Most of these bacteria reside in your gut, and the majority are quite harmless.
Having the right gut bacteria is even linked to numerous health benefits, including weight loss, improved digestion, enhanced immune function, healthier skin and a reduced risk of many diseases (1, 2).
Probiotics, which are a certain type of friendly bacteria, provide health benefits when eaten.
They are often taken as supplements that are supposed to colonize your gut with health-boosting microorganisms.
This article examines the health benefits of probiotics.
Probiotics are living microorganisms that, when ingested, provide numerous health benefits (3).
They’re usually bacteria, but certain types of yeasts can also function as probiotics.
You can get probiotics from supplements, as well as from foods prepared by bacterial fermentation.
Probiotic foods include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh and kimchi. Probiotics should not be confused with prebiotics, which are dietary fibers that help feed the friendly bacteria already in your gut (4).
Dozens of different probiotic bacteria offer health benefits.
The most common groups include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Each group comprises different species, and each species has many strains.
Interestingly, different probiotics address different health conditions. Therefore, choosing the right type — or types — of probiotic is essential.
Some supplements — known as broad-spectrum probiotics or multi-probiotics — combine different species in the same product.
Although the evidence is promising, more research is needed on the health benefits of probiotics (5).
The complex community of microorganisms in your gut is called the gut flora or microbiota (6).
In fact, your gut contains hundreds of different types of microorganisms — as many as 1,000, according to some estimations.
This includes bacteria, yeasts and viruses — with bacteria making up the vast majority.
Most of the gut flora is found in your colon, or large intestine, which is the last part of your digestive tract.
Surprisingly, the metabolic activities of your gut flora resemble those of an organ. For this reason, some scientists refer to the gut flora as the "forgotten organ" (7).
Your gut flora performs many functions that are important for health. It manufactures vitamins, including vitamin K and some of the B vitamins (8).
However, not all organisms in your gut are friendly.
Probiotics — and prebiotic fibers — can help correct this balance, ensuring that your "forgotten organ" is functioning optimally (21).
Impact on digestive health
Probiotics are widely researched for their effects on digestive health (22).
When people take antibiotics, especially for long periods of time, they often experience diarrhea — even long after the infection has been eradicated.
This is because the antibiotics kill many of the natural bacteria in your gut, which shifts gut balance and allows harmful bacteria to thrive.
Some studies also note benefits against inflammatory bowel diseases, such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis (29).
If you currently have digestive problems that you can't seem to vanquish, a probiotic supplement may be something to consider — though you should consider consulting with your doctor first.
People who are obese have different gut bacteria than those who are lean (34).
When participants stopped taking the probiotic, they gained the belly fat back within four weeks.
Evidence also suggests that Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Bifidobacterium lactis can assist with weight loss and obesity prevention — though this needs more research (41).
Conversely, some animal studies demonstrate that other probiotic strains could lead to weight gain, not loss (42).
There are many other benefits of probiotics. They affect:
- Inflammation: Probiotics reduce systemic inflammation, a leading driver of many diseases (43).
- Depression and anxiety: The probiotic strains Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacterium longum have been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in people with clinical depression (44, 45).
- Blood cholesterol: Several probiotics have been shown to lower total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels (46, 47).
- Blood pressure: Probiotics may also cause modest reductions in blood pressure (48, 49).
- Immune function: Several probiotic strains may enhance immune function, possibly leading to a reduced risk of infections, including for the common cold (50, 51).
- Skin health: There is some evidence that probiotics can be useful for acne, rosacea and eczema, as well as other skin disorders (52).
Probiotics are generally well tolerated and considered safe for most people.
However, in the first few days, you may experience side effects related to digestion, such as gas and mild abdominal discomfort (53).
After you adjust, your digestion should begin improving.
In people with compromised immune systems, including those with HIV, AIDS and several other conditions, probiotics can lead to dangerous infections (54).
If you have a medical condition, consult with your doctor before taking a probiotic supplement.
However, probiotic supplements offer a wide range of benefits with few side effects — so if you’re interested in improving your gut health, they could be worth a shot.