Bacteria—a term that often has a negative connotation. But there are good bacteria and bad bacteria and one of their happy homes include a place most don’t often think about—your gut! Your gut consists of your gastrointestinal tract and includes the organs starting from your mouth to your stomach, small and large intestines, and colon. To keep these good bacteria flourishing in the gut, many turn to probiotics to help our intestines and colon run their course, though probiotics can also provide benefits to other places in the body. The term probiotic comes from the Greek language meaning “for life” and refers to live microorganisms (or microbes), such as bacteria and yeast, that provide many health benefits.1,2 The use of probiotics or fermented products is definitely not new —Tibetan nomads were known to ferment yak milk for their long journeys—yet the health benefits of powerful probiotics went undiscovered until the early 1900s.3 Now that we have more knowledge on how probiotics actually work, below are some things you need to know to help navigate yourself through the probiotic world.
1. Endless health benefits
Probiotics do more than just providing health maintenance to your gut. Probiotics can also deliver a wealth of health benefits for issues relating to lactose intolerance, diarrhea related to antibiotic use, and diarrhea resulting from infections.2,4 Probiotics can also help with balancing the composition of your intestinal bacteria (which in turn can help with gut conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel diseases), lowering serum cholesterol, improving the nutritional value of foods, and protecting against pathogens that can impact your gastrointestinal system.2,4 There have been many research studies conducted for probiotics from 1977 to 2014 aiming to see the effects of probiotics on various health conditions.3 Most of these studies have tried to identify probiotic effects on antibiotic-associated diarrhea or infections due to the overpopulation of the bacteria called H. pylori, known to cause stomach ulcers.3 However, an increasing number of studies have aimed to find effects of probiotics in other conditions such as obesity or dental infections, for example.3 This illustrates the growing interest in identifying the roles probiotics can have in improving our overall health (and not just gut health)!
2. Not all probiotic bacteria are alike
Commonly used families of probiotic bacteria are Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. The precise types of probiotic bacteria within the families are often referred to as strains (an example of a strain is Bifidobacteria bifidum) and it has to be recognized that health benefits of probiotic products need to be characterized according to the particular strains of bacteria that they contain, not just the families. For example, within the Bifidobacterium family group, a specific strain may be helpful with one condition, but not at all with another. The bacteria group of Bifidobacterium are most known for the ability to generate short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) which provide energy for cells in your colon and when absorbed into the blood, may positively influence blood fats. These bacteria also provide other benefits such as working with your immune system to help balance inflammation.5 Bacteria that have been shown to be particularly helpful with short-term diarrhea in children and adults include Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Streptococcus thermophilus, and Enterococcus faecium.2,3
3. Probiotics must be protected
Probiotics can be found in a variety of products, including dairy products such as fermented milk, yogurts, cheese, ice cream, non-dairy foods such as cereals, juices, and soy-based products, and in dietary supplements.2 Food products that contain substances that are meant to exert benefits to human health are called functional foods.4 Probiotics have been widely used as functional ingredients added to foods and supplements because of their health benefits, however, much can occur through processing, storage, and even rehydrating of the probiotics that can affect how many probiotic bacteria are killed and are found alive in the final product.4 Using a protective agent or encapsulation material can improve stability of probiotics.4 Think of this protective agent as a shield preventing injury to the probiotics. Different materials that have been used as protective agents to protect probiotics include polysaccharides carbohydrates such as alginate, starch, gelatin, milk proteins, and certain fats.4
It’s important to note that if probiotics are destroyed during processing, they may not function appropriately and exhibit their intended health effects. Several factors can impact the survival of probiotics in a product including the medium it may be in (such as the salt or sugar content or acidity of the product), processing effects (such as the temperature or heat treatment performed), and packing and storage methods.4
Remember that although all products may seem the same, the different bacterial strains in the products may exert very specific health effects. It is important to be aware that processing techniques can impact the probiotics in the product and there are strategies to ensure the protection of the probiotics as in the use of protective agents. Follow your gut instinct and choose probiotics that you feel are best for you!
NeoLife Product Spotlight:
NeoLife Acidophilus Plus can help re-balance the population of intestinal bacteria and help eliminate the growth of bad microbes.* Acidophilus Plus delivers five well-characterized strains of beneficial, lactic acid-producing bacteria (Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus bulgaricus, Lactobacillus casei, Bifidobacterium bifidum, and Streptococcus thermophilus) directly to the intestines to help support a healthy balance of “good” bacteria.* NeoLife’s exclusive Gel-Gard Enteric Delivery System guarantees that the beneficial bacteria are delivered directly to the intestines.* Gel-Gard Protection is a technology that involves wrapping the bacteria in a gel-forming polysaccharide carbohydrate. Beneficial bacteria help produce vitamins, support normal digestive functions, and help to promote a healthy immune system.*
Natalie Masis, PhD, RDN | Research Manager
Dr. Masis is a registered dietitian nutritionist and earned her doctorate in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a Master of Science in Nutritional Sciences from Texas Tech University, and both a Bachelor of Science in Nutritional Sciences and in Food Science from Cornell University.
- Probiotics: In Depth. NCCIH. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/probiotics/introduction.htm. Published November 21, 2011. Accessed May 1, 2018.
- Kechagia M, Basoulis D, Konstantopoulou S, et al. Health benefits of probiotics: a review. ISRN Nutr. 2013;2013. doi:10.5402/2013/481651
- McFarland LV. From yaks to yogurt: the history, development, and current use of probiotics. Clin Infect Dis. 2015;60(suppl_2):S85-S90. doi:10.1093/cid/civ054
- Tripathi MK, Giri SK. Probiotic functional foods: Survival of probiotics during processing and storage. Journal of Functional Foods. 2014;9:225-241. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2014.04.030
- Sanders ME, Benson A, Lebeer S, Merenstein DJ, Klaenhammer TR. Shared mechanisms among probiotic taxa: implications for general probiotic claims. Curr Opin Biotechnol. 2018;49:207-216. doi:10.1016/j.copbio.2017.09.007