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What are probiotics?

woman holding hands in heart shape next to stomach
Probiotics are well-known treatment to improve gastrointestinal health. Find out more about what probiotics are and how it helps to improve gut health.

It’s thought that four in ten of us are experiencing a digestive problem at any one time.1 From stomach aches to indigestion, gut troubles can be incredibly uncomfortable and unpleasant. With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that we often see new diets, products, or lifestyles that promise a healthier gut.

Probiotics are possibly the most well-known treatment to improve gastrointestinal health. Probiotics are also reasonably well-researched, with some clinical trials suggesting that adding more probiotics to our diets could have a positive benefit.2 Still, results are mixed, so it’s always worth proceeding with caution.3

But what are probiotics and how do they improve gut health? We’ve got everything you need to know below.

What are probiotics?

Your gastrointestinal tract is made up of trillions of different bacteria. Collectively, this is often called your ‘microbiota,’ and it’s an incredibly complex system. It’s thought that your gut microbiota is an essential part of keeping you healthy. However, there’s a lot we still don’t know about all the bacteria inside us.4

Probiotics are live bacteria and yeast, which are thought to help balance the natural bacteria in your gut.5 They usually come as supplements, although they can be added to food and drinks too.6

Different types of probiotics

While we usually just call them ‘probiotics,’ there are actually a lot of different types. The most common ones typically include:

  • Lactobacillus (usually added to yoghurts and cheese, as well as naturally in fermented foods)7
  • Bifidobacterium (usually added to yoghurts and cheese, or found naturally in some fermented food or live yoghurts)8

You can also find these probiotics in over-the-counter supplements, in capsules, powders, and drinks.

What do probiotics do?

Probiotics help to maintain a healthy balance in your body. Certain types of probiotics can help to aid digestion and improve some gastrointestinal health concerns.9

Natural ‘good’ bacteria works to keep you healthy all the time, but supplementing might help address other concerns, especially after you’ve been ill.10

Probiotic foods

There are plenty of ways to include more probiotic foods into your diet. These might have ‘probiotic’ on the label or include ‘live-cultured’ or ‘active cultures’ too.

Some probiotic food includes:

  • Live yoghurt
  • Cheese
  • Kefir
  • Uncultured buttermilk
  • Kimchi
  • Kombucha
  • Sauerkraut
  • Fermented olives11

There are also probiotic supplements available, which can be taken as a capsule, tablet or powder. If you’re thinking about taking a probiotic supplement, it’s worth talking to your doctor or a specialist. There are a lot of different probiotics on the market, and not all of them will be right for you.12

Like when taking any new supplement, be aware of the potential side-effects and stop if you notice anything untoward.

Generally, probiotics are thought to be safe to consume for people with healthy immune systems. The safety of probiotics is also under-researched, so we don’t know exactly how many possible side-effects there could be. However, if you’re in good health, they could be a safe addition to your diet.13

Last updated: 1 April 2021

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