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What Are Probiotics? (+3 Scientifically-Proven Benefits)

You may have heard of the word “probiotic” before, but do you know what a probiotic is or how it can be of benefit to your health and wellness? If you are looking for a natural way to boost your immune system or heal your gut, or you simply want to improve your health through good quality nutrition, you’ll definitely want to read on.

Learn everything you need to know about probiotics and why they are so important to good health.

Probiotics Defined

The term “probiotic” actually stems from the Greek words “pro” and “biotic.”  The word “pro” means promotion, and the word “biotic” means life.  According to the World Health Organization, a probiotic is defined as any living microorganism that provides health benefits upon ingestion.

Similarly, according to the USDA, the term probiotic can be used to describe any viable microbial dietary supplement that benefits the health of the host organism.  

While bacteria may get a bad rap given its potential to be harmful to your body, there is such a thing as “good bacteria” and probiotics fall into that category.  Probiotics are live or active cultures, in most cases bacteria, found naturally in your gut.  probiotics

These active cultures:

  • change or repopulate your intestinal bacteria
  • help to balance your gut flora
  • strengthen your immune system and overall health
  • reduce to potential for poor gastrointestinal health

Probiotic Benefits

Your gut is the home to over 500 bacterial species.  In general, the Paleo lifestyle promotes a healthy gut microbiome, but you may be dealing with some specific health concerns, such as a compromised immune system or gastrointestinal distress, conditions that may warrant additional probiotic support.  It isn’t unusual for an individual to begin their journey into the Paleo lifestyle after dealing with some sort of digestive or inflammatory issue, and perhaps that applies to you as well.

On the other hand, if you are generally healthy, probitotics help you to stay that way.  When probiotics are abundantly present in your gut, it becomes much more difficult for unhealthy bacterial cultures (i.e. the type of bacteria that causes illness) to multiply and go on to cause illness.  

“With 70-percent of your body’s natural defenses found in the gut, there’s understandably much talk today about the benefits of probiotics.”

 A healthy gut can profoundly impact the health of your body.(1)  Aside from the immune boosting benefits that probiotics offer, these live and active cultures have been used to treat conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, lactose intolerance, eczema, and various types of allergies. (2

Over the last 100 years, studies have been able to identify more than 100 distinct health benefits of probiotics aside from the previously mentioned conditions.  You can now find scientific documentation backing the belief that virtually every single bodily system is affected by the health and abundance of probiotic colonies.  

Research continues to grow investigating the potential benefits of these cultures when treating:

  • kidney stones
  • gum disease
  • liver disease
  • autism
  • acne
  • and weight gain among a variety of other medical conditions.

Probiotics Versus Prebiotics

Most probiotics are part of the bacterial families Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus (i.e. Bifidobacterium bifidus and Lactobacillus acidophilus.) Although probiotics are available as dietary supplements, there is no need to incorporate special pills, cleanses, or concoctions to provide your body with the benefits of these active cultures.  

Before thinking about yogurt substitutions, which will be discussed further in just a bit, first think about supplying your body with prebiotics.  In order to supply your body with a healthy dose of probiotics, you must also incorporate plenty of prebiotics, indigestible carbohydrates that beneficial bacteria thrive upon.  Simply put, this specialized plant fiber nourishes the good bacteria already present in your large bowel or colon.

Probiotics have the ability to introduce good bacteria into the gut, while prebiotics act as more of a “fertilizer” for the good bacteria that’s already present. This “fertilization” process helps your good bacteria grow, thereby improving the good-to-bad bacteria ratio present in your gut.  You can obtain prebiotics through foods such as fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and garlic.

probiotics vs prebiotics

Fortunately the principles of the Paleo diet revolve around whole, unprocessed foods.  While you’ll be avoiding whole grains, fruits and vegetables are definitely part of a healthy, well-rounded Paleo plan.  You can always toss a little garlic into your soups, stews, and sauces as well for a prebiotic boost!

