How is it that probiotics are such a ubiquitous trend in the wellness scene but subject to tons of misinformation all the same? Consider the myth, for example, that the only appeal of replenishing your good bacteria is smoother digestion. On the contrary, the benefits of probiotics abound: from a boosted mood and better skin to a healthier immune system.
With this all in mind, we deferred to the experts for a little probiotics 101. Below, find everything you need to know about the best times and ways to take them (psst: supplements aren't the only way!), how they can amp up your workouts, our favorite products, and more.
What are probiotics?
"The name itself is derived from the Latin 'pro-' meaning 'for' and the Greek '-biotic' meaning 'life,'" explains Jeannel Astarita, skincare expert and founder of Just Ageless NYC Wellness and Medspa. "Probiotics are the helpful bacteria that live primarily in your gut and play a crucial role in your overall health by fighting pathogens and yeast that lead to a weakened immune system."
"In fact," she continues, "80% of immune system cells are found in the gut. In addition to the well-known GI benefits of minimizing bloat, gas, constipation, and diarrhea, probiotics aid in digestion by extracting nutrients, helping your body absorb minerals, produce vitamins, and make brain chemicals, including over 30 neurotransmitters along with mood-enhancing serotonin. A healthy person has over 100 trillion microbes, generally a five to one ratio of helpful to harmful."
Dermatologist Dendy Engelman, MD, also points out the key role probiotics play in gut health and your body's immune system. "Probiotics are live microorganisms that may be able to help prevent and treat some illnesses," explains Engelman. "Probiotics can create 'holes' in bad bacteria and kill them. Similar to the way antibiotics work in the treatment of acne and rosacea, probiotics can help fight harmful bugs from triggering inflammation. In patients with acne and rosacea, living microorganisms on the skin are recognized as foreign by the body's immune system. The immune system springs into action to counter this potential threat resulting in the inflammation, redness, or bumps common in these skin conditions."
Probiotics Have a Positive Effect on Your Gut's Microbiome and Immune System
"This ecosystem of bacteria is known as our microbiome," says Astarita. "A healthy, balanced gut microbiome can reduce blood pressure; normalize cholesterol levels; improve vaginal, urinary, and kidney health; and fight heart disease, some cancers, and even dementia.
"Many chronic health problems and inflammatory diseases are caused by a damaged microbiome where the good bacteria is overrun by the harmful bacteria and can't reinforce the gut walls, which results in increased intestinal permeability where bacteria and toxins leak through the intestines into the bloodstream triggering a system-wide immune response of inflammation that is a part of our body's natural healing cycle."
Consuming probiotics regularly will reduce the risk of this. "The concept is that if we have an unhealthy, unbalanced gut environment, toxins can be released into the bloodstream and cause inflammation throughout the body," Engelman adds. "This shift in gut flora and the subsequent inflammation can cause a flare-up in the skin of those who are predisposed to acne, eczema, or rosacea."
Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, founder and director of Real Nutrition based in NYC, discusses the effect probiotics have on immune system issues. "Probiotics compete with pathogenic microorganisms and produce chemicals that inactivate or kill pathogens," says Shapiro. "They help prevent immune-mediated diseases by improving the gut mucosal immune system. Overall, probiotics protect the body from infections and allow the body to maintain homeostasis."
Probiotics Help With Your Skin's Immune System
"Probiotics applied topically sit on the skin's surface and prevent the skin cells from seeing the bad bacteria and parasites that can cause this immune system response," confirms Engelman. "This is known as 'bacterial interference,' as probiotics protect the skin and interfere with the ability of bad bugs like bacteria and parasites to provoke an immune reaction.
"When certain types of probiotics are placed in contact with skin cells, they calm the parts of the cells that may want to react to the presence of bad bacteria that they see as a threat. These healthy signals produced by the probiotics stop the skin cells from sending 'attack' messages to the immune system that result in flares of acne or rosacea."
Probiotics Improve digestive functioning
"Probiotics help with constipation, diarrhea, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain, Crohn's disease, and flatulence," says Shapiro. "Probiotics work to increase the number of immunoglobulin cells and cytokine-producing cells in the intestine. They improve the healthy bacteria population in the GI tract by repopulating the gut to help with digestion."
Probiotics Improve Athletic Performance
"Probiotics increase the absorption of nutrients so muscle cells have a better nutrient foundation," explains Shapiro. "These nutrients then allow for a better recovery time and your performance will increase over time."
