Understanding Probiotics – Your Complete Guide (2023)

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What Are Probiotics?

The term probiotic comes from Greek, which translates to:

  • Pro: to promote
  • Biotic: life

According to medical experts, probiotics are beneficial living microorganisms (good bacteria and or yeast) that play a key role in the gut flora to keep your body healthy. These good bacteria mostly reside in the gut but can also be found in the mouth, vagina, skin, lungs, and urinary tract.

Probiotics and The Gut Flora

Each individual has a unique gut flora, otherwise known as a microbiome. The gut flora consists of trillions of microbes, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi that reside mostly within the gastrointestinal tract. They play a crucial role in absorbing nutrients, optimizing immune function, and supporting mental health

In a recent study, researchers found a connection between gut flora imbalance and depression. There is also some solid evidence that a healthy gut flora could potentially promote weight loss.

Probiotics (good bacteria) help your gut flora in many ways. Primarily, these microorganisms restore balance and harmony to your gut flora.

What Affects Your Gut Flora?

Studies show that excessive use of antibiotics, poor diet, chronic stress, and illness can all disrupt the balance between good and harmful bacteria. Researchers also revealed that the hormone changes in menopause can affect the gut microbiome, which may lead to a disruption in hormonal balance and metabolism. Therefore, supplementing the good bacteria can be helpful.

Which Probiotic Strains Are Best For?

Digestive Health

Regular consumption of various strains of probiotics will restore the symbiosis to your gut microbiome. As a result, you may see the following benefits:

  • Improved gastrointestinal motility
  • Enhanced digestion
  • Detoxification of the intestines from chemicals and toxins
  • Decreased risk of digestive infections caused by E.coli, Salmonella, Shigella, and Campylobacter.
  • Decreased risk of digestive diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease.

Overall, you will notice that your GI tract is able to break down different foods without experiencing any symptoms of indigestion (e.g., diarrhea, vomiting, bloating, gas).

Here are the best strains for digestive health:

  • Bifidobacterium longum – It can break down carbohydrates.
  • Saccharomyces boulardii – It may help with diarrhea and irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Lactobacillus acidophilus – It aids people with lactose intolerance.

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Immune Health

Numerous studies demonstrated the unequivocal effects of probiotics on the immune system. For example, one study found that the regular intake of probiotics upregulates the function of macrophages and neutrophils. Both of these cells are vital for fending off opportunistic pathogens.

Here are the best strains for immune health:

  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG – This strain can boost immune function and prevents common gastrointestinal infections (e.g., stomach flu).
  • Bifidobacterium lactis – This strain improves communication between different immune cells through a process known as chemotaxis.
  • Lactobacillus casei – It can modulate the immune system and enhance gut barrier function.

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Vagina and Urinary Health

The presence of natural vaginal microflora (Lactobacilli) is essential for maintaining a healthy vaginal pH and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi.

When choosing vaginal probiotics, make sure to look for those that contain Lactobacilli.

Research suggests that vaginal probiotics may be beneficial in treating vaginal infections, reducing the recurrence of infections, easing symptoms of atrophic vaginitis, and preventing the progression of cervical cancer.

Here are the best strains for vaginal health:

  • Lactobacillus acidophilus
  • Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14
  • Lactobacillus crispatus

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What to look for on a label?

If you’re not familiar with probiotics, you could easily get overwhelmed by the amount of information written on the label.

To make it easier for you, here are the parameters you should be on the look for when purchasing probiotics:

Colony-forming unit (CFU) – This is the number of f viable bacteria in the product. Probiotic benefits depend on the specific strains and their CFU count. Manufacturers often include more CFUs to ensure potency through the product’s expiration. Contrary to popular belief, a high CFU number does not equal more benefits. Instead, choosing the right number depends on how your body will react. In other words, it is a trial-and-error approach. Colony-forming units (CFU) vary between 15 billion and 50 billion.

Strain diversity – While it might be tempting to buy the probiotic supplement with the highest number of strains, this is not always the right approach. Instead, opt for a product that has 1–3 strains for optimal results.

Encapsulation – Not all bacteria can survive the harsh environment of the stomach. Therefore, try to stick to acid-resistant bacteria or products with the proper capsulation.


Temperature – The ideal storage conditions can vary depending on the specific probiotic product. Some probiotics need to be refrigerated to ensure that the bacteria stay alive, while others are shelf-stable and can be stored at room temperature.

Light – Exposure to light can degrade probiotics over time. It’s best to store them in a shaded place.

Packaging – Probiotics are typically packaged in a way that best preserves them. For instance, they may come in blister packs to keep out moisture and oxygen. Regardless of the packaging, make sure to securely seal the container after use to prevent exposure to air and moisture.

Shelf Life

The shelf life of probiotics is indicated by the expiration date. Manufacturers often include more CFUs at production than written on the label. This ensures the product maintains the promised potency until the expiration date.

After this date, probiotics may lose effectiveness due to a significant reduction in viable organisms.

Takeaway message

Probiotics are indispensable supplements to promote a healthy gut flora and by extension a healthy mind and body.

References for further reading

  1. Prasanna, P. H. P., Grandison, A. S., & Charalampopoulos, D. (2014). Bifidobacteria in milk products: An overview of physiological and biochemical properties, exopolysaccharide production, selection criteria of milk products and health benefits. Food Research International, 55, 247-262.
  2. Rizzoli, R. (2014). Dairy products, yogurts, and bone health. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 99(5), 1256S-1262S.
  3. Dong, J. Y., Szeto, I. M., Makinen, K., Gao, Q., Wang, J., Qin, L. Q., & Zhao, Y. (2013). Effect of probiotic fermented milk on blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British journal of nutrition, 110(7), 1188-1194.
  4. Fox, M. J., Ahuja, K. D., Robertson, I. K., Ball, M. J., & Eri, R. D. (2015). Can probiotic yogurt prevent diarrhoea in children on antibiotics? A double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled study. BMJ open, 5(1).
  5. Leite, A. M. D. O., Miguel, M. A. L., Peixoto, R. S., Rosado, A. S., Silva, J. T., & Paschoalin, V. M. F. (2013). Microbiological, technological and therapeutic properties of kefir: a natural probiotic beverage. Brazilian Journal of Microbiology, 44(2), 341-349.
  6. Krishna Rao, R., & Samak, G. (2013). Protection and restitution of gut barrier by probiotics: nutritional and clinical implications. Current Nutrition & Food Science, 9(2), 99-107.

Disclaimer: The information presented here is for informational and educational purposes only and is not intended to be used as medical advice. Any statements or claims about the possible health benefits conferred by any products or lifestyle changes have not been evaluated by medical professionals or the Food & Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. You should consult your health practitioner before changing your diet, taking supplements, or starting any exercise or health program

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