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Did you know that the bacteria in your body outnumber your body’s cells 10 to 1?

It’s true, and most of them reside in your gut.

But there really is no need to panic, most bacteria are quite harmless.

Photo credit: Shutterstock
Probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi and others. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Having the right bacteria in there has even been linked to numerous health benefits (1).

This includes weight loss, improved digestion, enhanced immune function, better skin and a reduced risk of many diseases (2).

This leads us to the topic at hand, probiotics.

Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain these friendly bacteria, and are supposed to help colonize our guts with health-boosting microorganisms.

The importance of this can not be overstated.

Taking care of your gut, and the friendly bacteria that reside there, may be one of the single most important things you can do for your health.

What Are Probiotics?

According to the official definition, probiotics are “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host” (3).

Probiotics are usually bacteria, but there is also a type of yeast that can function as a probiotic.

You can get probiotics from supplements, as well as foods that are prepared by bacterial fermentation.

Probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi and others.

Probiotics should not be confused with prebiotics (note the “e”), which are dietary fibers that help feed the friendly bacteria that are already in the gut (4).

There are actually dozens of different probiotic bacteria that have been shown to have health benefits.

The most common groups include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Then there are many different species within each group, and each species has many strains.

Interestingly, different probiotics seem to work for different health conditions. Therefore, choosing the right type (or types) of probiotic is essential.

Many probiotic supplements combine different species together in the same supplement. These are known as broad-spectrum probiotics, or multi-probiotics.

Keep in mind that this is a new but rapidly expanding area of research.

Although the evidence is promising, it is not conclusively proven that probiotics help with all the health conditions mentioned in this article (5).

Bottom Line: Probiotics are live microorganisms that cause health benefits when consumed in adequate amounts. There are many different types, and you can get them from foods or supplements.

The Importance of Microorganisms in the Gut

The complex community of microorganisms in your gut is called the gut flora (6).

Your gut actually contains hundreds of different types of microorganisms, with some numbers going as high as 1000.

This includes bacteria, yeasts and viruses. The great majority is bacteria.

Most of the gut flora is found in the colon, or large intestine, the last part of the digestive tract.

The metabolic activities of the gut flora actually resemble those of an organ. For this reason, some scientists refer to the gut flora as the “forgotten organ” (7).

The gut flora actually performs many functions that are important for health. It manufactures vitamins, including vitamin K and some of the B vitamins (8).

It also turns fibers into short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, propionate and acetate, which feed the gut wall and perform many metabolic functions (9, 10).

They also stimulate the immune system, and regulate the integrity of the gut. This can help prevent unwanted substances from “leaking” into the body and provoking an immune response (11, 12, 13, 14).

However, not all organisms in the gut are friendly. Some are good, others are bad.

The gut flora is actually highly sensitive to modern insults, and studies show that an “unbalanced” gut flora is linked to numerous diseases (15, 16).

This includes obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, colorectal cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression and many, many more (17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23).

Probiotics (and prebiotic fibers) can help correct this balance, making sure that our “forgotten organ” is functioning optimally (24).

Bottom Line: Your gut flora consists of hundreds of different types of microorganisms. Probiotics help your gut flora perform optimally.

Probiotics and Digestive Health

Probiotics have been studied most in regard to digestive health (25).

The strongest evidence has to do with antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

When people take antibiotics, especially for long periods of time, they often suffer from diarrhea for a long time after the infection has been eradicated.

This is because the antibiotics kill many of the natural bacteria in the gut, which shifts the balance and allows the “bad” bacteria to thrive.

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