Probiotics Help relieve skin issues
"The skin and the gut go hand in hand," explains Shapiro. "Since probiotics help improve the gut microbiome and aid in reducing inflammation, skin conditions will also improve. When eating a healthy, whole food diet as well, skin conditions get better over time. When the gut is not intact, other parts of the body also start to break down and become toxic. With probiotics, your gut becomes healthier and therefore, your skin problems start to disappear. "
Probiotics aid in Wrinkle Prevention
"Probiotics and good bacteria in the gut help eliminate toxins that can cause early signs of aging," explains Shapiro. "They can flush the body of these free radicals and help prevent early wrinkles."
Give Probiotic Supplements A Couple of Weeks To Kick In
"A good rule of thumb is 12 weeks," explains Engelman. "It takes time for your body to fully see the benefits of any new product. A recent Korean study of 56 acne patients found that drinking a Lactobacillus-fermented dairy beverage effectively reduced their total acne lesion count and decreased oil production over 12 weeks."
"Within 30 days of supplementation, you can enjoy the benefits of improving the inflammatory conditions of the skin and reducing stress-related depression and anxiety," says Astarita. "However, don't think the key to good health lies in a pill. Strengthen your microbiome with smart lifestyle choices to have the maximum benefit on your health."
Probiotic Foods Are Just As Effective As Topical Probiotics and Supplements
Speaking of healthy lifestyle choices, Shapiro is a firm believer of getting probiotics through food first. Then to add a supplement if needed or during times when you want to boost your immune system. Below are her all-time favorite probiotic foods and the health benefits of each.
Kimchi: "A fermented Korean vegetable dish with strains of lactic acid bacteria, such as Lactobacillus brevi, which helps heal your gut and might even promote weight loss."
Sauerkraut: "Rich in bacteria that boosts your immune system and healthy gut flora. The bacteria on the cabbage leaves ferment the natural sugars into lactic acid. Sauerkraut is also high in vitamin C."
Kombucha: "Fermented with bacteria and yeast known as SCOBY. Kombucha can prevent too much candida yeast in the gut, promotes digestion, and the influx of good bacteria."
Whole fat, organic, or grass-fed yogurt: "Full of bacteria that help the gut. The microbes in yogurt alter the lactose, the natural sugar found in dairy, allowing the milk to thicken and the lactic acid to build up. It's best to avoid sugary yogurts and buy the plain flavor with live active cultures."
Kefir: "Can reduce bloating and gas that is brought on by consuming dairy. The bacteria in this fermented milk drink have been found to colonize in the intestinal tract, which gives healing benefits to the gut."
Miso: "The fungus in miso, like the soup you get at a Japanese restaurant or the paste you find in supermarkets, stimulates the digestive system and supports the immune system."
If you want to take full advantage of the benefits probiotics have to offer, shop the experts' favorite picks below.
Shop Probiotic Additions
"The proprietary formula in this lotion supports a healthy microbiome of your skin promoting a more hydrated, stronger barrier function and protection from pathogens without harming the good stuff. Throw away your antibacterial soap and hand sanitizer and use this all over after your shower and after washing your hands," says Astarita, who is also a fan of the Nerium Prolistic Powder Pre & Probiotic Plus Vitamins ($45) and Be Well Probiotic Powder ($46) by Dr. Frank Lipman.
The above line of probiotics is also a favorite of Engelman. "I like Nerium International's new Prolistic Pre & Probiotic Plus Vitamins ($45) because it combines prebiotics, probiotics, and vitamins," Engelman explains. "It supports overall health while targeting digestive function. It contains two types of prebiotics and two strains of probiotics to help enhance levels of beneficial microflora and balance levels of healthy bacteria in the digestive system. Additionally, it contains B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin D, which work to enhance the body's immune system and support natural energy production."
"I usually recommend Garden of Life, BioK or Megafoods brand," says Shapiro. "I also recommend starting with about 30 billion CFU and making sure your supplement has at least 12 different strains. And if you don't eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains that provide fiber for the probiotics to live off of, make sure you're the one you are taking contains prebiotics as well.
"I recommend supplementing with the species lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, and there are different strains within those species that are each beneficial. Garden of Life and Align probiotics contain bacteria that help the gut microbiome and maintain digestive balance, and 1MD's Complete Probiotics Platinum is one of the best probiotics with over 50 billion live cultures that help with gut and digestive health."
Talk to your doctor to learn more about probiotics and to see if they're right for you.
This story was originally published at an earlier date and has been updated.