Understandably, you are hesitant about forking out some extra cash to buy probiotic supplements that may not even work. Especially when there are so many companies spouting outrageous claims about their products, none of which are backed by science.
So here you are, researching the effectiveness of probiotics. Good on you!
Well, I want to start by saying that you’ve come to the right place. I have a long history of gut-related issues (IBS and GERD, to name a few) and so have taken all of the gut supplements under the sun. One of those being probiotics. And so I have a wealth of experience to draw upon in order to answer the big question, ‘Do probiotics work?’.
What you’ll soon come to realise is that it wholly depends on what probiotics you consume and what you are consuming them for. So let’s get into it by first talking about what probiotics are.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are live microorganisms (bacteria or yeast) recognised for their potential health advantages when consumed in adequate amounts. These “friendly” microorganisms contribute to a balanced gut microbiome, positively impacting digestion and overall well-being.
These beneficial microorganisms can be found in various fermented foods, formed through natural fermentation processes. Foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, and some pickles contain naturally occurring probiotics. These foods result from the metabolic activities of specific bacteria and yeast that transform sugars and compounds into valuable substances through fermentation.
Alternatively, probiotics are also available as dietary supplements. These supplements feature specific strains of probiotic bacteria that are chosen for their potential health benefits and stability. The manufacturing process involves cultivating these strains under controlled conditions and then preserving them.
Not all probiotics are created equal
Before I talk you through my own experience with taking probiotics, it is first worth mentioning the differences that make some more effective than others. These factors are especially worth looking over when you are searching for a supplement to purchase. Alternatively, jump straight to the section on the best probiotic supplements.
Here are the factors you should consider when looking into probiotics.
1. Strain variability
Different strains of probiotic bacteria can have distinct effects on the body. Some strains might be more effective at targeting specific health concerns, while others may not provide the same benefits. It’s important to choose probiotics that contain strains proven to address your specific health needs. Here is a quick overview of some of the main strains to look out for:
- Lactobacillus acidophilus: Commonly found in yoghurt and other fermented dairy products. It may aid in digestion, help maintain a balanced gut microbiome, and support immune function.
- Acticaseibacillus rhamnosus: This strain has been extensively studied for its potential to alleviate digestive issues, support immune function, and manage allergies.
- Enterococcus faecium: Associated with supporting a balanced gut environment and potentially aiding in digestion and immune health.
- Lactiplantibacillus plantarum: Commonly found in fermented vegetables and dairy products, it might help manage gut inflammation, support immune health, and aid digestion.
- Bifidobacterium bifidum: Found in various dairy products and some fermented foods, it’s thought to support gut health, improve digestion, and contribute to a balanced gut flora.
- Bifidobacterium longum: Known for its ability to help maintain gut integrity, alleviate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and support overall digestive health.
Probiotics need to survive the journey through the acidic environment of the stomach in order to reach the intestines, where they exert their benefits. Not all probiotics are equally robust in this regard. Factors like the manufacturing process and encapsulation techniques can influence their survival rates.
The concentration of probiotics in a supplement or food product can impact their effectiveness. Some studies suggest that higher doses of certain probiotics are required to achieve desired results, while lower doses might not have the same impact.
Some probiotic supplements are formulated with prebiotics, which are compounds that provide nourishment for beneficial bacteria. Synbiotics combine probiotics and prebiotics, potentially enhancing the overall effect on gut health. These considerations add complexity to the selection process.
Although, I do think it is worth noting that if you eat a plant-based fibre-rich diet then your gut is probably getting enough prebiotics naturally through your food.
Do probiotics really work?
The main reason for taking probiotics is to see improvements in gut-related issues like bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, and flatulence, as well as issues like IBS and food intolerances. Once these gut-related issues are improved you may also see improvements in other areas like your mental health, your skin and your immune system.
Probiotics definitely do work, especially when you’ve purchased a high-quality variety, as I have personally experienced improvements in all of the aforementioned areas.
Although, the help that they can provide will depend massively upon you and your gut microflora. So when I take you through the effectiveness of probiotics, do keep in mind that this is my experience that I am going into detail about and yours may end up being different.
They have helped my gut issues
I eat a vegan diet so I consume plenty of fibre as well as a large variety of plants (over 30 different varieties a week to be exact). Meaning the bacteria in my gut has plenty of tasty foods to feed off of. Did you know that a vegan diet is great for gut health thanks to all the plants we eat? Try it out for yourself!
