Nowadays, living healthy and making the right dietary choices seem to have become increasingly more difficult due to culinary temptations, stress, and other similar factors. Luckily, using probiotics – or ‘good’ bacteria – can help protect your digestive system against the negative effects of these changes, as well as give you better moods and a more optimist mindset in life. But how useful is probiotic supplementation anyway? How long do probiotics take to work? Can they lead to negative consequences as well? Let us discover further on just how probiotics impact your organism and happiness alike.
What are probiotics?
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Probiotics are live, beneficial microorganisms which inhabit your gastrointestinal tract, as well as your urogenital system (especially in women). Also known as ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ bacteria – since their name literally translates from Greek as ‘ fit for life’ – probiotics are essential for the digestive wellness of your body, alongside your immune and mental balance as well.
Probiotics were first studied by Russian zoologist Élie Metchnikoff at the beginning of the 20th century, who discovered the importance of a healthy intestinal flora to a person’s general wellbeing. In the years that followed his findings, further research cemented his theory regarding the role these bacteria play in the human microbiota.
Current experiments are looking into the full extent of the impact probiotics have on the human organism, with some papers linking these ‘good’ microorganisms to successful results in terms of a variety of afflictions that range from IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and psoriasis to depression and even cancer.
According to their type and function, probiotics are classified in terms of class, genus, and species. Presently, some of the most popular and widely employed strains of probiotics are considered to be Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium lactis, Streptococcus thermophilus, etc.
How do probiotics work?
As previously mentioned, probiotics are both a natural and vital presence in the gastrointestinal system of humans.
Firstly, probiotics enable meliorated digestive rhythms by helping with food decomposition, nutrient assimilation, and waste disposal. For example, beneficial bacteria like those of the Lactobacillus and Streptococcus type transform the sugars in milk and other dairy products into lactic acid, which is subsequently easier to digest and absorb as beneficial substances inside the body.
As a result, your metabolism can work better at providing you with the energy and focus necessary to go throughout the day. Moreover, properly timed metabolic rhythms mean a higher chance of losing weight and keeping it off in the future since you are becoming more active and therefore more likely to transform food into energy instead of ‘storing’ it. Not to mention that probiotics can also curb your appetite and get rid of ‘binge eating’ caused by stress or boredom, let’s say.
Secondly, probiotic bacteria have a great influence on how you protect yourself against health threats as well. Did you know that up to 80% of your immune protection is located within the gut? This is due to the fact that probiotics fight against the development of pathogenic colonies through their antiseptic properties (like the aforementioned production of lactic acid). In this way, airborne or ingested microbes and viruses do not get the opportunity to multiply and make you sick later on.
Another surprising advantage of probiotics is that they can influence your mental state as well. This occurs in light of the fact that your nervous and digestive systems are linked by what is known as the ‘brain-gut axis’, which presupposes that your G.I. wellness is – to a certain degree – determined by your psychological state and vice-versa.
The quality of the biochemical signaling that takes place between your brain and your gut is thus dependent on the state of your microbiota and your mental wellbeing as well, with these two poles influencing each other in accordance with your current lifestyle, levels of stress, dieting options, etc.
How long do probiotics take to work?
At this point, the big question that needs to be answered concerning probiotics is: how long they actually take to ‘kick in’ and show digestive results? Well, the answer is that you needn’t wait for more than a couple of hours to feel the effects of these ‘friendly’ microorganisms inside your stomach!
As researchers have discovered, live colonies like those pertaining to the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera take only two to three hours to double in number, which allows them to ‘travel’ alongside your food across the G.I. tract and then contribute to the digestive process by breaking down tough foods and facilitating the absorption of valuable substances.
Nevertheless, this also means that they are discarded alongside the ‘waste’ which remains after the food decomposition has ended, so you will need to reintroduce them into your system during the next meal for the results to remain the same.
If you are eating probiotic foods or using probiotic enhancers on a daily basis, then you have a greater chance of developing a greater colony stability in your G.I. tract. Thus, as more bacteria transit your gastrointestinal tract, the more likely you are of having these microorganisms ‘settle down’ primarily in your small intestine and colon. If you are taking a commercial probiotic enhancer, then just be sure to administer it with plenty of food and water so as to avoid any intestinal discomfort and ensure the live colonies have the best environment for multiplying rapidly.
Still, the probiotic colonies which will result in the most beneficial, long-term effects are those that take up to several months to properly colonize your gut, the quickest such outcomes being visible within 2-3 weeks of debuting your probiotic regime of choice. Although it might seem like a long time for actual results to come into place, the fact of the matter is that these ‘friendly’ microorganisms do need some time to adapt themselves to the various factors of your specific G.I. tract like acidity, other bacteria colonies (both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ type), and the ratio between different kinds of probiotics (some strains are more aggressive in terms of intestinal ‘territory’ than others, as is the case for Lactobacillus casei, let’s say).
Once settled into your digestive tract, these ‘good’ microorganisms can perform their beneficial activities for far longer than your actual probiotic administration if they are protected from the effects of stress, poor dieting choices or antibiotic treatments (which also eliminate active colonies when killing pathogens).
In fact, you can actually support a faster and more effective adaptation time for the newly introduced bacteria by consuming prebiotics in advance, which is a type of fiber that acts as a source of nutrition for the probiotics. Prebiotics can be found in onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, artichokes, and wheat products, which should be best consumed raw or lightly cooked for the quick, yet durable results.
Why is probiotic supplementation important?
