What are probiotics? And what do they do?
Probiotics are living microorganisms that live in your gut and help your body in many different ways. But, do probiotics help your immune system? To answer that, it’s important to understand the relationship between probiotics and the body. But, most of the time, probiotics provide substantial health benefits.
While most probiotics are considered bacteria, there are some that are yeast. Most probiotics are obtained through supplementation and certain types of food — particularly fermented food.
When a person hears the word "bacteria," they assume it’s harmful. However, many bacteria are actually helpful. Bacteria are needed to digest food, produce vitamins and destroy disease-producing cells.
Most microorganisms in the best probiotics for immune support are similar to those naturally living in the body. However, you don't want to confuse probiotics with prebiotics, which are dietary fibers that act as food for the bacteria that are already living in your gut.
And synbiotics are products that include both probiotics and prebiotics.
Now that you understand what probiotics are, it's valuable to look at the connection of these microorganisms in relation to the immune system. On this page, we will answer the question, do probiotics help your immune system? We’ll also explain how probiotics help your immune system.
How Probiotics and the Immune System Are Connected
Probiotics include many types of good bacteria that provide health benefits when consumed. And while new studies continue to explore exactly how probiotics work, we do know two things for sure:
- As the body loses "good" bacteria, the body and immune system suffer. You can lose this "good" bacteria when you take antibiotics and from an unhealthy diet.
- Probiotics work to balance the good and bad bacteria found in your body. And with a properly balanced digestive system, the body works as it should.
Let's examine the process deeper. In your gut, there are hundreds of different microorganism types. In fact, some estimations figure the gut may be home to more than 1,000 microorganisms. These microorganisms include bacteria, viruses and yeasts, but bacteria — or gut flora — make up the majority.
Most of this gut flora is located in your colon or large intestine, which makes up the final part of your digestive tract. Your gut flora is necessary for many vital functions required for good health. For example, studies show that gut flora manufacturers several vitamins, including Vitamin B and Vitamin K.
Gut flora also transforms fiber into short-chain fats, such as acetate, propionate and butyrate. These fats feed your gut wall and are needed for metabolic functions. As the fats stimulate the immune system, they also strengthen the gut wall. Research shows that a strong gut wall can prevent unwanted intruders from entering the body and stimulating an immune response.
This is a vital bodily function; an imbalance in gut flora can lead to several diseases. Some studies indicate a link between an unbalanced gut and obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. That being said, do probiotics strengthen the immune system and when should you take them?
How Probiotics Help the Immune System
Do probiotics help the immune system? Scientific studies say they do. But how do they do it?
The main purpose of probiotics is to maintain a healthy balance between the good and bad bacteria in your gut. But if you are ill, the harmful bacteria that’s entered your body can quickly multiply, and, before you know it, your entire system is out of balance.
However, if you put more good bacteria into your body, it will effectively fight off the harmful microorganisms and restore balance. Not only will you feel better; it may boost your immune system.
In fact, good bacteria are necessary for proper immune system function, and help in other ways.
More specifically, good bacteria:
- Aids digestion
- Counteracts the harmful bacteria that could cause you to become sick
- Produces essential vitamins for the body
- Breaks down medications and aids in the absorption process
- Supports cells lining the gut to prevent bad bacteria from entering the bloodstream because of food or drinks you've consumed
What's interesting is that this precise balancing act occurs at all times within your body, even if you aren't aware of it. In fact, some people don't require probiotic supplements for these functions to work correctly, especially if they’re eating a healthy diet that’s rich in fiber.
However, there are times when it's appropriate to take probiotics for immune function. For example, taking probiotics to help rebuild the immune system after lots of antibiotics is an appropriate time.
What are the best probiotics for immune support?
Probiotics are good for the immune system, but there are many different types. In fact, dozens of probiotic bacteria have been identified as beneficial. Here are a few of the most popular options:
Lactobacillus is one of the most common options. It's found in fermented foods and yogurt. This strain helps with digestive issues and diarrhea. It is also taken for irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, colon inflammation, constipation, stomach pain and colic in babies.
Bifidobacterium is found in dairy products. This strain lives in your stomach and intestines while performing essential digestion functions. It also starves off the harmful bacteria. While more research is needed to prove its effectiveness, many people take this strain to fight symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, an infection by Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) and constipation.
Saccharomyces boulardii is a yeast that is found in probiotics. It works to battle diarrhea and other digestive problems by regulating the intestines and protecting the body from pathogens that damage the intestinal lining. It's also responsible for modulating the immune system and maintaining the intestinal barrier.
Some probiotics are known as multi-probiotics or broad-spectrum probiotics. These supplements combine various species into one product.
What Foods Are High in Probiotics
If you are interested in probiotics for immune health, you’ll want to know which foods help restore gut balance. Since probiotics help your immune system, you want to carefully choose your foods.