Despite this, I struggle with my mental health. And you may be surprised to hear that your brain and gut are heavily connected, with about 90% of your serotonin being found in your gut. So when your brain isn’t feeling so good, neither is your gut. On top of this, my late teens and early twenties were spent in raves and takeaway establishments. Consuming stuff that wasn’t always great for my gut.
These are the main reasons why I now struggle with IBS and it becomes much more noticeable when I am feeling particularly stressed or down. Essentially this then inflames the gut and creates a not-so-friendly environment for all that good bacteria. But the ‘bad’ bacteria absolutely love it in there and they begin to take over.
This then leads to a whole host of gut-related issues like abdominal pains, bloating, gas and diarrhoea. And then rather viciously, this then feeds right back into my bad mental health. Although, these symptoms will vary between people. Thankfully, when I consistently take a high-quality probiotic supplement, like Symprove or Wild Dose, I tend to find it counteracts all the nasty side effects of IBS. Then it’s just down to me to work on my mental health!
Moreover, when supplemented alongside digestive enzyme supplements, I have found probiotics to also massively help GERD (acid reflux). An issue that I believe is hereditary and I really can’t do much about, other than maintain a healthy gut to reduce the symptoms.
For some people, their gut issues aren’t mental health-related like mine are. Maybe instead they started after you took a course of antibiotics (which are designed to kill bacteria), or they stem from poor dietary decisions. If this is the case, probiotics should also help to introduce balance back into your gut!
They have relieved my skin conditions
I have a variety of skin conditions that become inflamed during IBS flare-ups as well as when I consume food that I’m intolerant to (looking at you, bread), namely eczema and psoriasis. I understand these are related because one triggers the other. Consequently, when I take probiotics and my gut health improves, I experience knock-on effects on my skin health.
There is growing research that shows just how interlinked our gut and skin health is. It is referred to as the Gut-Skin Axis (see scientific study).
However, I wouldn’t claim that probiotics directly help improve skin conditions. There is absolutely no scientific proof to suggest this. Some companies may indeed assert that their products help reduce eczema or psoriasis. In reality, some individuals may observe improvements in these issues simply because their gut is healthier.
You are correct in thinking that a relationship exists between taking probiotics and witnessing improvements in skin health. However, what if skin conditions have no connection to someone’s gut health? Many reasons exist for individuals to struggle with psoriasis or eczema, and not all of them are gut-related.
Consequently, these individuals may not experience improvements and may have been misled.
It is not a causal relationship where taking probiotics improves skin conditions; rather, it is more of a by-product. So, if you are like me and your skin conditions are significantly affected by your gut health, you might experience positive changes. However, it’s important not to place all your hopes solely on probiotics.
They have improved my mental health
Whilst my mental health has been a big causal factor for most of my gut-related issues, it has also gotten worse through bad gut health. Struggling to enjoy dinners out at restaurants because you spend most of it holding in gas or rushing away to the grotty public loos definitely feeds into your overall anxiety levels. I know it does for me anyway.
Plus when I do have flare-ups with my gut health I do tend to find my brain feels foggy and the depression starts to set in. But this comes as no surprise when you find out how interlinked our brain and gut are. If my gut is inflamed, then it probably struggles to produce the necessary serotonin to keep my brain happy and well.
Therefore, when I take a course of probiotics and my gut starts filling with friendly bacteria I do tend to find a lot of my mental health issues shift. It definitely takes the load off. And knowing what I do about guts now, I always imagine all that lovely serotonin flowing freely through my body once my gut starts feeling better. I know I can’t really feel it, but I often kid myself into thinking that I can. And that feels pretty great.
They have rebuilt my immune system
Getting sick regularly is one of those irritating side effects of bad gut health. As if feeling bloated and gassy isn’t enough, in comes a cold or even the flu. Well, that is because 70% of your immune system actually lives in your gut. So unsurprisingly, bad gut health leads to a weakened immune system.
When my IBS was at its worst, before I began taking any probiotics and before I even knew what a probiotic was, I struggled a lot with my immune system. I was getting sick regularly and this in turn put even more strain on my gut.
Much like my skin and my mental health, my immune system has improved thanks to improved gut health. Which is thanks to the probiotics.