You might be asking yourself by now: ’if probiotics are already present in my gut, why would I need to consume more for them to form more colonies there?’. The answer is that, in this day and age, poor dieting choices, stressful lifestyles, pollution, hereditary gastrointestinal sensibility, and prolonged antibiotic treatments are just a few of the factors which contribute to a severe decline in the number of probiotic colonies found in a person’s digestive tract.
As such, this internal disturbance translates to more than just bathroom and motility problems, since probiotics are responsible for pretty much everything from immunity and mental wellness to bones integrity and cancer prevention.
The importance of probiotic supplementation is therefore obvious and probably a real necessity for a large part of the world’s population at the moment. Luckily, there is no shortage of options in order to achieve a balanced out probiotic count inside your gut.
What are some reliable sources of probiotics?
Aside from the human gut – and that of other mammals too, for that matter – probiotics can also be encountered naturally as an essential part of the fermentation process pertaining to various foods or in the form of dietary supplements, as follows:
- Dairy products – while we all know that fermentation determines the flavor, texture, and even type of such dairy-based products, we often seem to overlook just how valuable probiotics are to this process. This happens because probiotics start ‘digesting’ both the simple and complex sugars in milk and transforming them into lactic acid during the fermentation process. In fact, probiotics are commonly employed as ‘starter cultures’ in the making of dairy staples like yogurt, buttermilk, kefir, and soft cheeses (like Cheddar, Gouda, Emmental, etc.). Nevertheless, you should keep in mind that the pasteurization process required for large-scale distribution of these products destroys the live bacteria, so be sure to purchase dairy which has been infused with probiotics after the thermal treatments.
- Pickled vegetables – because the process of pickling also implies a form of fermentation, it comes as no surprise to discover that ‘good’ microorganisms have a role in this transformation as well. While vinegar bases are not favorable for the development of probiotics (the high acidity tends to kill off colonies), brine solutions – namely water mixed with copious amounts of salt – are ideal for beneficial microorganisms to both thrive and ensure a successful preservation period for your vegetables of choice. So, if you want to boost your probiotic count the natural way, then remember to add sauerkraut, gherkins, kimchi, olives or any other sort of brine-pickled vegetables to your daily meals for a healthy dose of ‘good’ bacteria.
- Dietary enhancers – the simplest and most straightforward way of enhancing your internal microbiota is via probiotic supplements. These come in different formats (pills, capsules, liquid drops, powder satchels, etc) and potencies (from a few million CFUs – or colony-forming units – of bacteria to dozens of billions of them). Obviously, the price-to-quality ratio is very significant when it comes to these enhancers since the goal is to find an effective product that you can use in the long-term for gastrointestinal wellness, but one which will not cause a hole in your wallet in the meantime.
- Other sources – probiotics can also be introduced into your diet via various foods like miso paste and tempeh (which are both obtained from fermented soybeans), Kombucha tea (fermented tea), microalgae (such as spirulina, for instance), poi (a Hawaiian dish obtained from cooked taro plant that has been mashed into a soft dough), dark chocolate, sourdough bread, and even unpasteurized beer.
What are the main advantages of probiotics?
- improved gastrointestinal functions
- fewer episodes of diarrhea and/ or constipation
- increased abdominal comfort (elimination of symptoms such as bloating, gas, cramps, etc.)
- gastrointestinal support in the case of issues like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), and Crohn’s disease
- elevated nutrient availability (vitamins, minerals, moisture, etc.)
- optimized metabolic rhythms and potential weight loss over time
- elevated lactose tolerance
- better immunity shielding against airborne/ ingested pathogens (such as those which cause allergies and the stomach flu, for example)
- modulated inflammatory response within the organism
- prevention of UTIs (urinary tract infections)
- hormonal regulation
- mental improvement and alleviation in the case of depression and/ or anxiety, etc.
Can probiotics cause side effects as well?
Unfortunately, probiotics can also cause you some trouble at the beginning of the administration period if used incorrectly or if they come from an unreliable source.
One of the most common ways in which probiotics cause side effects is when you are just starting to use them: since your body needs time adjusting to the new bacterial colonies inside your gut, you might end up experiencing some unwanted symptoms like visceral cramping, irregular motility, and gas. This can happen during the first week of either using probiotic supplements or significantly increasing the number of probiotic foods you consume. The symptoms should subside after seven days at most; if not, you should discontinue your probiotic treatment and seek professional advice in this sense.
‘Overdosing’ on these microorganisms or relying on low-quality probiotic enhancers can also cause a world of gastrointestinal problems. In the first case, you are introducing way too many colonies for your gut to keep up with and risking a ‘dominance battle’ in your belly at the same time. In the latter, you might not even be getting the live bacteria you expected to be supplemented within the first place (due to poor handling of the product or the original blend, let’s say).
Regardless of the situation, you should first consult with a doctor before beginning any type of probiotic enhancement regime. As a general rule, some dairy or pickled products are incompatible with certain medical conditions, while probiotic supplements are generally restricted from usage by individuals under the age of 18 years, pregnant/ nursing mothers, and those who have a history of medical afflictions.
Probiotics – are they worth it?
All in all, probiotics seem to be the way to go for an overall healthier and happier lifestyle, more so since they only take a few hours to make a positive change in your abdominal wellness.
While the adjustment period might take a while for some or just a few days for others, the bottom line is that the health advantages brought about by these ‘friendly’ microorganisms are well worth any of the initial troubles you might face with them.
So give probiotics a try and see for yourself just how amazing these ‘good’ bacteria can be!