Do probiotics work? Signs your probiotics are working
ANSWER: Yes, probiotics do work to improve gut health and boost your immune system if there is an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. Probiotics promote the growth of ‘good’ bacteria. However, probiotics in the form of supplements are less effective than food sources as they are not regulated.
Over recent years, probiotics have been hailed a ‘medical marvel’ and have grown in popularity with claims of immune-boosting benefits, amongst others. However, with little scientific research, how do you know if probiotics actually work and what are the signs that probiotics may be working for you?
If you’re new to the world of probiotics, read on to find out what they are and if they’re worth adding to your diet.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts of the ‘good’ kind. They’re considered a food supplement rather than a medicine and can be taken as capsules or added to food and drink. There are also fermented foods that contain natural live bacteria such as kimchi, sauerkraut and yoghurt - some of the best sources of probiotics.
You may already be getting enough probiotics from your diet, but you can increase the amount of ‘good’ bacteria in your body by taking probiotic supplements.
Types of probiotics
The two main species of probiotics are Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. Both are ‘friendly’ types of bacteria that have many health benefits.
This genus of bacteria lives in your stomach and intestines and is crucial for the health of your digestive system. This bacteria is beneficial for boosting gut health and improving conditions associated with the gut such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). You can also find this type of bacteria in fermented foods, high-fibre foods, and probiotic supplements.
The bacteria Lactobacillus is found naturally in the small intestine, mouth and vagina. Like Bifidobacteria, this genus of bacteria can also be found in food such as cheese, yoghurt, sauerkraut and kimchi. Some of the many benefits and functions of this bacteria include supporting the immune system, improving gut health, and preventing infections, particularly of the vagina. It also produces lactic acid - an important component involved in the health and function of organs, cells and tissue.
Do probiotics actually work?
In some cases, yes. If you have a particular condition or health problem that probiotics have been found (through studies) to help or even cure, then probiotics can work. For some people, the condition is beyond the abilities of probiotics.
Probiotics can work in combination with other treatments, and they may be a long-term solution for things like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Before combining probiotics with prescribed treatments, seek medical advice to ensure there are no interactions that may cause unpleasant side effects.
How do probiotics work?
Probiotics are usually taken to boost immunity or improve digestive health. The reasoning behind this is when we’re sick or have a digestive condition such as IBS, the balance of good and bad bacteria can be off, and taking probiotics is supposed to restore this natural balance.
Taking probiotics after a course of antibiotics is also helpful. Antibiotics not only kill bad bacteria, but they also disrupt good bacteria, taking live ‘good’ bacteria is thought to help restore this.
Taking care of your gut health is important. Although bacteria can cause disease, we need certain types of bacteria for a healthy gut, immune system and even for brain health.
5 signs your probiotics are working
If you’re taking probiotics for a particular condition and this condition begins to improve for no other apparent reason, then you can assume probiotics are benefitting you.
You may spot the following benefits when on a probiotic diet.
Reduced bloating and other digestive problems
One of the biggest benefits of probiotics as mentioned earlier is improved digestive health. If you struggle with frequent bouts of bloating, irregular bowel movements, gas and/or stomach cramps it may be due to an imbalance of bacteria in the gut. As probiotics start to restore this balance, you may see an improvement in the functionality and health of your digestive system.
On the other hand, if you find that you’re experiencing more bloating than usual, or your digestive symptoms appear to worsen, then it would help to take a break from probiotics and have these symptoms checked out by a doctor. It may be that these symptoms are a result of an underlying condition that can’t be fixed by probiotics.
See if your symptoms improve by reducing the number of probiotics you are taking, and if not, stop taking them altogether.
Probiotics are safe for most people, but in some cases, they may not be the solution if you have certain health conditions such as cancer, or if you are immunosuppressed.
If you’re the type of person to frequently get ill with colds, flu, and other viral or bacterial infections, probiotics are worth a try.
Probiotics are thought to boost our immune response whilst also strengthening the immune system to fight off infections or prevent them.
