Over the past few years, we have been hearing more and more about the benefits of probiotics, with specialists finding that they are essential for good gut health and much more. While there is no doubt that probiotics offer a variety of benefits to our health and wellbeing, it can be confusing to figure out which ones you need, and how you can incorporate these into your daily diet in ways that will be effective. Let’s take a look at what the research says about how you make sure you’re getting the most out of your probiotics.
What Are Probiotics and Why Do We Need Them?
Probiotics are living organisms found in food (or supplements) that we introduce into our bodies to help promote the growth of “good” bacteria in our gut. By doing so, they support healthy digestion and help to replenish good bacteria while pushing out the bad. There are a variety of bacteria species that are considered probiotics, but bifidobacterium and lactobacilli are presently the most widely used probiotics on the market. Both genus help to ferment carbohydrates into short-chain fatty acids, and are found in the gut and vaginal systems of mammals.
As mentioned earlier, probiotics are natural to our systems. Our gut microbiome is naturally full of the beneficial bacteria that we can find in different foods and supplements. In fact, bifidobacterium colonizes the gastrointestinal tract just days after birth. As we grow up and are exposed to our surroundings, more and more bacteria continue to colonize the gut. Considering that dietary changes can affect our gut microbiome in just 24 hours, we know that the gut is sensitive to the environment and changes, even in adulthood.
Probiotics help us in a variety of ways. They boost our immune system and help protect against infectious diseases. Another potential benefit of the active probiotic cultures is nutritional support for the digestive system. Probiotics have shown promise in treating gastrointestinal problems (such as inflammatory bowel diseases and irritable bowel syndrome), asthma and they may even play a role in weight loss.1,2
Can Probiotics Help With Weight Loss?
We don’t typically think of probiotics and weight loss together. Usually, when we hear or read about probiotics, we think of gut health. As it turns out, probiotics might have a connection to your weight. Recent research has uncovered that taking probiotic supplements may lead to weight loss.3 However, the connection between probiotics and weight loss isn’t exactly linear.
In general, weight depends on how many calories you consume versus how many you burn (through both metabolic processes and physical activity). So if you eat more calories than you burn off, you gain weight. We know that your microflora could contribute to the development of certain medical disorders, but researchers are still trying to figure out just how probiotics may be able to help you lose weight.4 With probiotics and weight loss, one idea is that somehow changing the bacterial composition of your gut (the good vs. the bad) may then change how you metabolize the nutrients in food.
Other research has shown that probiotics may actually help to decrease inflammation and maintain a proper blood sugar balance.5 This is important because inflammation is a precursor to many diseases and it may interfere with your ability to lose weight.6 An imbalance in blood sugar can lead to an overproduction of insulin (or insulin resistance), which may also negatively impact weight loss efforts.7 One thing that is clear is that obese individuals can have a significantly different microbiome composition than lean individuals. So, although we’re not sure of the exact mechanism of how consuming probiotics, either through food or supplements, may contribute to weight loss, the evidence that there is a connection is overwhelming.
Which Source of Probiotics Is Best?
Getting probiotics from food can often be more challenging than taking a supplement because you may need to do a bit of research, get to the grocery store, and figure out which foods you like and want to incorporate into your diet.
However, getting your probiotics from food has advantages over taking a supplement. When you eat whole foods, like yogurt, pickles, tempeh or kombucha, you get so much more than just probiotics. You get macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates and fats, micronutrients, and even phytonutrients or antioxidants depending on the food. Some probiotic foods also have fiber, which can be a prebiotic, or a good source of food for the healthful bacteria already present in your gut. Sources of probiotics that often contain bifidobacterium and lactobacilli include yogurts, kefir, fermented vegetables, tempeh and even infant formula.
Another advantage of getting your probiotics from food is that the probiotics are more likely to make it to your intestines. Passing through the stomach is probably the most difficult part. It is a harsh, acidic environment that tends to kill most of the bacteria that passes through (including that from probiotic supplements). Whole foods may provide some protection for all of those little bacteria. If you take a probiotic pill, chances are that not many of the microbes in the pill make it to their final destination.
