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.