The Best Sources of Probiotics

Yogurt is probably one of the most highly publicized sources of probiotics; however, given that the Paleo diet eliminates dairy along with some additional cultured foods, you’ll have to find some alternative sources to get in your daily dose of live and active cultures.   Other dairy-free food options to consider when following a Paleo diet include the following:

  • dairy-free yogurt that is made from coconut or almonds instead
  •   fermented foods such as Brewer’s yeast or sauerkraut
  • miso
  • micro algae  
  • Prior to purchasing any of these yogurt alternatives, be sure to check the label to see if it contains active cultures if your main objective is to incorporate probiotics into your diet.

probiotic foods

Prior to purchasing any yogurt alternative, be sure to check the label to see if it contains acitve culture if your main objective is to incorporate probiotics into your diet.

More Well-Documented, Health-Specific Benefits

1. Probiotics significantly impact your gastrointestinal tract.

Since the mid 1990’s, clinical studies suggest that probiotic therapy assists in the treatment of gastrointestinal (GI) ailments, including Crohn’s disease, ulcerative collitis, irritable bowel syndrome, and infectious diarrhea.  

If you have yet to achieve success with your own gastrointestinal issues after adopting a Paleo lifestyle, there is a good chance that your gut functioning is not up to par and your digestive system could still use some work.  Perhaps probiotics can be a beneficial addition to your treatment plan and course of action.

probiotic benefitsBecause numerous studies have proven that probiotics can be helpful in restoring the gut microbiome, assisting in the restoration of the composition and function of the gut, probiotics have been proposed as preventive and therapeutic measures for those suffering or at risk for GI ailments. (3)

You may be one of the many individuals who experiences frequent, minor digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea.  While none of these conditions are necessarily dangerous or of worry when experienced in the absence of other severe health conditions, undoubtedly all of these GI symptoms can reduce your comfort and quality of life.  

Several studies now indicate that probiotics are a helpful addition to the maintenance of gastrointestinal well-being, even in the case of diagnosed disease states of the gut.

Within recent years, a large body of evidence from genetic and bacteriological studies support the idea that the intestinal flora is the main factor in driving the inflammatory process that leads to Crohn’s disease in genetically susceptible individuals. (4)   Although one’s diet cannot cause or cure Crohn’s disease, it appears that one particular strain of bacteria known as S. boulardii can assist in the health of the colon.  

One small pilot study of 31 individuals living in remission from Crohn’s disease, produced results indicating that those treated with this particular bacterial strain experienced a significant reduction in colonic permeability compared with the placebo group, leading to risk reduction of bacterial translocation. (5)

In the case of those living with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory disease of the large intestine that can lead to diarrhea, cramping, and bloating, probiotics can be used as an adjunct treatment in an attempt to induce remission in the presence of active colitis flares.  One small pilot study following 25 adults living with mild to moderate ulcerative colitis documented that those treated with S. boulardii for 4 weeks, led to a 68% response rate to the probiotic treatment, thereby leading to remission. (6)

Finally, for those individuals suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, which can lead to alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation, abdominal bloating, or increased gas production, bifidobacteria supplementation led to significant reduction in abdominal distension, decreased report of symptoms, and faster bowel transit times.(7), (8)

Bottom Line:  Numerous studies have proven that probiotics are helpful in restoring the gut microbiome.  As a preventative and therapeutic measure to avoid GI ailments, including constipation, diarrhea, bloating, or gas, probiotics are a helpful addition to the maintenance of your GI well-being. Make sure to include rich sources of probiotics into your diet to enhance your comfort and quality of life by keeping your gut as healthy as possible.  

2. Probiotics provide immune-boosting benefits.

Maintaining a healthy supply of good bacteria in your intestines helps to crowd out the bad or harmful bacteria, thus impacting your body’s ability to fight infections and illness.  

