Understanding Probiotics

Published on Apr 18, 2019
Medically reviewed by Lori Lathrop Stern, PhD RD LDN

Everyone seems to be talking about probiotics these days. You might even have seen them in your local grocery store. But do we know what they really are? If you haven’t heard of them yet, probiotics are live microorganisms (such as bacteria and yeasts) that may be beneficial to our health. Read on to learn more about probiotics.

Understanding bacteria and your microbiome

When we hear the words “microbes” or “microorganisms,” many of us think of harmful germs. The fact is, there are many beneficial (or good) microbes that are important for our health.

Our bodies contain a vast number of different types of microbes. These include bacteria, yeast, and viruses. These “good” microbes form communities in different places in and on the body. Together, these communities and their surrounding environment make up the human microbiome. What’s more, microbiomes are like fingerprints in that no one’s microbiomes are exactly alike.

While we have microbes that live in our mouth, airways, reproductive and urinary system, and on our skin, most of our microbes live in the intestinal tract (or gut). The gut microbiome is very important to our health. It helps us digest the food we eat, produce vitamins, develop our immune system, and fight infections.

How can probiotics help our gut health?

The gut microbiome needs a healthy balance of microorganisms to maintain health. However, certain things (such as an infection with bacterium H. pylori that can lead to ulcers) can cause an imbalance to the microbiome.

By helping to replace the loss of the good microbes, probiotics can help our bodies sustain a healthy community of microorganisms and help support our digestive tract’s ability to defend against potentially harmful microorganisms.

Where do you find probiotics?

Probiotics are living microorganisms that can provide health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. They are often the same or similar to the microorganisms that already live on or in our body. Probiotics can be in foods (such as yogurt). They also exist as dietary supplements or prescription medicines in some regions of the world. They may contain a variety of microorganisms, the most common being bacteria that belong to groups called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Each of these groups includes many different types of bacteria.

What are the possible health effects of probiotics?

While researchers have been investigating the health effects of probiotics for some time, there is still a lot to learn. Some potential benefits of certain probiotics may include:

  • Treatment of acute diarrhea caused by infection in children.  
  • Prevention of diarrhea in adults and children taking antibiotics.
  • Improved immune response, such as the prevention of acute illnesses such as the flu.
  • Treatment of mild to moderately active ulcerative colitis in adults and children.
  • Beneficial effects on abdominal bloating and flatulence in people with irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Reduced crying time in breastfed infants with colic.
  • Improvement in symptoms related to lactose intolerance and in the digestion of lactose.

Talk with your healthcare provider to learn more about the possible health effects of probiotics.

How do I choose a probiotic?

Not all probiotics are the same. What’s more, their effects may vary from person to person, so it can be difficult to know which, if any, to take.

Before taking a probiotic, talk with your healthcare provider. Make sure that you fully understand the possible benefits and risks of the probiotic you are thinking of taking. This is especially important if you’re pregnant or nursing or if you are seriously ill, have had certain surgeries, or have a weakened immune system.

Avoid using probiotics as a substitute for seeing your healthcare provider for any health issues or questions you may have.

How do I read the label?

Be sure to look for certain information on the probiotic label. This includes:

  • Which genus, species, and strain it contains—for example, Bifidobacteruim (the genus) lactis (the species) Bb-12 (the strain), or Lactobacillus (the genus) rhamnosus (the species) GG (the strain).  This information is important because it can help you and your healthcare provider understand the possible benefits of each probiotic.
  • The number of colony-forming units (CFUs) the product contains through the expiration date. This is the number of live microorganisms in each serving or dose. A larger number of CFUs doesn’t mean a product is better than another. What’s important is that a probiotic has the number of CFUs that is known to be beneficial.
  • The suggested serving size.
  • Health claims. Always talk with your healthcare provider about a probiotic product’s health claims.
  • Storage instructions, such as refrigeration requirements (if any).
  • Contact information for the product’s manufacturer. This could be important if you have questions for the manufacturer or want to report a product-related problem you may have.

Lori Lathrop Stern, PhD. is Director of Medical Affairs Consumer Healthcare at Pfizer Inc.

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References

  • 1. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Use of Complementary Health Approaches in the U.S. Accessed March 27, 2019.
  • 2. National Institutes of Health. MedlinePlus. The Basics of Probiotics. Accessed January 7, 2019.
  • 3. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Probiotics: In Depth. Accessed January 7, 2019.
  • 4. World Gastroenterology Organisation Global Guidelines. Probiotics and Prebiotics. February 2017. Accessed January 16, 2019.
  • 5. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. National Human Genome Research Institute. Microbes and Microbiomes. Accessed January 7, 2019.
  • 6. International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics. Probiotics: A Consumer Guide for Making Smart Choices. February 19, 2015. Accessed January 16, 2019.
  • 7. National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health. 5 Things to Know About Probiotics. Accessed March 22, 2019.
  • 8. National Institutes of Health. U.S Department of Health and Human Services. National Cancer Institute. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms. Microorganism. Accessed January 16, 2019.
  • 9. D’Argenio V, Salvatore F. The role of the gut microbiome in the healthy adult status. Clin Chim Acta. 2015;451(Pt A):97-102.
  • 10. Marchesi JR, Ravel J. The vocabulary of microbiome research: A proposal. Microbiome. 2015;3(31):1-3.
  • 11. Hill C, Guarner F, Reid G, et al. Expert consensus document. The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics consensus statement on the scope and appropriate use of the term probiotic. Nat Rev Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2014;11(8):1-9.
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