Our guts are still a bit of a mystery, to us and scientists. But there is increasing research being put into this area and in particular, into probiotics and their effect on gut health. Below I have detailed a few interesting scientific studies:
- This study shows that multi-strain probiotics can have positive effects on IBS (see scientific study).
- It has been shown that probiotics are effective in treating acute infectious diarrhoea, antibiotic-associated diarrhoea, Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhoea, hepatic encephalopathy, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, functional gastrointestinal disorders, and necrotizing enterocolitis (see scientific study).
- There is some early-stage evidence to suggest that probiotics can help with IBD (see scientific study).
Is there a downside to taking probiotics?
As with most things, there are some downsides to taking probiotics. These aren’t necessarily things that should put you off trying them out, but you should definitely read through this list and consider if any of these are areas of concern for yourself. If you are still on the fence after reading this, then I would definitely suggest talking to your doctor first.
- Digestive discomfort: Some individuals may experience digestive discomfort, such as gas, bloating, or an upset stomach when they first start taking probiotics. This is often temporary and may subside as your body adjusts to the new bacteria.
- Interaction with medications: Some medications, especially immunosuppressants and antibiotics, could interact with probiotics. Consult your doctor if you’re on medication and considering probiotics.
- Unintended effects: Since probiotics can influence the balance of gut bacteria, there’s a possibility that introducing new strains might affect the existing microbiome composition in ways that aren’t fully understood.
- Lack of personalisation: Not all probiotics work equally for everyone due to individual differences in gut microbiota. What benefits one person might not benefit another in the same way.
- Cost: Quality probiotic supplements can sometimes be expensive, and the cost can add up over time. Although, I have always found it to be worth it, considering how much probiotics have helped me!
Types of probiotics
You can introduce probiotics into your diet either through food or through supplements. I like to include a mix of the two to ensure I am providing my gut with a wide variety of bacteria strains. But I know for some people, eating fermented foods isn’t high up on their list of things they enjoy doing. So, be sure to check out my list of the best supplements instead!
Taking probiotic supplements is really easy and ensures that you are consistently introducing a range of bacteria strains to your gut. Although, as previously mentioned, not all probiotic supplements are created equal. So be sure to try out one of my recommended supplements below:
- Symprove liquid supplement: Buy it here
- Wild Dose anti-bloating capsules: Buy them here
- Ethical Nutrition advanced capsule biotic: Buy them here
- Ritual synbiotic capsules (probiotics with prebiotics): Buy them here
Alternatively, check out my full list of the best probiotic supplements – all tried and tested by myself.
If you love fermented foods, then you’ll enjoy eating these natural probiotic-rich foods. The only downside is that you can’t always tell how much of what strain of bacteria you are consuming. So if you are aiming for a specific strain and quantity then you may want to supplement on top of this.
- Kombucha: A fermented tea beverage produced by combining sweetened tea with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). The SCOBY ferments the tea, producing a tangy and effervescent drink rich in probiotics and organic acids. Discover my favourite kombucha that you can buy in the UK.
- Sauerkraut: Fermented cabbage, often seasoned with various herbs and spices. Lactic acid bacteria are responsible for the fermentation process.
- Kimchi: A Korean dish made from fermented vegetables, primarily napa cabbage and radishes, seasoned with spices and sometimes seafood. Try out my kimchi recipe and discover ways to cook with kimchi.
- Miso: A traditional Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with salt and a specific fungus, Aspergillus oryzae. Try out my miso ramen recipe.
- Tempeh: A fermented soybean product originating from Indonesia. It’s made by binding soybeans into a cake-like form using a fungus called Rhizopus oligosporus. Try this tempeh katsu curry recipe.
- Pickles: Some types of pickles, like those made using saltwater brine, can contain probiotic bacteria.
Alternatives to probiotics
Maybe you’ve tried out high-quality probiotics before and they haven’t worked for you, or you’ve been told by a medical professional to avoid taking a probiotic supplement. Well, fear not as there are alternatives to probiotics that may well help create a healthy environment for your gut to thrive!
If you struggle with IBS, or any food intolerances like gluten (but not coeliac disease), then you may benefit from taking a digestive enzyme supplement like Juvia. It is made using a barley extract that helps to break down carbohydrates in your diet which reduces the food which the ‘bad’ bacteria in your gut can feed off. In turn, this allows the ‘good’ bacteria to thrive. Try out Juvia here