Unfortunately, the standard Western diet revolves around many foods that can make your immune system work harder rather than working smarter. Gut irritants such as grains, gluten, and legumes can be harmful to your immune system, so keeping those out of your diet through the Paleo lifestyle definitely gives your immune system a boost, but it doesn’t cover you completely.

The older you get, the more support you need in boosting your immunity.  (9) Unfortunately the aging process can bring about a significant change in your gut bacteria, thus making you more susceptible to the pathogenic microbes that cause colds and flu.  Because probiotics can restore your gut bacteria, it is of particular importance to be mindful of your daily intake of probiotics as a natural way to support and restore your gut flora as you age. 

“Now, more research than ever substantiates the claim that the bacteria found in yogurt and other naturally fermented foods can strengthen the body’s immune system and ward off infection, not just in the intestines but body-wide.”

Throughout your life, you’ll be exposed to a number of factors that impact the environment of you gut, including dietary changes, medications or supplementation, and viruses or disease states.  Dietary intervention is an easy and attractive way to help combat these very factors that can change your GI health, and studies support the benefits of including probiotics as part of your dietary intervention plan.  

In as little as 3 weeks, it seems that probiotics can have a significant and positive immunomodulating effect,  as evidenced by this particular study conducted among individuals between the ages of 63-84 years of age. (10)

Aside from this study, other similar studies have proven that consistently incorporating a probiotic into you diet allows for a simple and effective dietary intervention leading to noticeable improvements in health that rely on an optimally functioning immune system all year long.  (11),  (12

According to this article,, one study conducted among 475 healthy men and women proved that daily probitoic supplementation can lead to as much as a 25% reduction in influenza symptoms and 19% fewer cold symptom even in the absence of a flu shot when compared to vitamin or mineral supplementation.   

immune supportIf you are someone who is dedicated to receiving a yearly influenza vaccine, then this study published in the British Journal of Nutrition should be of interest to you.  The results of this research tracking 211 individuals indicate that probiotics may boost the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. Each participant received the flu vaccine two weeks after beginning specific probiotic supplementation and continued theses same supplements for an added four weeks after vaccination.  Probiotic supplementation can enhance your body’s response to flu vaccination, leading to enhanced protection against influenza during its peak season.

Another immune-boosting benefit relates to the prevention of allergies.  Good bacteria obtained through live and active cultures can train your immune system to better distinguish between pathogens and non-harmful antigens.  Once identified as a non-harmful antigen, probiotics help to prevent your immune system from overreacting to non-harmful antigens.  (13)

It is the overreaction to non-harmful antigens that sets off an allergic reaction.  Given that a considerable percentage of the US population suffers from allergies, probiotics provide a safe alternative to medications that may bring about undesirable and uncomfortable side-effects.

Bottom Line: Health experts agree that probiotics support healthy levels of good bacteria in your digestive tract, which leads to improved immune function.  The maintenance of a diet rich in sources of live and active cultures helps to crowd out the harmful or bad bacteria impacting your body’s ability to fight infection and illness.  If you suffer from allergies, probiotics are helpful as well in that they help your immune system to avoid an overeaction to non-harmful antigens.

3.  Probiotics assist in the production of vitamins, absorption of minerals, and elimination of toxins.

Your inward and outward health in terms of how you look, feel, and perform, is often dependent upon your diet.  You may feel better on the Paleo diet, but perhaps there is still room for improvement with your eating habits and food choices.  If so, you’ll be glad to know that many individuals in our society today are struggling alongside you.

“Unfortunately, most people today have damaged inner ecosystems from environmental toxins, processed foods, drugs and a stressful lifestyle.”

