We live with approximately 10–100 trillion symbiotic microorganisms in our bodies. While this may sound scary, this symbiotic living serves an important purpose. These organisms provide us with a strong defense mechanism against many diseases and infections. This is why probiotic treatments are beneficial for human health.
Probiotics are living microorganisms, mainly bacteria, that can have beneficial effects on the human body when properly taken.
Probiotics promote a symbiotic relationship with our bodies, offering a range of health benefits by regulating inflammation, boosting immunity, and supporting various physiological processes.
To obtain probiotics, consider consuming probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and other fermented products. In certain situations, it can be beneficial to use probiotic supplements under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Read more to learn how living microorganisms help us to have a strong immune system, how to maintain a healthy microbiome, what the sources of probiotics are, and whether they have any risks.
Probiotics and our "symbiotic" living
Probiotics are living organisms that have beneficial effects on the human body. They cause these health effects if they are properly placed in our bodies. The environment that they live in our body is called "flora" or "microbiota" and named accordingly, such as "oral microbiota," "skin microbiota," or the most known "gut microbiota."
While we provide them with a suitable environment for their growth, we get enormous benefits according to their species. We call this win-win relationship "symbiosis."
As probiotics can live in different parts of the body, produce varieties of metabolites, and have several regulatory genes and compounds, they may have beneficial effects on several physiological mechanisms, from digestion to cognitive functions. But in every physiological effect, we can see that they help by regulating inflammation, boosting healthy immunity, and improving the body's response to pathophysiological pathways of diseases. This means probiotics act as an immune regulator. But how?
Immunity-boosting effects of probiotics
You may have heard about innate immunity, which is our defense mechanism that has been present since birth. Innate immunity includes the barriers of the body, like the digestive tract wall or skin, and protective fluids like stomach acids or mucosal secretions. When we think of the first way pathogenic species enter our body from the digestive tract, these barriers' importance becomes clearer.
Probiotics provide a tight connection between our digestive tract cells to prevent harmful species or compounds from entering the body and bloodstream. They also contribute to mucosal secretion. Additionally, the short-chain fatty acids and other metabolites that probiotics secrete have antimicrobial properties against harmful species and prevent their adhesion to our cells.
Altogether, probiotics act as one of our innate defense mechanisms when they are found in appropriate amounts and diversity.
We already know that probiotics produce various metabolites that can positively impact our health, especially by supporting the immune system. Some of the key health-regulating metabolites produced by probiotics include:
- Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Probiotics can ferment dietary fibers and other complex carbohydrates in the colon, producing SCFAs such as acetate, propionate, and butyrate. Mainly, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains can produce these metabolites that can help us regulate inflammation in the gut and the rest of the body. SCFAs maintain the integrity of the gut barrier and protect our body from pathogens.
- Polyamines. Similarly, some strains like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium can produce polyamines, which are organic compounds that may help modulate immune responses and support the growth of healthy gut bacteria.
- Polysaccharides. Some probiotics can also produce complex carbohydrate molecules called polysaccharides, which affect the promotion of the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. They can also contribute to mucus production, which supports gut barrier function.
- Genes. Research has uncovered genes and compounds from probiotics that play a role in regulating the immune system. It was shown that probiotics triggered distinct gene-regulatory networks and immune-modulating pathways in the mucosal lining of the gut.
- Acidic environment. The acidic environment caused by the metabolites produced by probiotics, like SCFAs and lactic acid, can help inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria and contribute to gut health.
How can you obtain probiotics?
The first choice for probiotics is in foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, or other fermented foods. These kinds of foods also include prebiotics, which provide nutrients for probiotic species.
Some foods marketed as "probiotics" may not have enough beneficial bacteria to make a significant impact on your microbiota. Make sure you're consuming foods that are known to contain live, beneficial probiotic strains.
However, if the diversity of your microbiome is disrupted, or you have a disease that needs to be treated with drugs like antibiotics, it can be challenging to rebuild a healthy microbiome by consuming only probiotic foods. In these cases, probiotic supplements can be helpful. When you take probiotics in this way, it can be helpful to consult with a healthcare provider.
Risks of probiotics
First, we need to accept that not every food with bacteria is probiotic food. Therefore, you need to be careful about the foods you consume to get probiotics because there might be harmful bacterial overgrowth or you may not receive enough probiotics from this food.
The most important thing to ensure is that probiotic use matches your body's needs. A health professional can help. For some health conditions, probiotics use may lead to some side effects such as:
- Small bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). SIBO means there are excessive bacteria in your small intestine, resulting in bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. In general, probiotic use helps with SIBO but sometimes, probiotics can exacerbate SIBO symptoms, especially without initial medical treatment.
- Other gastrointestinal disorders. Similarly, probiotics may not be good for people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
- Suppressed immune systems. If you have a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy, organ transplant, or other factors, probiotics might be risky for you. Probiotics may interact with certain medications, particularly immunosuppressants and antibiotics.
Therefore, if you're considering probiotic supplements, consult with your healthcare professional before starting any new treatment.
The quality and purity of probiotic products can vary among brands and manufacturers. There might be the risk of contamination or low-quality products in the market. So, you need to choose reputable brands that adhere to quality standards. If you also don't know which brand to use, again, it's better to ask a health professional who can guide you.
Probiotics can boost your immune system and help you to lead a healthier life. The immunomodulating effects of probiotics are strengthening the integrity of the gut barrier, producing health-regulating metabolites, and creating an antimicrobial environment.
You can get probiotics by incorporating certain foods into your diet, like yogurt, kefir, and fermented products. Sometimes, you need to use probiotic supplements to see a significant result. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new supplement regimen to ensure it aligns with your health needs, and always be aware of potential risks.