Further, there are over-the-counter supplements that contain probiotics. Taking supplements is a great way to get a controlled (and often larger) amount into your system. In addition, with supplements, you can typically choose the type of probiotic you want to ingest to target particular health issues, whether it’s something specific like ulcerative colitis or more general like trouble digesting your meal.
A new trend has emerged for those who aren’t a fan of taking the traditional pill probiotic supplements, but don’t always want to (or can’t) get them via food sources. Drinking your probiotics can be a great way to ensure that you are getting enough of them, and they can be convenient when on the go. For example, inner-ēco offers a variety of fresh coconut water probiotic drinks. Fresh young green coconuts and kefir cultures are used to create a dairy-free probiotic-rich drink with no added sugar. Each bottle is literally bubbling with billions of active probiotic cultures. inner-ēco also has created frozen smoothie packs made with coconut puree and organic hand-picked fruits. These smoothies are perfect for on-the-go or for a probiotic-rich kids’ snacks. According to Barb Vogel, co-founder and CEO of inner-ēco, “We are here to serve, and that is what inspired me to start a company with my co-founder Niki Price to offer healthy, living food products.”
Probiotic supplements and drinks can also be a good option for those who may not have a diet high in fiber, those who avoid fermented and dairy foods, and for those who are taking antibiotics. Although antibiotics are meant to get rid of harmful bacteria in your system, they also indiscriminately wipe out beneficial bacteria too.
Taking prebiotic and probiotic supplements is generally recognized as safe, and there is sufficient research to suggest that there are no adverse effects associated with taking probiotics in supplement form. With the potential health benefits, making sure you are getting enough probiotics in your diet should be part of every health routine.
1 O’Neill I, Shofield Z, Hall LJ. Exploring the role of the microbiota member Bifidobacterium in modulating immune-linked diseases. Emerging Topics in Life Sciences. 2017; 1(4): 333-349.
2 John GK, Wang L, Nanavati J, Twose C, Singh R, Mullin G 2018. Dietary alteration of the gut microbiome and its impact on weight and fat mass: a systemic review and meta-analysis. Genes (Basel). 2018; 9(3): 167.
3 Zhang Q, Wu Y, Fei X. Effect of probiotics on body weight and body-mass index: a systemic review and meta-analysis of randomized, controlled trials. Int J Food Sci Nutr. 2015; 67(5): 571-580.
4 Torberg L. Mayo Clinic Q and A: Probiotics, gut bacteria, and weight- is there a connection? Mayo Clinic News Network. 2018. Retrieved from https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-q-and-a-probiotics-gut-bacteria-and-weight-is-there-a-connection/.
5 Brusaferro A, Cozzali R, Orabona C, Biscarini A, Farinelli E, Cavalli E, Grohmann U, Principi N, Esposito S. Is it time to use probiotics to prevent or treat obesity? Nutrients. 2018; 10(11): 1613.
6 Sears B, Ricordi C. Anti-inflammatory nutrition as a pharmacological approach to treat obesity. J Obes 2011; 2011:431985.
7 Erion KA, Corkey BE. Hyperinsulinemia: a cause of obesity? Curr Obes Res. 2017; 6(2): 178-186.
Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction, with a special focus on nutrition during early life and pregnancy. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She is an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Ichan School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York, NY and is a visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University in New Jersey. Dr. Avena has written several books, including What to Eat When You’re Pregnant and What to Feed Your Baby and Toddler. She regularly appears as a science expert on the Dr. Oz Show, Good Day NY and The Doctors, as well as many other news programs. Her work has been featured in Bloomberg Business Week, Time Magazine for Kids, The New York Times, Shape, Men’s Health, Details, as well as many other periodicals. Dr. Avena blogs for Psychology Today, is a member of the Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau and has the No. 2 most watched TED-ED Health talk, “How Sugar Affects Your Brain.” You can follow Dr. Avena on Twitter (@DrNicoleAvena), Facebook (www.facebook.com/DrNicoleAvena) and Instagram (@drnicoleavena), or visit www.drnicoleavena.com.