Probiotics are tiny microorganisms that deliver health benefits to their host. Our bodies rely on all sorts of microorganisms to keep things working and keep us healthy, and probiotics play a part in this. They’re the good bacteria that you actually want in your system.

They support healthy body systems from your mouth to your gut, and help control harmful microorganisms like germs. At the right levels, probiotics aid digestion and improve nutrient absorption.

Probiotics occur naturally in fermented foods and cultured milk, but you can also find manufactured probiotic supplements. Read on to learn more about the effects of probiotics on your digestive health.

Probiotics are believed to help with digestive issues such as:

But we have a lot more to learn about how they work and how effective they can be across populations.

Most studies on probiotics have been small and don’t tell us exactly how probiotics aid digestion. They also don’t tell us how to consistently dose or administer probiotics as a supplement.

Probiotics are understood to be safe for most people, and there are some general guidelines. Here’s what we do know:

  • Digestive ecosystems differ. People with constipation have different ecosystems of microorganisms in their intestines than people without constipation. What we don’t know is if constipation is the cause or effect of these different ecosystems.
  • They lower pH levels. Probiotics lower the pH level in the colon, which might help stool move faster through it.
  • They may relieve antibiotic-related diarrhea. Probiotics may be especially helpful in relieving diarrhea associated with antibiotics and Clostridium difficile. The idea is that probiotics replenish the good bacteria that antibiotics might have killed.
  • They can help absorb protein. Probiotics can help you better absorb the protein in your diet, as well as other vitamins and nutrients.

Not all probiotics are equal, and more research is needed to understand the benefits of each type. Most research covers the Lactobacillus and the Bifidobacterium strains. These strains include:

A 2010 study found that B. lactis and L. casei were effective in relieving constipation. The study reviewed five previously published studies that involved adults and children.

Any probiotics not under the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium genera might not be safe, and more research is needed before being used.

Because probiotics are taken by mouth, their efficacy depends on how well they can stand up to the very acidic environment of the stomach and gastrointestinal tract. The highest quality probiotics will pass through your stomach still intact and move into the intestines where nutrients are absorbed. This is where probiotics do most of their healing and good work.

Probiotics are living, so their viability can be affected by any number of problems with packaging and storage. We have more to learn about how best to administer probiotics. We also need to learn more about how well probiotics can remain inside your gut once they get there. Currently, it’s not believed that any dosage of probiotics will necessarily stay in your system forever. Current practice is to take daily doses of probiotics.

To start getting the benefits of probiotics, increase your daily consumption of them. You can do this through food sources or supplements. Many traditional foods around the world naturally contain probiotics. These foods include:

Ease into increasing your probiotic intake slowly, and pay attention to any side effects — both positive and negative. Since there are many different strains of probiotics, note how each of them affects you differently. A food and supplement journal would be very helpful for this introductory period.

Here are some additional tips for taking probiotics:

Slowly increase CFUs

Recommended daily doses range from 1 billion to 10 billion colony forming units (CFUs). Start at 1 CFU and slowly increase while paying attention to how your body responds. Kefir contains 15-20 CFUs per cup. Supplements should list their CFUs on the bottle.

Take advice if it’s your first time

If fermented foods are new to you, find a friend or highly-rated restaurant to introduce you to them and how to best enjoy.

Take at specific times in regards to meals

Take probiotics just before eating or with your meal, but not after you eat.

Try natural sources before supplements

You can take probiotic supplements, but it’s usually more beneficial to get them right from their natural source. Food sources of probiotics will contain a large variety of strains, but supplements should list each individual type they contain.

Pay attention to labels and quality

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate supplements, so quality isn’t always a guarantee. Read labels closely and follow storage instructions. Try to pick out a trustworthy brand. If you can, find a doctor who can help you learn more.

Probiotics may help manage:

Reducing the side effects of any of the above issues can improve your quality of life and overall sense of well-being.

The benefits of probiotics in your gut go beyond just healthy bowel movements. A healthy digestive system has been linked to improvements in mental health and immune response. Probiotics are also currently being studied for their benefits to oral health and dermatological health. By aiding in protein absorption, probiotics can also help your body recover after workout and reduce muscle strain.

As concerns rise about antibiotic-resistant infections, probiotics could be powerful protective and healing agents that work seamlessly with our natural body systems.

Probiotics are considered safe for most people. Studies don’t report major risks involved with taking them.

The most commonly reported side effects of probiotics are gas and bloating. If you have severe reactions, including abdominal pain, reduce your daily CFU intake and slowly increase again over time.

Always talk with your doctor before beginning a new health supplement. Before giving probiotic supplements to your child, talk to their pediatrician. Premature infants shouldn’t take some probiotics.

Probiotics might not be recommended for people with chronic illness or a weakened immune system. Don’t use probiotics to replace prescription medications without first consulting your doctor.

Research indicates a positive association between taking probiotics and healthy digestion in people of all ages. Healthy digestion also leads to improved mental and oral health, a healthy immune system, and possibly healthier skin.

If you’re interested in gaining the benefits of probiotics, introduce them slowly into your diet with traditional foods or supplements.