By incorporating some probiotic-rich foods into your diet, you can effectively increase the beneficial microbes in your body. We recommend you add some to every meal of your day for the best results. When you look at food labels, pay attention to anything that states, "live and active cultures."
Here are some specific suggestions:
- Sourdough bread
- Cottage cheese
- Fermented pickles
- Fermented sauerkraut
- Miso soup
So, why do so many fermented foods contain probiotics? Fermenting is a timeless technique of food preservation. The process, otherwise known as lacto-fermentation, allows natural bacteria to feed on the food's starch or sugar. This creates lactic acid, which preserves the food. But, not only does fermentation preserve food; it promotes beneficial enzymes, omega-3 fatty acids, B vitamins and good bacteria.
Knowing this, you may choose to dramatically increase your intake of fermented foods, but you must be careful. Some people experience digestive side effects, such as an increase in bloating and gas. These are caused by excessive gas that's produced when the probiotics kill harmful fungi and gut bacteria.
Ideally, you should work on creating a healthy and balanced diet. Add probiotic-rich foods to as many meals as you realistically can, but continue to focus on other nutrients too. You don't want to consume too much of any type of food, but rather focus on creating balance.
Are probiotic supplements an effective solution?
While you can consume probiotics that boost the immune system solely through dieting, some people require the help of supplements. There’s evidence that supplements contain probiotics for immune health as well. In fact, research indicates taking a supplement may provide a wide range of benefits.
Studies suggest probiotic supplements may cure antibiotic-associated diarrhea. After taking a round of antibiotics, you may want to take supplements to counteract what's occurred in the digestive system.
It's also been shown in studies that probiotics combat irritable bowel syndrome. If you struggle with regular gas, constipation, diarrhea, bloating or other digestive systems, you may require a probiotic supplement to help regulate your digestive system. Additional research shows probiotics help combat inflammatory bowel diseases, such as ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease.
On top of all that, probiotic supplements may help fight off Helicobacter pylori infections, according to some studies. This condition is one of the main reasons patients get stomach cancer and ulcers.
Beyond digestive issues, studies show Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium lactis might also fight obesity and increase weight loss.
Probiotic supplements benefit the body in so many ways. Here are a few more:
Whether you want probiotics for your immune health or any other benefits, you should strongly consider getting your probiotics in the form of dietary supplements.
Probiotic Side Effects
Probiotics help your immune system and are considered relatively safe. Still, there are potential side effects to consider if you plan to increase your probiotic-rich food consumption or take a supplement.
Additionally, if you have a severe illness or a compromised immune system, it might be best to speak with your healthcare professional before starting a new regimen.
Otherwise, here are some symptoms you might experience:
- Most people experience a temporary increase in bloating or gas after starting a supplement. Generally, these digestive symptoms will subside after a few weeks. To alleviate the effects, you may want to start with a lower dose at first and slowly increase the amount you take.
- If you take a yeast-based probiotic, you may also experience excessive thirst or constipation.
- Some probiotic-rich foods contain biogenic amines, such as histamine, tryptamine, phenylethylamine and tyramine. These amines excite the central nervous system and alter the blood flow in the body, which could trigger headaches in people who are sensitive to them.
- If you have allergies or are intolerant to certain foods, make sure you carefully read the probiotic supplement ingredients. There are some supplements that contain eggs, soy or dairy.
- The biggest concern is the chance of infection. While the majority of people take probiotic supplements without any trouble, there are times when high-risk patients are vulnerable. In rare cases, yeast or bacteria from the probiotic can enter the bloodstream and lead to an infection. Generally, the highest risk is for people who have suppressed immune systems, venous catheters, have recently undergone surgery or experienced prolonged hospitalizations.
Dosage Guidelines for Probiotics
The Office of Dietary Supplements suggests that the optimal dose depends on the strain. However, keep in mind that probiotics are measured in colony-forming units instead of milligrams or milliliters.
Probiotic supplements can be found in pills, capsules, powders and liquids. You can also purchase a probiotic supplement combined with a prebiotic, which feeds the bacteria in your gut. Using both in conjunction means you are taking a synbiotic product.
Always read the dosage label on the product and follow the instructions carefully. It's best to start out with a lower dose until you know how the supplement might affect you. Once you've taken some and confirm you don’t experience any adverse reactions, you can gradually increase the dose as needed.
Storing your probiotic supplement is another factor you want to consider. Some strains are fragile and must be protected from humidity, heat, light or oxygen. If they are exposed to elements, it's possible for the probiotic to break down or die. Remember, you are dealing with living organisms. Read the label to determine if you should refrigerate the probiotic or if you can store it somewhere else. Additionally, don't ever take a probiotic or any supplement once the product has expired.