While food supplies your body with energy, it also supplies your body with micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, substances that are essential for life. Micronutrients are a critical component to helping your body carry out the chemical reactions that help to sustain your mental and physical health.

vitamins

Your gut microbiota has been documented to be a source of vitamins that cannot be synthesized by your body and instead must be obtained by way of intestinal absorption from exogenous sources provided by your diet and gut microbiota.  For example, you need to supplement your body with sources of vitamin K and certain B vitamins (i.e. biotin, folate, thiamine) primarily through your diet; however, these vitamins can also be produced by several intestinal probiotic cultures, including Bacteroides and Eubacterium. (14), (15)

Science now suggests that probiotic bacteria can cause sufficient improvement in mineral absorption, in both the presence and absence of prebiotics. Although it is ideal to work to incorporate a balanced intake of both prebiotics and probiotics to help your body maintain a healthy rate of mineral absorption, probiotics alone can most definitely be beneficial in helping to improve absorption of minerals obtained from your diet. (16)

The way in which probiotics help your body to absorb minerals is a bit complicated and multi-factorial; however, it appears that live and active cultures lead to:

  • reduced gut inflammation,
  • a positive impact on short chain fatty acid production,
  • enhanced bioavailability of minerals, which can even lead to increased bone density.  (17)  

On a daily basis, you are constantly being exposed to different toxins from the environment and in the food that you eat.  Although your body is designed to be able to handle some degree of toxic exposure, too much toxin build-up over time causes significant damage to your body.  

Take for example, BPA, one of the biggest toxins in our environment that is found in almost all plastic containers, food cartons, and even cans of food.  Some very specfic probiotic strains have been proven to have the ability to bind to BPA, leading to elimination of the toxin by way of your intestines. (18)

Even if you limit your exposure to BPA, probiotics are helpful to the removal of toxic metals and various other toxins.  Because of their ability to provide natural detoxification to your body, live and active cultures are believed to be an inexpensive, promising method for the decontamination of foods that may be tainted with toxins or heavy metal exposure. (19)

It is overwhelmingly apparent that the standard Western diet is often lacking vitamins and minerals, in addition to the essential live and active cultures necessary to maintain optimal health.  Eating a highly processed diet, such as those made up of canned or frozen foods, impairs your ability to maintain a normally balanced microflora.

To provide your body with the nutrition it needs, including a supply of probiotic bacteria, increase your consumption:

  • plant-based foods, including fruits and vegetables
  • high fiber grains
  • fermented foods
  • garlic
  • yogurt or yogurt alternatives that contain “live and active” cultures.
Bottom Line:  Your inward and outward health is significantly enhanced by a good quality diet, thereby leading to the maintenance of a healthy gut. While the Paleo diet may have led to improvements in your own health and others, there are still many potential benefits to regularly incorporating probiotics into your eating plan.

The regular addition of at least 1-2 servings of probiotic food sources helps your body to better absorb vitamins and minerals, while providing natural detoxification from heavy metals and food or environmental toxins.  

Given that the typical Western diet is often lacking in vitamins and minerals to begin with, and the body is so often exposed to stress and toxins, helping your body to maintain a naturally balanced microflora through dietary sources of probiotics is more critical than ever.

Take Home Message

A number of factors can impact and affect the bacteria in your gut, including stress and dietary preferences. Keeping your gut microbiome in balance is important for many reasons.  

Probiotics or “good bacteria” lead to the maintenance of a healthy gut, supports the health of your immune system, assists in the production of vitamins and minerals, and leads to more effective elimination of toxins.  Probiotics have the ability to introduce good bacteria into the gut, enhancing your immune system and potentially limiting gastrointestinal complaints or concerns.  

In order to supply your body with a healthy dose of probiotics, try your best to regularly supply your body plenty of prebiotics, indigestible carbohydrates that beneficial bacteria thrive upon.  Focus on limiting your consumption of canned, frozen, or processed foods while increasing your consumption of plant-based, higher fiber foods, along with the occasional addition of fermented foods to help keep your internal ecosystem as healthy as possible

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  1. This is great, but if you’re taking a probiotic supplement, how do you know what kind you need? I’ve seen anywhere from 5 to 100 billion live cultures in different formulas. Some need refrigeration, some don’t. Some are relatively inexpensive, others end up costing about $2 a day to take ($60 for a 30-day supply). What’s recommended? I’m so lost when it comes to these things!

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