously ill hospital patients, and premature infants. 

For example, these people are at an increased risk of infection and antibiotic resistance.

If you have an allergy to dairy, soy, or egg, be sure to read the label of your chosen probiotic supplement carefully, as many supplements contain these supplements and may trigger an allergic reaction.

Who Should Not Take Probiotics

Probiotics are highly beneficial and safe for the majority of people. However, if you have a weakened immune system, such as those who have recently had surgery or are going through chemotherapy, for example, you should not take them. 

Supplements can increase the risk of infection as the bacteria or yeasts present in probiotics enter the bloodstream.

Consult your doctor if you have any serious health condition, as probiotics could worsen the symptoms or interfere with other medications that you may be taking.

Some probiotic supplements are safe to be used by those who are pregnant or breastfeeding, but check with your healthcare provider before taking any.

Probiotics for Gut Health: Are They Really Helpful?

Probiotics are helpful for gut health, as they help to ensure that your gut flora, which is found in the large intestine, has the right balance of bacteria to keep functioning properly.

The gut flora performs many essential processes for the body, including manufacturing vitamin K and some B vitamins. It also helps to convert fibers into short-chain fatty acids, which feed and strengthen the gut wall to prevent unwanted bacteria from entering the body.

Having an unbalanced gut flora can stop these processes from occurring and may therefore put you at a higher risk of diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and depression. 

Therefore, probiotics ensure that your gut functions optimally and remains healthy.

Despite there being some evidence to suggest that probiotics help to improve gut health, researchers are still working to determine which types are most effective for which people, as well as the optimal daily dosage.

What Has Probiotics?

Along with dietary supplements, there are a variety of naturally probiotic-rich foods that you may want to consider including in your diet.

For example, fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, and kimchi are known to help protect the gut against harmful bacteria.

Other good sources of probiotics include pickles preserved in salt water, mozzarella, cheddar, cottage cheese, dark chocolate, buttermilk, spirulina, and apple cider vinegar (ACV). 

Try to choose a wide range of these foods to ensure that you consume all of the essential vitamins and minerals that help to keep your body functioning. More than one food group can lead to nutrient deficiencies


Are probiotics good for you?

Yes, probiotics are good for you as they help to balance the friendly bacteria in your gut. This helps to prevent inflammation, improve your skin, heart, and mental health, and lower the risk of you developing certain diseases and disorders.

Can probiotics cause diarrhea?

Diarrhea might be the side effect for those who have never taken probiotics before, are increasing their dose, or are trying a new strain. This is normal and temporary as it allows your digestive system to flush away bad bacteria as the new good bacteria enter the body.

What are probiotics good for?

Probiotics have several uses, including restoring the natural balance of bacteria in the gut after taking antibiotics or suffering from illness, improving the systems of digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and boosting the immune system.

Should I take probiotics?

You may benefit from taking probiotics if you have an imbalance of microbes in your gut or struggle to get probiotics naturally through your diet. However, you shouldn’t take them if you have a weakened immune system through surgery or chemotherapy.

Can probiotics cause gas?

You may experience gas when first taking probiotics as your body gets used to the influx of new bacteria.

Can probiotics cause stomach pain?

As probiotics can alter bowel movements, bloating and stomach pain are both common yet temporary side effects of probiotics.

Are probiotics safe?

Yes, probiotic supplements are generally safe as the microbes within them already exist naturally within the body. However, they can pose a risk of infection for those with a serious health condition or weakened immune system, such as those going through chemotherapy.

A Word From an MD

Probiotics are useful for those suffering from digestive issues, as they can help to restore the right balance of good bacteria within your gut.

Although taking a probiotic supplement or drink can be beneficial to balance bacteria levels after illness or antibiotics, they aren’t always necessary.

Your body naturally produces good bacteria, and eating foods that are rich in probiotics helps to support this process. Try introducing yogurt, aged cheese such as gouda, and fermented foods into your diet.

Not all probiotics behave the same way, and each has its own advantages that make some better for some people than others. Speak to your doctor, who can advise you on which supplements may be best for you, as well as how much to take.

It’s normal to experience some mild side effects for the first few days of taking probiotics, including stomach upset, bloating, gas, and diarrhea. However, if these effects continue or you have an allergic reaction, you should stop taking the probiotics and consult your doctor.


Probiotics are a type of good bacteria that naturally occur in the body. They are found in yogurt and fermented foods but can also be consumed through supplements and drinks. 

Although you may experience side effects such as bloating and gas when your gut is first exposed to probiotic supplements, using them consistently in the long term can help to improve digestive health, reduce inflammation, and even improve your mental health. 

Take probiotics daily and check the label of your chosen supplement to see the optimal dosage. Consult a doctor if you are experiencing long-lasting side effects or if you are unsure whether probiotics are suitable for you.

Written by Donika Vata, MD
Dr. Donika Vata is a highly accomplished MD whose extensive experience in the healthcare industry spans over 5 years, making her a distinguished Medical Writer and Researcher for the esteemed Health Reporter. Notably, she also holds the role of a General Practice Doctor and has rendered her exceptional patient care services in various clinics worldwide.
The article was fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
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Dr. Donika Vata
Written by Donika Vata, MD
Fact checked by Edna Skopljak, MD
Last update: July 21, 2023
12 min read 1159 Views 0 Comments

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