If you find you’re experiencing fewer illnesses or maybe you haven’t been ill at all since adding probiotics to your diet, this may be a sign that probiotics are working for you.
Evaluate the success of probiotics for you over a few months, and maybe compare this cold and flu season to the last. Have you managed to fight off these illnesses since taking probiotics?
Improved mood and concentration
They say the gut is our second brain because the brain and gut are so closely linked physically through the nervous system. Your gut health can be affected by the brain and vice versa.
Have you ever been nervous or stressed and had a sick ‘butterfly’ feeling in your stomach? Poor mental health can manifest itself in gut symptoms, and the same can be said for certain digestive problems causing low mood, irritability, and lack of concentration.
Your gut microbiome (the number of bacteria and other microorganisms in the gut) helps to regulate hormones, and a balanced microbiome with enough good bacteria can improve mental well-being.
Probiotics can help correct an imbalanced microbiome, and as a result, you may find that your mental clarity and mood improve.
Some people choose to add probiotics to their diet specifically to improve skin conditions such as eczema. There are lots of treatments for eczema, but the best way to prevent and manage dry skin conditions is to replace lost moisture from the skin by moisturising regularly and avoiding anything that dries the skin.
It’s also thought that probiotics keep eczema at bay in a number of ways. Firstly, eczema is the result of an overactive immune response. One of the many benefits of probiotics is their ability to strengthen and boost the immune system. In doing so, you may see a change in your skin condition for the better with fewer flare-ups and less inflammation.
In addition to this, a healthy balance of bacteria in the gut is also important for a strong, functioning immune system. Combining probiotics with your usual eczema treatments such as emollients is a great way to target the symptoms of the condition and boost your immune system to support healing and prevent infection.
If you’re prescribed any medication, always inform your doctor if you’re taking probiotics or any other non-prescribed treatments.
Reduction in vaginal infections
If you suffer from frequent infections of the vagina such as thrush or bacterial vaginosis, probiotics may help if you have exhausted other options, and it can be a safer and longer-term prevention method.
Not only do probiotics balance bacteria in the gut, but they also rebalance bacteria in the vagina which is so important for the health of the vagina.
The vagina is made up of a fine balance of bacteria; if the balance is disrupted and tips towards more ‘bad’ bacteria, infections can occur. If you suffer from recurrent thrush (4 or more episodes in a year), and you’ve not had thrush in a long time since taking probiotics, then this is a sure sign the probiotics are working and have helped improve your vaginal health.
How long do probiotics take to work?
Balancing out gut bacteria does take some time. For most people, you can start to feel the effects within a few weeks. This all depends on the reason you’re taking probiotics.
If you’re using probiotics to treat a complex condition such as IBS or eczema, you won’t see the effects of probiotics overnight, but there are long-term benefits to be had. If you’re looking to generally improve your skin and gut, and prevent colds, flu and other illnesses, you should feel the benefits within weeks or months.
The risks of taking probiotics
Whilst there are many benefits of taking probiotics, there can be risks for some people, although this is rare.
As mentioned earlier, probiotics can sometimes have the opposite effect that you want to achieve for your gut health. Some people report mild diarrhoea, stomach upset and increased gas but this could be due to the dose. Try reducing your dose, and in a lot of cases, these symptoms should subside after a few days.
The risk of taking probiotics in supplement form is that it isn’t regulated the way medicines are, therefore, you can’t be sure that there are enough bacteria in the supplement to actually have any benefits, or that the bacteria stated on the label is actually in the product.
As with any medicine, supplement or food, there is also a risk of allergic reaction. Although rare, if you experience an allergy to probiotics, stop taking them and seek urgent medical advice.
What the research says
Probiotics have shown lots of promise in clinical trials. Research tends to focus on gut health and the immune system but there is also research into treating mental illness with probiotics, with positive findings.
Research suggests that probiotics are safe for most people and are worth a try if you’re generally fit and well.
Try adding probiotics to your body through food, and if you’d like to give supplements a go, try Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formula or Nutri Within Bio Cultures Complex.