We’ll get the simple question out of the way first: what is a probiotic? Probiotics refers to the good bacteria in your stomach. Everyone knows that bad bacteria can cause illness and infection, but researchers are learning more and more about the full benefits of the good, beneficial bacteria that your body – and your gastrointestinal (GI) system in particular – needs to function at 100%.
Here are just a few of the jobs probiotics accomplish:
- Aid in the production of Vitamin K, folate, and certain B vitamins and short chain fatty acids
- Play a large role in your overall immune system (70-80% of your immune system is in your gut)
- Aid in the digestion of foods, ensuring breakdown and absorption of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids
- Improved mental clarity, focus, and memory
- Contribute to serotonin production (up to 95% of which comes from your gut!)
- Keep harmful microorganisms and bad bacteria in check
This last benefit is one of the most important.
When your GI tract has sufficient levels of probiotics, they essentially crowd out the bad bacteria (think along the lines of a competition for resources). When harmful bacteria are kept to a minimum, your immune system can do its job in preventing infections and disease.
Your mental health also benefits, as more recent studies are proving: serotonin levels and neurotransmitter function both rely heavily on your intestinal health. (1)
So, how can you tell if you need a probiotic? Having any of the below symptoms could be – and likely is – a direct result of an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut.:
- General stomach issues, including gas, constipation, bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps
- Poor sleep patterns
- Skin problems
- Weight management issues
- Cravings for sugary, fatty, and generally unhealthy foods
- Unexplained mood fluctuations/problems
- Anxiety and depression
- Brain fog
Now, we’ll go into the not-so-subtle signs that you need probiotics.
1. Antibiotic Usage
This one is pretty straightforward: antibiotics are meant to destroy harmful bacteria in your body. Anywhere in your body. Oral antibiotics in particular do no discriminate between good and bad bacteria.
So, let’s say you have a bacterial infection in your foot. It’s bad enough that the doctor doesn’t think topical antibiotic cream will do the trick, so you get a prescription for antibiotics in pill form. The infection goes away! But you lose a big chunk of good bacteria in the process.
Without assistance from probiotic foods or supplementation, it could take YEARS for your gut bacteria to recover, leaving you to struggle with the rest of the symptoms in this list.
A good rule of thumb to follow is to double your dose of probiotics following your antibiotic treatment to ensure you are repopulating the good guys! (Example: if you were on an antibiotic for 14 days, double down on probiotics for 14 days afterwards to help your gut achieve balance.)
2. Gastrointestinal Issues
Gas, bloating, trouble digesting certain food groups, diarrhea, constipation, etc… ALL of these can be (and probably are) the result of an imbalance or lack of probiotic bacteria.
Help sweep these symptoms under the rug by eating a diet rich in whole, unprocessed foods. You’ll likely need probiotic supplementation for a time, but it is important to add fermented foods to your diet in the long-term.
Fermented foods include certain dairy products like aged cheeses, yogurt, kefir, soy and soy-based products such as miso, natto, and tempeh, pickled foods such as sauerkraut, pickles, and kimchi.
In the meantime, you can drink some ginger tea to help soothe your tummy, while your gut bacteria repopulates.
3. Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is a sign of an abundance of bad bacteria introduced to your system by an outside source. Once you’ve let the illness run its course, work to rehydrate yourself and introduce probiotic supplements and probiotic-rich foods into your diet immediately. Not only will you recover faster, but the probiotics will help fend off bacterial illnesses in the future.
4. Mood disorders
Did you know that scientists estimate between 85-95% of your body’s total serotonin levels are produced in the stomach, not the brain? Serotonin is the brain’s happy hormone, and a lack of serotonin is directly tied to a variety of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
It’s been proven by several scientific studies that gut health has a direct impact on the function of your brain’s neurotransmitters.
B vitamin deficiency, which can also result from poor intestinal function, is also linked to mood disorders. Consider adding a B-complex supplement to your routine as well.
5. Skin Conditions
It’s often said that the condition of your skin is a direct reflection of your GI health. Doctors are actually able to cure certain skin conditions by changing their patient’s diets and incorporating probiotics.
Combined with apple cider vinegar, a powerful digestive aid, you may be able to successfully treat acne, rosacea, rashes, eczema, etc… If no noticeable improvement is seen, continue probiotics and visit your doctor to get checked for hormonal imbalances.
6. Weak Immune System
As mentioned in the food poisoning section, a strong probiotic presence can help prevent against illness and infection. It is estimated that 70-80% of your body’s total immune system is found in your GI tract. If you get sick often even with proper hygienic precautions, it’s likely that you lack enough probiotics in your gut.
In addition to probiotic supplementation, be sure to wash your hands several times daily (before eating, after shaking hands or using the restroom, etc…) and disinfect your living space regularly.
Tip: use essential oil and plant-based cleansers to kill bacteria that are resistant to chemical cleansers, such as bleach.
7. Yeast Overgrowth
We’re not just talking about yeast infections here – any kind of yeast overgrowth can present with a number of symptoms in both men and women. Skin problems, poor sleeping patterns, sugar cravings, bloat, and feeling mentally ‘foggy’ are all signs of too much yeast in your system.
Probiotics help keep yeast in check – and will help prevent future yeast infections – but you’ll also need to make other changes to your diet to rid yourself of the yeast overgrowth.
Yeast LOVE sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Avoid foods and drinks high in these elements until the overgrowth is cleared (and try to keep them to a minimum anyway for overall health benefits).
Now, how do you get started?
Probiotic supplements can be a scary field to navigate, and nothing can really replace a healthy diet, so you might as well start there.
Read more about probiotic-rich foods (including chocolate!) here.